January 15, 2021

The Parish System

By Chaplain Mike

Apparently, American Christians are not the only ones plagued by the spirit of “consumerism” when it comes to their commitment to a local church.

This cartoon is taken from the Dave Walker Guide to the Church, published by Canterbury Press. It originally appeared in the Church Times.


  1. Ouch.

  2. Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

    Ironically, just 30 minutes ago I was reading in Robert Webber’s Ancient-Future Evangelism a proposal/call for a return to a more localized, neighborhood-centered expression of church life based on the parish system. He was arguing that localized, neighborhood churches would better reach out to folks in a postmodern context.

    • I agree with that and hope to think about that more with the iMonk community in the future.

      • Richard Hershberger says

        A parish system requires at least one of two conditions be met: either transportation limitations make it impractical to attend a church out of one’s parish, or every church in the system be effectively interchangeable, making it pointless to attend a church out of one’s parish pointless. Both of these conditions are manifestly not reality, at least not generally. (The Catholics probably come closest, by having a relatively small number of large parishes. This means that you are likely to have to drive some distance to get to a different parish, and each parish is large enough that it can provide a wide range of services. But get the urge to attend a Tridentine Mass and you will likely find yourself hitting the highway.)

        This is not entirely a bad thing. It removes the necessity for every congregation to be all things to all people. The music I find profoundly spiritual might put you to sleep, while the music you find uplifting might have me running for the exit. But that’s OK. We can both find a church that meets our needs. Yes, it also has the effect of encouraging constant church shopping, and this is a genuine disadvantage. But we can take the good with the bad.

        • It seems to me that the “multi-site” movement is really an updating of the parish system, with an emphasis on trying to keep the same ethos and quality at each site. I’m OK with that as far as it goes, though I detest the idea of video feed preaching. But the concept has some promise.

    • Isaac, the way government and society has developed in the USA it is becoming near impossible to have “neighborhood” churches. Zoning laws and development plans have pushed churches to the edges of communities rather than “just down the street” from where people live. The church is no longer looked on as a community asset but, rather, as a source of noise and traffic patterns.

      The church I attend is located in a residential neighborhood so if we want to do ANYTHING special we have to get the OK from nearby residents and insure that no one parks in front of homes. Reasonable requests, I guess, but when we wanted to build a new wing to accommodate the increase in children there were numerous hoops we had to jump through and “community meetings” we had to sponsor. The upshot was that they would be happier if we sold out and built a condo complex on our land.

      That’s in California! I don’t know about the rest of the country/world.

      • cermak_rd says

        Same thing here in Chicagoland. Big emphasis on Parking! St. Mary of Celle had a horrible time getting permission to run a homeless shelter for families in the church building. Folks were understandably, upset at the idea of addicts hanging out in their neighborhood. Once folks began to understand that primarily, the population was women and children that situation seems to have cooled a bit.

        I have noticed that new Churches in my older region of suburbia have been built on disused industrial or commercial land (there’s a strip of Roosevelt near Westchester with one new Baptist church (on former factory land) and now a new non-denom (unfortunately in the former Hungarian restaurant I used to love). But yes, these are not really in a neighborhood per se. They each have substantial parking lots.

        • Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

          I’m guessing that’s gonna be different based on different locales. Here in San Antonio, we’ve got a LOT of neighborhood churches, especially in the older parts of the city. Many of them are gorgeous and… not really used. They tend to have plenty of on-site parking. We’ve also got a TON of churches off the freeways and outer edges of suburbia. These tend to be newer and bigger and more consumer-oriented. I think one of the things Webber is arguing against is that consumer mindset. It’s REALLY hard to overcome, though. I travel about an hour to get to my church, even though there is a good one in my denomination much closer. Part of that is because of the relationships I’ve built at the far church. Part of it is lingering consumer mentalities. BUT, one goal we have for church planting at the far church is to eventually plant in the surrounding towns from which the members travel, turning the far church into the “mother parish” for a lot of little churches. *shrug* I’m still thinking over a lot of this stuff, to be honest.

  3. My heart longs for this, however, there need to be affordances made for our present cultural realties. While I’m a firm believer that church isn’t something that can be consumed or patronized, I think this is an over simplification of the problem. This makes people sound extremely petty. This may be true for some, but in general, I’d suggest that there is something else more complex going that cannot be reduced to a flavor-of-the-day explanation.

    Proximity no longer places unreasonable restrictions on “community”. This is both a blessing and a curse. If indeed the local model is the right one (which I still think it is) how does the church become relevant in a culture that is part of communities that span cities, states, and even countries?

  4. “Raises hand.” Guilty of a few of those. Good cartoon.

