Parish is back! (& Driscoll wrong)

Michael Kellahan

As I write this, hundreds of potential church planters are gathered in Seattle for Mark Driscoll’s boot camp. They are praying, planning, and thinking hard about how to plant healthy churches.

Driscoll’s critique of Anglican parish system

Last year in Sydney Mark Driscoll critiqued the Sydney Anglican parish system an obstacle to church planting and evangelism:

“The parish system predates cars - it works for some not for all - it was made when people lived in community. Less than half own their home so they are mobile. People network by online tools. People live in 3 places - they work where they can make money, the live where they can afford, and they play where they would like to live. Evangelism is hard in a fluid mobile affluent city - it makes church planting hard.”

I found Driscoll’s threefold description of where people live very helpful. Where the parish system works best is where there is an overlap between the places people work, live, and play. So it is little wonder that family ministry is the bread and butter of suburban Anglican churches. But we struggle to reach the next Generation who live, work and play in different parts of the city. In contrast those who have a young family tend to find the neighbourhood, school and kid’s sport connections that link people to the parochial geography a bit more.

Driscoll comes at this as an independent church planter. He has thought about where to plant in Seattle with a freedom that we don't feel in Sydney. There was a time when parish boundaries were wrongly appealed to as a grant of monopoly franchise rights to the souls of the parish. Those days are (thank God) largely behind us.

Most would see parish boundaries as a responsibility and not a right. So two years ago we gladly had part of our parish carved off to let an independent Chinese church become Hope Anglican.

The neighbouring parish of Roseville has just launched a plant in a school in ‘our’ parish. Last year we were able to partner with Christ Church, St Ives to start a new evening congregation here.

Driscoll's critique is therefore is most helpful for us when it exposes the limitations of thinking in community terms, where the community is not living parochially.

Responding to Driscoll: strengths of the parish system

There are some strengths to the parish system that weren't mentioned (to be fair this wasn't his aim but we've got to consider them to see if his critique is reasonable).

One of the great things the parish system does is give a sense of responsibility for all those in the parish. Connect 09 has reinforced that and people have said 'the parish is back'. A sense of responsibility doesn't necessarily mean the parish church is the best way to minister to the people there but it does put the onus on Christians to reach those living in the area.

The second strength is that it means the entire city is covered - we don't abandon suburbs because the ministry is difficult. Yes, I know there are a stack of churches in Georges River that have struggled to find rectors but that kind of proves my point. The parish system means you keep trying even in hard areas.

Before college I lived in Canberra and was part of Crossroads church. Its an independent evangelical church which has a freedom to plant. Independent churches aren't in a position to reach the whole city so they go where they are going to be most effective for Jesus. Denominations with parish structures are going to try and cover the ground, including the tough parts. As we do that we've got to acknowledge the cost involved, while also putting resources into places that will grow.

To bring it home - my parish includes an empty church building in Castle Cove. (I don't know of another Anglican church on the North Shore that has an empty church building).
Castle Cove is a peninsula suburb with only a couple of roads in and out. You drive past it rather than going there. No-one is saying it is the most strategic place to plant a church in Sydney. But there are 4000 or so residents that live there and there is no other church building.  It used to have a thriving youth group but it dwindled and the church was closed before I got there. Now we have a shell. Dismissing the parish system way of thinking you'd close up shop, sell the property and go somewhere people are better connected. The cost of doing that is that you lose the potential contact to those that are in community there. I don't think we should be subsidized at a cost to growing ministries elsewhere but I'm very reluctant to give up an asset that could be a great way to reach the community.

So any expressions of interest from church planters to take up the offer of this building is more than welcome. I put a similar plea out on my blog last year and got no responses.

...where are these hundreds of church planters?