You might say that The New Parish is the best possible book that typical young evangelicals could write about church life and spiritual formation.
You might also say that The New Parish is an occasionally good book that takes some unfortunate turns and has enough flaws to weaken the entire work.
Both of these descriptions amount to the same thing.
The Many Strengths of The New Parish
To begin with the good, The New Parish has the potential to help younger evangelicals move past the splintered spiritual practices and church life that many of us knew as children and toward a form of Christian practice that is more rooted in a specific place, defined by that place’s life and shaped by its people and needs. The authors, Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight Friesen, have done great work diagnosing the problems with the attractional model of church life that defined much of late 20th century evangelicalism.
They also have shown how place must be an integral part of Christian piety, a point that other Christians have also been making in recent years. This is something many of us understand intuitively, even if we haven’t heard it spelled out particularly well.
If you’re like me, most of your best friends to this day are still the people you knew in college. Why? Simple: College is the only time in most of our lives when we live near to our friends and where our work overlaps a great deal with theirs. Close relationships are built into college life in a way that they typically aren’t in life after college where we move to far-flung homes and apartments, take up jobs, and generally struggle to find time to even meet a friend for coffee. In college relationships are built into daily life. In post-college life we have to find a way to cram them into our already busy schedules.
A shift toward a more geographically aware, parish-based approaches to church life can be a powerful way to address this problem because it makes simple, unplanned time together easier to come by. You’re baking a cake and realize you’re out of sugar so you just walk down the street to a friend’s place and ask if you can borrow some. You have to run out unexpectedly and need someone to watch your kid so you phone your neighbor down the street and they come over. For most of American history such happenings are quite normal. It’s only been in the age of suburbs and commuting and the total divorce of home-life and economics that these practices have become foreign.
To the degree that this book helps younger evangelicals think about these issues more clearly and to understand that they can’t have all the things and instead must embrace limitation, smallness, and reject the careerist mentality of the modern US, then this book has done us a great service.
The Problem of New Evangelical Language
One of the defining problems for evangelicals under age 35 is with our language. And these problems are particularly pernicious because muddy language has a way of reinforcing other problems. George Orwell made the point well when he said that “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
In other words, muddy language doesn’t just have an immediate harmful effect on us, but it also reinforces other dangerous tendencies in our thinking, sometimes in the most ironic of ways. One of the most notable problems with our language–and this applies to younger Christians as well as the culture more broadly–is that our language defaults to clinical, technical language even when that sort of talk is not called for. George Carlin made the point better than anyone else in his fine speech to the National Press Club:
The example Carlin used, of how what was once “Shell Shock” became “Battle Fatigue” and then “Operational Exhaustion” (“sounds like something that happens to your car,” says Carlin) and finally “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” is apt, but others apply as well. And they are littered throughout The New Parish. The office of “pastor,” an agrarian term that implies leadership, protection, and nurturing, has been replaced by “social entrepreneur,” a business term that implies production, management, creativity and, in the act of starting something new, largely cutting oneself off from the past. “Church planters,” another pastoral term that suggests a long-term work that requires time and patience, has been replaced by “missional innovator,” a term that sounds like something stolen from Silicon Valley and which emphasizes, again, creativity and a certain severing of oneself from the past.
To be fair, online mini-biographies may be a poor place to begin a critique of the language these authors have consistently used. As anyone who has read even one “about” page on an author website knows, these pages are nearly always tedious press releases meant primarily to grow one’s online “brand.” Using the sort of elaborate, impressive-sounding language of the technocratic elite is, to use their own phrase, a feature rather than a bug.
But I begin with those pages because the tone of those pages is indicative of how these writers often talk. Most of the problems with this sort of talk should be apparent to anyone who has read Orwell’s essay linked above and don’t need to be repeated here. It all sounds very impressive until you actually try to figure out what any of it actually means.
If you need another example, you won’t do better than reading CS Lewis’s lampooning of business speak in That Hideous Strength which is one of the few places where we see Lewis’s potent powers as a satirist in all their glory. But there’s a further issue unique to a book written in this style that is focused around questions of Christian piety and church life.
