Monday, January 31, 2011
The Loss of a Parish Church
There was a day when a goodly share of our congregations were also parishes. If you lived in a specific area, you belonged to the church within that area. The parish church included all the people within the geographical unit of that parish. It was a simple structure, easy to understand and somewhat easy to administer. The parish church was the center of the lives of the people there. The bell pealed out its call to the daily offices, to the Divine Service, to the hours of the day, to the occasions such as funerals and weddings, etc. In this way the people knew what was happening at the center of their lives (the church) even when they could not attend or be a part of these services.
In some respects, my first congregation was a parish church. It was the center of the people's lives in a way that my suburban congregation is not. Though part of the reason may be that my current congregation draws people from an hour or more away, there is a social dynamic to a parish church which I miss. Some of it may be nostalgia and some of it may be myth, but there is something uniquely wonderful about a parish church.
I know that many urban churches were parish churches. They had little or no parking and people walked to the church building on Sunday morning and for the extended schedule of activities that marked its parish life. Today a building without parking is an anamoly, a dinosauer in our world of automobiles. We do not walk anywhere so if we are to go anywhere, abundant parking is an essential ingredient to our commuiting pattern of life.
The parish I serve is really not a parish church but has more in common with the mega churches that draw from huge geographical areas. There are not a few folks who drive past other Lutheran and even other Missouri Synod congregations to get to Grace Lutheran Church. For some this ride is an hour or more one way. They make their way to this congregation because of the liturgical life, music, and full schedule of activities within this church. They know that distance is an issue and will definitely impact how often and how deep their participation in the life of this congregation will be. But they have made the choice.
I respect this choice even though I know it interferes with some of the things I hope for in this congregation. Distance means that our people generally do not see each other at work or socially outside of Sunday morning. It means that the kids in catechism class or Sunday school are strangers except for Sunday morning or Wednesday evening when their lives deliberately intersect.
Could it be that we struggle with some of our congregations because they live in the tension between the goal of a parish church and the reality of a commuter church? I do not know but it seems to be true especially in urban areas. There are many congregations where none of their members live within 1, 2, even 5 miles of the building. In some cases, their ethnic background, language and culture has long since left the immediate are of the building and now they are an island of mostly white faces amid the various colors of the community. They are commuter churches but many of them are, at least in their heart and desire, a parish church. They attempt to function as if the folks lived down the street and walked to church on Sunday morning. Part of me wonders if the cost of transportation and the growing availability of public transportation may occasion the renewal of parish churches in the future but I am not sure I will live to see it.
We have some things scheduled as a parish church and most of the rest scheduled as if we were a mega church. The daily offices depend upon folks who live nearby. The larger events within the parish life expect that people will drive in from somewhere else. In the end this is both a strength and a weakness of our congregation (and I expect of many congregations like us). We have a split personality and in our heart of hearts we want to be what we will probably never be -- a parish church which is the center of our people's lives, where they hear the bells peal for the daily offices, Divine Service, and occasional services, and where their circle of acquaintances and friendships are centered. Yet at the same time we value what blessings accrue to a church because people come from significant distances in order to be here and therefore can afford to support such things as a music concert series, a diverse and rich musical life, a large pipe organ, and larger staff.
Maybe it is my age or maybe the romance of a time when the parish church was the majority of situations in our church body (or just about any other one). I read with longing the descriptions of the parish life in Leipzig at the time of Bach or the parish life described by some of the Reformation Church Orders I am familiar with or the circumstances still found in some (admittedly few) small, mostly rural, communities in which the Church is the center of the community life and the focus of the individual lives of the people. For whatever reason, I find myself caught in this pull between competing realities in the congregation and unable to free myself...