I am the vicar of a small, urban priority parish, so I am naturally biased toward the parish (or local church) model over the network model of church. Both the local church and gathered church are real church, as Calvin defines church as the place where the word of God is correctly handled and the sacraments duly administered. Holy Trinity church is a mixture of parish (local) and network (gathered). Over the years, I have noticed that the parish church more easily makes church really church than a gathered congregation. So how is this?
It depends on our definition of church. If we think that church is the place to meet, worship, listen to God and pray, as well as partake in sacraments, then it doesn’t matter if you live in the streets around the meeting place or miles away. But if church is a group of people defined by shared faith and shared lives then it is much easier to share lives when you live close to each other.
Sharing lives means it is also much harder to hide the real you than if you only meet formally. If anyone is in the habit of turning up at church on a Sunday, arriving just before the start of the service and leaving shortly afterwards, with little or no interaction with other church members, how is that really being part of a church? A church attender can be very worshipful and learn lots from the sermon. She might engage in prayer and hear God speak in various ways and at different times. She might share the peace and smile at people after the service, but she can hide behind a smile and a temporarily happy demeanor. It’s easy to be a gathering of shiny-happy people. We can all mask a broken life, a difficult personality, sinful patterns of behaviour, bad attitudes to others at church, unforgiven sin or struggles in life when we only meet formally. The real me is only known when my life is regularly shared with others.
Jesus died for sins to save sinners from God’s judgement so that his grace, love and healing power might be seen by the world. But we can’t show grace and love to one another unless we meet one another outside church service. In Matthew 5:16 Jesus tells his disciples to let their light shine before others so that they may see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven. These good works can be moral, charitable or relational. Whatever goodness we do out in the world, Jesus addresses to the people of God as plural. (οὕτως λαμψάτω τὸ φῶς ὑμῶν ἔμπροσθεν τῶν ἀνθρώπων, ὅπως ἴδωσιν ὑμῶν τὰ καλὰ ἔργα καὶ δοξάσωσιν τὸν πατέρα ὑμῶν τὸν ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς.)
This relational or corporate aspect of parish life makes local church more easily real to everyone. It is as church members meet their brothers or sisters in the street, or at the shops or in a cafe church is made real. It’s easier to pop in to a house you are passing rather than to have to make an appointment before travelling across town. It is harder to hide the real you in a parish but it’s correspondingly much easier for Christians to shine as lights to the world of the parish.
Acts 2:42-46 describes parish life very well, not just in the gathering for worship, devotion and learning but also in the daily act of sharing lives.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
I love local church. It seems that living locally to where we meet for worship is fundamental to gaining the favour of people and so for the salvation of many. If we don’t mix this way locally, then as gathered churches we need to work harder at sharing our lives.