Christians have been thinking about the questions that The New Parish is discussing for 2,000 years:
- How can we live together to serve and support each other as we live the Christian life?
- How can we help to improve the life of our place as we mature in our individual and corporate Christian walk?
- How does the Christian faith relate to the specific aspects of my daily life and the life of my place?
The answers to those questions have often eluded us in recent years because of the difficulties for community life created by industrialization, suburbia (sorry Keith), and the general severing of home life from economic life. We have reduced our homes to places of consumption and thus we struggle to imagine home life–or normal daily life, by extension–as being something other than the kind of late capitalist-inspired tedium that marks the modern United States. This is why The New Parish is needed in the first place.
But the language these authors use to talk about these issues is mostly alien to the broader Christian tradition. With regards to character and spiritual formation, the Christian tradition has spoken chiefly in terms of sin and repentance, growing in righteousness, becoming like Christ, and so on. That’s certainly the language Paul is most comfortable with, but the Psalms use it as well–Psalm 1 likens the righteous man to a tree, after all. Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ has also offered us mostly sound advice for 800 years as to how we might come to more closely resemble our Lord. And it does it through simple, direct language that calls us to moral virtue and simple obedience to Christ’s commands.
This language is mostly absent from The New Parish. Instead what we have is prose like this excerpt from their chapter on being involved in your parish which is (regrettably) titled “Presencing.”
Who you are, what you think, and how you act within your place are all radically shaped by how you discern the multisensory social experience of your past. And in large part, you become the story you tell.
So how do you deepen your self-knowledge in the way of Christ? You must become a truth teller. Courageously lean into your story. Vulnerably share it with others who can help you hear the Spirit’s calling. Ask questions of both the stories you like to recall and those stories you prefer to suppress. Together with others invite your stories to be spoken. Hear them inviting you to celebrate the joys and mourn the tragedies. Invite God to join you in the retelling of your story.
Until you wrestle with your personal narrative you will be destined to operate out of the shame of the past, compensating for abuses or perceived failings. Faithful presence is impossible if you are forever trying to cover up your addictions or the abuses you suffered at the hand of someone who was meant to love you.
It’d be harsh to say that the above paragraphs could have been constructed by chucking manuscripts from TED talks and Seth Godin books into a hat and then pulling phrases out at random and assembling them like word magnets for your fridge. But it’d also be accurate.
With regards to community and church life, meanwhile, the Christian faith has mostly spoken about these things in terms of dying to the self, sacrificing for the good of the other, and cultivating a life of quiet piety. Paul and Peter alike tell us to aspire to quiet goodness and, so much as it depends upon us, to be at peace with our neighbors. James gives us the simple (but difficult!) advice to watch what we say and to treat our fellow members with love, regardless of what they might be able to offer us or do for us. Christ himself prays that the members of his church would love one another, that our unity would mirror the unity of the Trinity, and says that the world will know us by our love for one another.
This language is, likewise, generally neglected in the book. To take only one example, one type of leader they call for is the designer whose role is to, “reshape environments, curate strategic connections, (and) configure experiments.” As best I can tell, all they’re really talking about is the need for parish members to be hospitable and capable of creating places that are warm and welcoming to outsiders. So why not use this ordinary, clear language?
The likely reason for failing to speak in classically Christian terms is that the authors are attempting to translate Christian concepts into the vernacular of the day, like the good missionaries they obviously wish to be. The problem with this approach, however, is that in attempting to interpret old truths for a new culture it is very easy to take up some of the most basic qualities of that culture in our preaching. As the authors themselves note elsewhere, our environments are invisible to us.
This is precisely what the authors have done in adopting the language and way of speaking so common in our nation’s biggest tech hubs which are, of course, one of the greatest threats to the kind of parish life these authors are calling us to adopt. The result is that this book in its packaging, style, and overall approach ends up undermining the very sort of values and practices it encourages us to embrace. They wished to articulate a Christian alternative to the atomization of modern society. But by borrowing most of their concepts and language from the technocratic elite they have instead grounded themselves even more firmly in that world.