August 23, 2022

Jonathan Brooks: How engaged is your church in your neighborhood?

Illustration by Parish Collective

A free online quiz offered by the Parish Collective helps congregations discern their current level of engagement in their communities and offers resources to deepen that connection, says the organization’s board chair.

Jonathan Brooks is convinced that if churches work together with the people in their neighborhoods, “that will give us the greatest witness in the world.”

He’s part of a “parish movement” across the country to help congregations connect and act locally, wherever they are, to become the “neighborhood-based incarnation of the gospel.”

“It’s not just about how we worship together. It’s not just about what songs we sing together. It’s about how we live together,” he said.

But how can a pastor or congregation get started? Or what if you’ve gotten started but don’t know where to go from there? Perhaps your congregation or neighborhood has changed and you don’t know how to connect anymore.

The Parish Collective, an organization that connects people who are committed to the idea that neighborhood plus church equals parish, has created a free online tool to help.

Five Signs of the Parish Movement is an online quiz that helps congregations discern where they are in the journey of becoming a parish-minded church. In addition, it offers next steps and videos that explain the parish movement and help leaders guide others along the path.

Jonathan Brooks

Brooks, who is the board chair and a fellowship member of the Parish Collective, has helped revamp the quiz to focus more on equity and justice as part of being a parish.

He currently serves as co-lead pastor at Lawndale Christian Community Church in the North Lawndale neighborhood in Chicago. He previously served as senior pastor at Canaan Community Church in Chicago’s West Englewood neighborhood — where he grew up — for 15 years.

Brooks spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks about the Five Signs quiz and the parish movement.

Faith & Leadership: What’s the vision of the parish movement?

Jonathan Brooks: The way we define parish is neighborhood plus church. Your parish becomes your parish when your church is concerned about that neighborhood, so it becomes a church parish.

We believe — and I’ve always held this central to my theology — that geographic location is the one marker that can really hold the container for the diversity of the Christian world.

We try to gather ourselves around values sometimes, or we try to gather ourselves around shared beliefs, or we try to gather ourselves around doctrinal stances. All of those things — at some point, they get frayed.

But when I live down the street, the same issues and concerns that I have are the same issues and concerns [that my neighbors have], even if our values are different, if our theology is different.

It brings us into questions about equity — around race, around gender, around orientation, all these ways that we chop and divide ourselves up.

When you look at the way Jesus gathered his 12 disciples, they were all over the spectrum in their belief systems, but they all had a geographically shared idea in this little area the size of New Jersey.

They all lived there. They all understood the culture of what was happening there. They were marginalized folks living in a Roman-occupied space, and everything they did was about this space — and it grew.

What we’re inviting people into is a new way of understanding the importance of this idea of church/neighborhood/parish combined.

What we’re trying to get folks to recognize is we’re not creating something new. We’re rekindling what has been the most powerful part of the church: that the church is the tangible representative of God in a local place so that the people in that place know that God is concerned about their specific needs, gifts, concerns and well-being.

We invite people back into that to stop church shopping, to stop church hopping, to stop trying to look for the greatest place to go visit, where you feel most comfortable.

F&L: Were you inspired by the Catholic idea of the parish?

JB: 100%. The language of “parish” was intentional, because we believe that the Catholic Church and the way they’ve organized their parishes had it right — that idea that you don’t go to the “best” Catholic church in the city; you go to your local parish. And if you move neighborhoods, that now becomes your local parish over there.

We use the word “parish” on purpose. It helps people that have Catholic backgrounds to connect to it, but it also helps people to understand when we talk about [church as neighborhood-based].

F&L: What do you mean by signs? How do they help congregations or individuals interested in the parish?

JB: First of all, we chose the language of “sign” because these are the ways we would describe what we see, what’s visible, what’s tangibly happening when you see people pressed into being the church in their specific contexts.

These are five expressions, or markers, in a very general sense, because there can be more than that. What I don’t want people to believe is that it’s exhaustive.

We’re rekindling what has been the most powerful part of the church: that the church is the tangible representative of God in a local place so that the people in that place know that God is concerned about their specific needs, gifts, concerns and well-being.

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The first one is, of course, a centering on Christ. We want to make sure our lives are centered on Christ as a collective expression of the love of God in our place. It’s this idea that when we focus on who Jesus is and who Christ is in this specific place, there’s a certain kind of expression of Jesus’ love that will come.

This is how churches end up having different emphases or different ways of being the church in a specific place.

Those shouldn’t come from boardrooms, where we sit down and have strategic planning sessions to say, “This is the kind of church expression we want to be.”

They should come out of a real love for the place and a real experiential kind of knowledge of the place that allows us to say, “Who do the people of God, who do Jesus’ followers need to be in this specific place?”

