Hard Truth #5: Parish system a good thing

Hard Truth #5: The parish system is (to my surprise) an excellent thing.

Some very dear friends of mine travel a bit to attend church. They have excellent reasons for doing so. A few years ago they lived nearby and helped plant that church. They are heavily involved in key ministries and have long-term relationships. Their son is a minister there. So that is where the grandkids are. All very good reasons to make the trip.

I caught up with my friends last year and they shared excitedly about their local Connect09 campaign.

I should add they don’t live in Sydney. Like a smattering of individuals and churches around the country (you may not believe me but it would be accurate to say the world) they just heard about Connect09 and did it themselves.

Like their neighbours, they love the garden. They saw gardening as a way to not just contact, but really connect with their neighbours. They told me about seedlings being exchanged with this one; veggies to that one; citrus from the ones across the road. Regular cups of tea and chat about gardens, the creator, families and church.

But they had struck a problem with the next step - namely taking their new friends to a Bible course or church. Their church was just too far away, and it just didn’t make sense. 

It seemed lame to simply "send" neighbours to a local church (even though it was a very good one). So should they take them to local church's outreach events rather than their own? Maybe they could invite them to local church and attend with them - but for how long? Who would be taking care of their duties in their own church? Should they try to go to both churches? Or should they just bite the bullet and move to the local church?

In short, after happily travelling to church for years for sound personal and ministry reasons, a new factor had thrown a spanner in the works: local mission. 

I know the parish system (or more accurately parochialism) presents many difficulties for our diocese. Whenever you form people into tribes and draw lines on maps you just know that sin will be crouching at the door. Yes, there are problems. But I pray that we can address and overcome them together. I saw many parishes working together during 2009 to do some great stuff.

What is wonderful about the parish structure is that it is suited to local mission; it covers everyone. It says that together, we will take responsibility for every soul in our area, every square inch of our city. Even the hard places. 

The person in Lakemba or Casula needs to hear the gospel as much as the person in the Hills or the Lower North Shore. That person may have contact with a Christian through work, or family, or some other network. But statistically, that is unlikely - increasingly so. So who will take responsibility to pray for them? To contact them? To try to find a way to connect with them? Well, tell me their address, and pass me a parish map and I’ll tell you who should!

If increasing the size of church (i.e. church growth) is my primary goal, then the parish won’t mean that much to me. In fact, any boundary will be an irrelevant nuisance. But if taking the message of Jesus to every person in Sydney (i.e. mission) is what drives me, then I will want to make sure every house is covered. By my church, or another church - both! - it doesn’t matter. No one of us can do it all. 

There may be other ways to divvy up our God-given responsibility for this city, but I can’t readily think of it. Turns out the system we have inherited already does that pretty well - in theory. What will it take to make it a reality?

Rev Andrew Nixon is the Director of Mission at ARV.

Comments (6)

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  • Michael J. Ives
    June 14, 10 - 8:17am
    I'm an outsider here (American, Presbyterian). But I can't help but rejoice to read praise for the parish system as a missions strategy. It's a shame when those who have the parish system frown on their inheritance. If they could only see it in the light of missions, I would hope it would gain some reconsideration. Praise God that you see it this way.

    Your basic outlook on the system, Andrew, sounds very much like Thomas Chalmers'. Have you read much of him on this subject? I really wish he were more widely read, especially in the Reformed tradition to which Chalmers belonged.

    The Lord bless your efforts!
  • Robert Denham
    June 15, 10 - 2:30am
    If increasing the size of church (i.e. church growth) is my primary goal,

    I have to disagree with you Andrew. My primary goal is faithfulness, not church growth. Church growth is an outcome, not my primary goal. Of course I want more people to respond positively to the gospel & to belong to God's family, but I want primarily to be faithful to my Lord, & to live for him, and to proclaim his truth in all I do.
    I am saddened by the shift towards pragmatic church growth that has so predominated the church worldwide, so we focus on techniques and methodologies. We must emphasise again and again that our primary goal is not church growth. We are to plant, water (some might add fertilize) and harvest (but not to weed lest we weed out the good plants).It is the Lord who brings the growth.

    However I love the thrust of where your article is going. I love the parish system, & decry the sinful abuses of it, whether it be of ministers who refuse to allow gospel work in their parish, or ministers who refuse to acknowledge & work with those who have been given responsibility in an area.
    Co-operation across parish boundaries can be wonderful & full of blessings.
  • Andrew Nixon
    June 15, 10 - 3:24am
    Rob - you may have misunderstood my point at the end there. Apologies if that was unclear.

    I am indeed saying our goal ought to be mission, not church growth.

    Mission is our responsibility - growth comes from God.

    I say! I think we are in complete agreement!
  • Sandy Grant
    June 15, 10 - 3:32am
    Yep, Rob, I think Andrew was using a "condition contrary to fact" structure, for the sake of his argument. But I can't remember from my Greek lessons at college, whether that's a first, second, or (was there a) third class conditional sentence!
  • Andrew Nixon
    June 15, 10 - 3:32am
    Michael - thanks for your comments brother.

    I spoke to a man the other day who has recently been helping to train evangelists in a new evangelical denomination in India. They have made it their mission to see their whole city evangelized - all 22 million. Makes our task here (4.4 million) look like small fry.

    First step was? You would never guess... well actually, maybe you would!

    Divide the whole city into geographical areas to facilitate the allocation of resources (in the coming years) to cover every suburb, every street, every home.
  • Stephen Gibson
    June 15, 10 - 3:55am
    A further point is to encourage our people to send their children to schools in the local area too, for the reasons Andrew has oulined above. Sending our children out of the parish and well out of the area for school makes local mission more difficult.