What does it take to grow a healthy parish? Lots of things: firm leadership, clear vision, and a strong sense of mission for a start. But one thing that is often overlooked is the influence of outsiders with a message.
Ralph Winter wrote an influential article a few years ago, entitled The Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission.1 Winter suggests that throughout the biblical story and church history there have been two kinds of agencies through which God has worked. One is the parish, where the daily life of the community is maintained. That one we are very familiar with.But the other is the structure which can be variously called the parachurch, the sodality, the Order, or the mission group. Winter sees these in the Old Testament’s bands of prophets; then in the New Testament’s traveling groups of apostles, evangelists, and prophets; in the growth of the monastic orders; and in the parachurch agencies and mission societies of the last two hundred years. Both church and parachurch are needed
Winter’s argument is that both are necessary for the health of the church. The parish is essential for the nurture of the church family, and for representing Christ in the surrounding community. But the parachurch is often the source of new ideas and fresh expressions of ministry. If we only have the parachurch agencies, there would be no continuity, and the church would die out. But if we only have parish structures, we are in danger of becoming dulled through routine. The ideal is a blend of the two.
Parish missions are a simple way to inject the adrenaline of a parachurch group into the heart of a parish’s life. So what exactly is a parish mission? The heart of a parish mission is a series of special meetings facilitated by a parish, spread over a weekend or longer, during which the Gospel is shared with people outside the normal range of church activities, with the help of a visiting team.
A series of special meetings: these may be services, but may also be home meetings, a pub night, dinner parties, breakfasts, a theatre event, or any number of possibilities.
Facilitated by a parish: a Mission is undertaken at the initiative of a host parish or diocese.
Spread over a weekend or longer: there are various models, but often a Thursday evening till a Sunday afternoon works best.
During which the Gospel is shared: the main intention is for people to hear the Gospel, perhaps for the first time, to ask questions, to discuss, to reflect, and to respond in whatever way they are ready to do.
With people outside the normal range of church activities: the Mission is not primarily for the benefit of active Christians (though they usually benefit) but for those who would not call themselves Christians.With the help of a visiting team: the team will generally include one or two gifted speakers and a team, sometimes consisting of theological students, but on other occasions drawn from another parish.
Twenty years ago, a mission was often a reaping event, but now, although that can still happen, it is more often a sowing or watering event. Those who attend are likely to be already involved at least on the fringes of parish life, or to have good relationships with church members.
This means that the church needs to be already involved in evangelism and drawing in outsiders, rather than expecting the mission to do it all for them.
There also have to be mechanisms in place for people to pursue the interest engendered by the mission, whether Alpha or Christianity 101 or some other similar program. In other words, if evangelism is a process, a mission can be a useful catalyst in the process—but it can never replace the process itself. For those who like rowing, a mission is like a spurt in the middle of an evangelistic row.