The Parish Outside of the Parish

Recently the New York Times reported on the trend among nondenominational Christian (and particularly “emergent” churches) towards transporting congregational life away from the typical church property/campus into more public spaces, in order to reach a “post-Christian” generation (New Churches Focus on Building a Community Life – NYTimes.com).

…they arrange meetings in movie theaters, schools, warehouses and downtown entertainment districts. They house exercise studios and coffee shops to draw more traffic. Many have even cast aside the words “church” and “church service” in favor of terms like “spiritual communities” and “gatherings,” with services that do not stick to any script.

As pastor Mark Batterson, quoted in the article, notes, it’s not like this is an entirely new trend for Christianity, “We felt like Jesus didn’t hang out at the synagogue, he hung out at wells…Coffeehouses are postmodern wells. Let’s not wait for people to come to us, let’s go to them.”

It’s certainly not a new trend within Catholicism. The mendicant orders of the Middle Ages often focused on ministering where the most people were–growing urban areas that were hard to reach from typical parishes. In the United States, religious communities (especially women’s communities) also set out for the frontier, to slums, to rural areas–setting up outposts apart from the motherhouse or parish.

But, what about us today? I see Theology on Tap (and similar series) as an effort to bring “the parish” outside of the “parish walls.” Another example that readily comes to mind is public processions, like this “passion walk” between parishes in the city of South Bend, IN.

However, the vast majority of faith formation is held within buildings on the grounds of our Catholic parishes. Even sessions specifically designated as “inquiry” or for those with questions about our Catholic faith are more often than not, held exclusively on parish property. It goes without saying, that we have parish facilities because they do make great venues for many of our ministry efforts. Our particularly sacred spaces are a critical part of upholding the centrality of setting aside places for liturgy and worship. But, I do wonder…what potential are we missing out on when it comes to evangelization and faith formation? Can the transcendent nature of our liturgical tradition be brought into more public spaces? (This Eucharistic “flash mob” in the UK makes me think, yes!) What about faith formation?

What are we in parishes doing to reach those for whom coming to a parish itself is a “barrier” to hearing the Gospel? Any thoughts, examples, or ideas from your experience? 

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