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The second one is inhabiting our parish. We want to actively inhabit our neighborhoods, not just live in them, not just have houses in them.

In that place, who has been marginalized or pressed that needs to be liberated in that space? What is our response? What things do we need to do for our place and its inhabitants to live out the liberative story of God?

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The third sign is gathering together. But not just gathering together, because churches are good at doing gatherings. It’s gathering to remember. When we gather, we weave our parish — where we’re living — into the larger story of our faith. This means that now our parish has an integral part in the massive story of God from the beginning of time to the end of time. Our parish has a part, and it’s woven into that story.

Remember the past; remember the present; think about the future. What has the history of this place been? How do we factor into the history of the place? Do we really understand it?

Worship is not limited to being in a church building. You worship in the aisles of grocery stores and in cafes and on the corners. We gather as much as possible: gather at block parties, gather at people’s homes, gather around the table, gather in church services — gather, but remember that all of that is a part of God’s story.

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The fourth sign is collaboration. We say it this way: “collaborating for renewal with God.” It’s not just about doing things together; it’s about how do we step into God’s story and reconciliation and renewal.

We trust that God will always invite us into new relationships and weave us into new relationships but also invite us into relational and collaborative projects that should be for the common good.

A lot of why the church grew in its infancy was because when people looked at the church, they were like, “Man, they’re helping the society. People’s lives are changing.” When a church abandons that common good and really turns internally on itself, that’s when we lose our impact in society.

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The last one is what we call linking. Now, I added the word “across” to the sign: linking across. I wanted to make sure people understood that it’s not the linking of people in your neighborhood together if you link only with people that you’re most comfortable with or that you have a lot in common with.

We had to add “across” because we wanted people to be compelled to this unity in difference; we don’t all have to be the same. We don’t all have to have the same beliefs. We don’t have to have the same political beliefs. We don’t have to have the same theological beliefs or any of that.

We need all of that difference, because that’s the only way we’ll be unified. If we’re all the same, it’s not unified; it’s uniform.

How do we actively connect across our parishes, across our congregations, across our cities, across our countries? How do we engage each other by linking and growing together using our unique but local expressions mixed with other expressions outside of our own?

Those are the five signs. And as you can see, we’ve tried to make sure that there’s also a real deep equity and reconciliatory lens to this idea of being a church in a neighborhood as well.

F&L: What will people learn from taking the quiz?

JB: The goal is to let you self-diagnose where you think you are and then give you some action steps that can get you to where you would like to be. So it’s very practical. That’s why I like it. It’s extremely practical.

The goal is to try to get people engaging with the signs to ask themselves, “Where are we now? What would we like our future engagement to look like in our parish?”

The goal is to get people activated, where they’re starting, not to say, “Well, just work on getting here, and then we can help you.”

No. It’s, “Where are you now? Where’s your congregation now? Where’s the expression of the church now?”

Then we say, “Here’s the first step.” Maybe it’s just researching some spiritual practices that will get you connected more to your parish. Or maybe it’s a time to literally get with some friends and do a walk in your parish and get to know it better.

F&L: Do you have a recommended process?

JB: There’s no pattern. There’s no formula. This is an opportunity for you to engage and then create. We believe that creation will come from your place. All we’re trying to do is activate your ability to create what you need in your space.

Really, we see this thing as a flywheel. What American churches have a tendency to do is to set things up in more of a step-by-step process. This is more of a flywheel, with parish at the center.

F&L: If a congregation is already engaged in this work, is this quiz still useful?

JB: I believe it’s still beneficial, mostly because no one has “arrived” at doing parish ministry. You know what I mean? There’s no point where you’ve just got this down pat. Communities change. Things become different.

I’m in Lawndale, where we’ve been doing this for 45 years now, and we’ve [still] got to be listening, because North Lawndale is changing. There are new things happening, new ideas, new ways of being.

As Lawndale was growing, quantitative measures was the way to go: How many people come to Bible study? How many people come to church? How many people are we calling on a weekly basis and checking in with? All those things were great.

The younger generation is coming up now. It’s not about numbers. I mean, COVID has shown us that if you’re trying to count numbers of people coming to church, that might be obsolete at this point.

Now we look at qualitative measures: How are people’s lives improving?

My youth pastor has to give me a report every week on qualitative measures around the young people he’s working with. What decisions are they making? What is their life looking like?

He sends me stuff like, “Oh, this young man is dating this young lady, and he’s been sexually active, but he’s decided he’s not going to be sexually active with this young lady. He wants to do it God’s way.”

That’s a qualitative measure. And it means a lot more to these young folks — that we’re praying for their life changes — versus, “Lord, would you send 40 kids to our Bible study?”