The World is My Parish

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“I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that, in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation. This is the work which I know God has called me to; and sure I am that His blessing attends it.” – John Wesley

These words of Wesley are probably in the top ten countdown of best known quotes by Methodism’s founder: “the world is my parish.” Interestingly enough, though the words may be on many lips, the logic and reason behind such sentiment doesn’t often follow. The world may be our parish, but our target audience is “this demographic” or “this age group” or “this generational segment of the population.” John Wesley felt obliged to “declare unto all” and we too often settle for a narrowly qualified “some.” Such things should not be surprising given the Church’s capitulation to church growth strategies and market logic. That, with a small dose of evangelistic pragmatism should be enough to curtail Wesley’s ambitious but naive sentiment. But at what price?

Cross Racial Appointments
I am convinced the United Methodist Church needs to recover Wesley’s passion for proclaiming to ALL, both locally and globally. As a first step, I have a firm conviction that it is high time to recover the notion of parish, and by that I do not mean the church’s membership roll. I mean geography. Take your local church and draw a radius around it – 3 miles, 4 miles, 5 miles, or more. Who lives within this area? What are the demographics for everyone who lives there, whether they be rich or poor – black, white, Latino, or other ethnicity – immigrant or citizen – male for female – older adults or young families with 2.5 kids?

Every year that I have been pastor of Reconciliation UMC, I have been invited to a retreat gathering with our bishop where all pastors in cross racial appointments are invited to worship, fellowship, and encourage one another. Such gatherings can be important, especially for those pastors who feel isolated, alone, and frustrated with the difficult work of reconciliation. Yet even as I see the need for such support, I would challenge the definition of a pastor in a “cross-racial” appointment. This may not be true of every annual conference in the U.S., but if one were to take my definition of “parish” seriously in North Carolina, I would submit that there is no pastor that is not appointed to a cross-racial parish. The real question becomes “does the membership and attendance in the local church reflect the demographics of the surrounding parish?” Now that is an interesting question, and one that every local church should have to wrestle with.

The Multicultural Congregation as an Answer to Problem of Race
The above section heading is the subtitle of a book by Deyoung, Emerosn, Yancey, and Chai Kim – United by Faith. In it, they make a compelling and convicting case that every local church should be as diverse as the community in which they reside. Controversial? No doubt. Provocative? Certainly. Practical? Debatable. Faithful? Absolutely.

I have made this case before in addressing metaphors for evangelism, but perhaps it needs to be said again. I believe that congregations segregated by race, ethnicity, age, gender, or other niche populations are deeply problematic for biblical and theological reasons. Is there anyone willing to let Jesus Christ be the homogeneous principle that informs and guides outreach, witness, and mission? Before we rule it out of order or naive, I think it is worth consideration. Wesley seemed to like the idea, and when I read the Gospels, I get the sense that he wasn’t the first to commit to such a vision.

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