  5. Ragamuffin says

    I’m not sure how to respond to this. On the one hand, I do agree that some tend to shop around and “church hop” the second something at their current place isn’t to their liking and that needs to stop.

    On the other hand, I came to a place where I was disenchanted with the happy clappy, contemporary, overly casual megachurch environment. I wanted to worship *with* my kids and not just in the same building. I needed to experience something that didn’t shift and morph every other week trying to keep up with culture and be “relevant.” I needed some peace and quiet and some reverence. I longed to worship with beautiful liturgy. So in my city, I had a handful of options. The closest one in a neighborhood sense would require converting to Catholicism. Probably the next closest was an Episcopal parish that was fully embracing the liberal theological mindset of the national denomination on things such as the authority of Scripture, same sex unions and ordinations and so on. We ended up joining an Anglican parish in the newly formed ACNA, but we drive halfway across town to get there. I just don’t know what else I could do to find the things I felt mattered doctrinally and that met the needs of our family.

    Is that consumeristic? Maybe. I don’t know. I’m just not sure how else I could go about it and properly care for the spiritual nourishment and guidance of my family.

  6. I think an episode of the Vicar of Dibley is in order.

  7. Shouldn’t this be called The Perish System?

  8. I recently heard a pastor state in a sermon that the church can’t reach people until it first meets the physical or felt needs of the community, as if spirituality, or ultimate concern, is not a human need. It sounded as if he was quoting directly from Abraham Maslow. Community service is important, but is it primary? I think this is how churches fall into this never-ending chase after satisfying wants and needs and making everyone feel at home or perhaps entitled. In a nation like the United States, what physical needs do we have? At the food pantry where my wife and I have served, the patrons are not desperate for food; instead, they complain when the pantry doesn’t have the exact brand of food they are looking for. I am not slighting compassion ministries; I just think the church is missing the boat and following a very secular philosophy in believing that they must earn the right to preach the good news by first filling bellies with manna and quail.

    • cermak_rd says

      I would say they don’t have to necessarily fill bellies to earn the right to preach to the community, but they should provide something useful. Otherwise, why would anyone bother going to them and not continue doing whatever it is they normally do on worship day?

      I don’t know if most of the time when they refer to felt needs they are referring to basic physical needs like food. But certainly, I would say, that any worship community that isn’t providing some sort of charity for the area is doing it wrong!

      I thought felt needs often referred to longings or uncertainties or maybe just practical things like wanting their children to be introduced to a spiritual system. Or wanting answers to deep meanings in their lives. Or maybe it’s having someone acknowledge the pain in the neighborhood (St. Sabina in Chicago has a Mother’s memorial that acknowledges the pain that mother’s in the community have gone through as they have lost their children to violence). The Dutch Reformed Church in my neighborhood offers English lessons for the neighborhoods Spanish speakers.

      • I think pragmatism and gnosticism are two sides of the same dualism, with pragmatism diminishing the spiritual and gnosticism diminishing the physical. I think you raise good examples of how to break out of that dualism. In my mind, I piece this together sacramentally – physical symbols used to grasp one ultimately, eternally; it is still a little difficult for me to articulate this. It is easy to assume what a secular/material society would find useful, but its members are still created in God’s image with needs transcending the physical.

        I think a good example of the failure of meeting felt needs first is the way many marriage/family ministries operate. Such ministries provide principles for happy, successful marriages but never address the existential loneliness present in even the healthiest marriage. When the recipients still feel this loneliness after applying these principles, they reach a point of despair or begin to look outside marriage for satisfaction. If the God-shaped void was addressed first, the answer to the struggles of marriage would be much clearer.

  9. This neighborhood model is exactly how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints operates. Would you join?

    Lets say you live around the corner from Lakewood Church in Houston or Creflo Dollar’s church. Would you go to either? Would you invite friends?

    If you wouldn’t you’re really not embracing the neighborhood or parish model. It’s just one of many considerations you balance. I’m not sure I see anything wrong with that.

    • Yes, Dan. But the parish model portrayed is of churches in a single denomination.

      • I guess the question then becomes what, if anything, should the church do about it. In the LDS church you are only allowed to be a member of your geographically assigned ward. Do you think other denominations should adopt such a policy (Perhaps coupled with exemptions given under special circumstances)?

  10. Note that outside the USA (where fuel is cheaper) the cost of travel places some constraint on how far people travel. Five years ago it looked like passing the oil peak might have pushed fuel prices up to the point where a lot of life became more local, but it hasn’t yet (and it looks like electric cars etc are winning that race).

    Still, the more local our churches become, the better. You mightn’t have to drive there, you’re more likely to go to a prayer meeting, it is easier to invite your neighbours or visit other church people – the church exists through the week.

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