by Melissa Spas, Managing Director of Education and Engagement
John Wesley said, in reference to his ministry as a priest in eighteenth century England and the colonies, “I look upon all the world as my parish…” This expectation pushed him beyond the established confines of Christian ministry in his own context; perhaps today we need a renewed understanding of what, precisely, he was indicating.
“I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that, in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation. This is the work which I know God has called me to; and sure I am that His blessing attends it. Great encouragement have I, therefore, to be faithful in fulfilling the work He hath given me to do. His servant I am, and, as such, am employed according to the plain direction of His Word, ‘As I have opportunity, doing good unto all men’…’”1
Wesley was acting against the convention of the church as it was established, and he received criticism and rebuke from his fellow priests and civil authorities, who perceived him as encroaching on their territory, or taking on mission beyond his call or authority. The Wesleyan movement grew with lay leaders preaching and teaching, and a consistent focus on the poor and those at the edges of society, despite that parochial impulse toward limiting ministry to the assigned context.
Wesley’s expanded understanding of parish was no doubt derived from an evangelical impulse, and that raises questions in our contemporary world about our own frontier, especially if our desire to care for neighbors expands beyond the “glad tidings of salvation” that motivated Wesley. In an era of digital connection, with a constant stream of new information, perhaps we are called not only to an expansive global view, but also toward a new understanding of parish as the local context for religious community. This local focus may be the counter-cultural frontier for faith communities today.
A new imagination for parish in our own era of fragmentation and disconnection from our neighbors may have implications for generosity well beyond the congregation. There are real implications for our self-understanding and practice in community.
When people of faith consider what it means to have a healthy or vital congregation, very often our measures are primarily internal, focused on the programs, initiatives, or relationships between people who choose to form a faith community together. We measure what we value, and we also value those things that we measure – attendance or participation, revenue or giving, the inputs and outputs of our programs of service or faith-formation. We see this in the National Study of Congregations’ Economic Practices – congregations, whether they are growing or contracting, are spending money on their staff (49% of budget, on average) and facilities (an additional 23%, on average). Congregations are also directing resources beyond the congregation, spending on average 11% of the budget on “missions” beyond the congregation. Additionally, 84% of congregations provide at least one type of social service, and nearly all of these are provided in partnership with other organizations or non-profits.
While this attention to the outward-facing activity of congregations is encouraging, when considering a parish model, there are expressions of community that extend far beyond the conventional or traditional congregation, and interest in these expressions is only growing. Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston of Sacred Design Labs published “Something More” in 2019, and through ten case studies they note “religious innovation is happening all over America. We hope institutions will be curious enough to see it, and brave enough to let it transform them.”2 Seeing the ways in which faith communities can develop beyond congregations will open up space to imagine faithful generosity that does not rely on inherited patterns of giving and receiving.