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The Theology of Service

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce….But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. Jeremiah 29:4-5,7

[Excerpt from the Bishop’s Address 2022] Jeremiah is speaking to the Jewish exiles in Babylon, telling them that God has a mission for them in the place where God has placed them. We Episcopalians are not in exile, but we are placed by God in communities, and God calls us to seek the welfare of the communities where we are planted. That means getting to know our neighbors. I have declared 2023 as our diocesan Year of Service, and throughout the year, our diocese will learn about and practice what it means to seek the welfare of the communities we inhabit.

I believe that every church is placed by God in a particular community for God’s reasons – because God has a mission in that community. So the church should be truly rooted in the community – but not in a static way. Not in a way that lets the church sit with closed doors and minister only to itself.

In their book, The New Parish, Sparks, Soerens, and Friesen call us back to the very Anglican concept of a parish – not as a self-sufficient and self-governing organization, as we tend to think of a “parish” in The Episcopal Church, but rather as a church that is rooted in its community and responsible for its community.

They write that the term “parish”:

“refers to all the relationships (including the land) where the local church lives out its faith together. It is a unique word that recalls a geography large enough to live life together … and small enough to be known as a character within it. Parish … also functions as an action word because it calls us to the telos, or purpose, of the church – living out God’s dream and caring for the place we are called.”

The authors argue that identifying as a parish rather than an organization – that is, a community rooted in a particular place rather than a group of people called together from disparate places – allows the neighborhood church to stand in solidarity with its neighbors, seeking the flourishing of all.

For a parish to truly stand in solidarity with our neighbors, we need to know our neighbors, which means we need to go out into the community. We do this by getting to know our neighbors, their hopes, their dreams, their disappointments, and the things that keep them awake at night. How can we love and serve our neighbors if we don’t know them?

Our diocesan staff has been working with congregations on a community engagement process. Community engagement is a strategic process of involvement in a particular social group or geographic context (i.e., town, neighborhood, city block) with the purpose of understanding and improving the community’s well-being. During this Year of Service, we will have opportunities to learn a theology of service as well as learn about opportunities to serve others right now. I urge all congregations to participate in training and get to know your parish – the neighborhood outside the church’s walls. Because your neighborhood is your parish.

If we can manage to do these things, slowly but surely, we can transform both the church and the communities around us. We will be truly operating as the New Parish. 

Faced with a time of dissipation, or rapid change that means losing some of our old ways of doing things, we will use our creativity to hang onto what is essential to our identity – Jesus Christ, our Lord. At the same time, we will cast off old structures that don’t work for us anymore – our insularity, our sometime habit of staying separate from our neighbors, our attractional model of church, expecting eager church consumers to come to us. And we will adopt new ways – of being involved in our community, integrated with our community, partners with our community. 

We will be the new parish.

I invite you to join me on Wednesday, January 18, at 6:00 pm for a webinar series I will commence on the theology and practice of service. You can click here for more information. After this four-part webinar series, I invite you and your congregation to participate in our diocesan-wide book study of the book The New Parish. In Eastertide, we will build upon this new understanding as engage in diocesan-wide service projects in which we will learn more about our neighbors and seek the welfare of our communities together.


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Category: #Bishop's Blog, #Evangelism, #Service

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