Do Evangelical Churches Need to Reconsider “Parish”?

As a young lad growing up in the west of Scotland, I became familiar with the local parish church. The minister would be a regular visitor to my primary school and at the end of every academic year, the school would walk in procession to the local parish church for an end of year thanksgiving service. So because the parish church was a “fixture” of life, while I didn’t much like church, it was safe. I’m not sure I knew about any other kind of church, except the ones my mother was suspicious and critical of, for which she would substitute the word “cult”.

When I was converted as a teenager and student in Glasgow, I came to understand that the Christian church was much bigger – full of Baptists, and Brethren and Pentecostals. They had a high regard for the Bible which I had come to love. They were not parish churches – just churches. Sadly I had come to see a parish church as synonymous with a not-Bible-believing church – liberal, moralistic, dull, ageing. “Parish” was a bad word.

Being a church-of-Scotland-y type, I was delighted to find that there was a Bible believing parish church in the city centre of Glasgow, and most of my Christian friends went there. So I did too. As a city centre church, it was almost entirely a gathered church, with people coming from all over the city morning and evening. It was nominally a parish church, but that was largely irrelevant as the parish at the time had less than 50 residents and consisted of shops and businesses. The church membership was nudging 1000 people, of which only a handful at most lived in the parish.

I was a member for nine years and it was a great time for me to be there and to grow under some of the best preaching in the English-speaking world. It was riveting and life-transforming. And it shaped my thinking about what a good church looked like.

And it was good. I feel richly privileged to have been part of it, and for it to have been part of my experience. I am ever grateful to God for those formative years.

There is a downside, however, which I have come to realise still influences me now. It is that the notion of a good, God-blessed church should essentially be a preaching station to which people gather to hear the word. I understand that there is a place for such ministries, such as in town and city centres. But I wonder now whether that city centre, preaching station model has been a help or a hindrance to me as I have sought to lead a church in a suburban setting.

I wonder if I am one of many people who have gone through and will go through theological and ministry training with this model in mind, that somehow it is the goal to develop such a ministry. We are all aware of the great preachers – C H Spurgeon, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, James Mongomery Boice and many current living men with large churches and extensive internet presence. We would love to see and be part of great ministries like these! So that becomes the focus and method of our ministry – set up a preaching station and hope that people will hear about it and come from far and wide and be blessed!

I think that is how we started at Solihull and it is certainly how I have tended to continue. I remember in the early (desperate) days trying to gather a core group and through a generous donor we were able to blanket advertise our existence across the West Midlands conurbation. The strategy as I remember it was, “surely there are some reformed people amongst that 2.6 million population who would jump at the chance of attending a reformed, presbyterian church!” Well, one couple came – once.

That is pretty much how it has been ever since. The Lord has been good. He has added to our numbers and we have grown slowly but surely. However, the phenomenon that has emerged is that we are a scattered church. We have some who travel an hour to get to us, many more who travel at least half an hour. And some locals. They are wonderful people, I miss them when I am not at preaching at home or on holiday, I would not exchange any of them – the Lord is good, and is doing his work.

But I am acutely aware of the need on our doorstep. There are 200,000 people in the borough of Solihull. There are few churches. There are many fewer Bible-believing, gospel-preaching churches. The population needs to be evangelised. How can that be done? The gathered-church model simply is not reaching those masses – that is our experience here in Solihull.

That is why more recently I have begun to think some more about the word “parish”. I wonder if we/I have lost something by associating it with liberal, moralistic, dull, ageing churches. You see, the notion of a parish was that it was a defined geographical area, with a population of a manageable size, that would be the focus of a local church’s mission. The fact that many if not most “parish” churches have lost sight of their mission and become distracted does not mean that the notion of a parish is wrong. I wonder if the evangelical, non-conformist church in the UK has missed a trick and as a result is significantly less effective in its mission to the urban and suburban areas.

I have been reading some of the Thomas Chalmers work of the 19th century. I know – how can he be relevant to the 21st century? Well, wait and see. In my next post I plan to describe what Chalmers did and then I want to consider why it might be extremely relevant to the present time.

Watch this space.

Do Evangelical Churches Need to Reconsider “Parish”?