Bringing back the circuit rider for a new missional frontier requires us to rethink what we mean by “parish.” If the world is truly our parish, how do we re-envision what a circuit might look like? In the previous post, I described how digitality creates a new kind of space and makes possible new forms of community. Understanding our parish in terms of a “blended ecology” might be helpful.
In my latest book, Deep and Wild: Remissioning the Church from the Outside I explain how we can be in mission to a world in which over 60% of the population will never set foot in a traditional form of church, without giving up on traditional church. A blended ecology describes how fresh expressions of church can live in a symbiotic relationship with inherited forms of church, in such a way that the combining of these modes over time blend to create a nascent form.
For the church in the digital age, we need to care for existing Christians, by being analog church in fruitful, contextually appropriate ways. Simultaneously, we need to find ways to be a digital church in the flows of a network society. We do this through building relationships with people in cyberspace, forming new Christian communities with them where they are.
The concepts of first, second, and third places from sociologist Ray Oldenburg are helpful in expanding our imaginations around the idea of parish. Oldenburg’s work is focused on understanding social environments and their role in community building. First Place is the home or primary place of residence. Second Place is the workplace or school place. Third Place may be public places separate from the two usual social environments of home and workplace which “host regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals.” Examples are environments such as cafes, pubs, theaters, parks, and so on.
The diagram below illustrates a blended ecology ecosystem in which a whole community is understood as the parish. It highlights the idea that church can form in first, second, and third places throughout the community. The ordinary spaces, where people gather to do life. It also illustrates the emerging reality of a further both/and—analog and digital—spaces. Christian community can form in Zoom rooms, Facebook groups, and Google Hangouts as well.
As the circuit riders of our own parish, my wife Jill and I are responsible for two inherited congregations, as well as a network of 15 new Christian communities that gather in the tattoo parlor, the Tex-Mex restaurant, the coffee shop, dog park, library, homes, gym, a running track, and multiple digital forums. The “fourth place” is a soft place to land for those who connect with Christ in the emerging communities, but bridge back into the inherited congregation. This is a community that meets in a church building, but the worship experience is somewhere between a fresh expression of church and a traditional congregation.
Early circuit riders oversaw a circuit of congregations which could comprise as many as 25 or 30 meeting places. The circuit was under the supervision of a Methodist conference preacher who would utilize multiple lay assistants. This past week in the Living Room Church, a team of dedicated volunteers provided dozens of worship experiences, prayer gatherings, yoga sessions, devotionals, and spiritual conversations—all in digital space. Dozens of meeting places dot the analog and digital landscape across our “parish.” Jill and I do not “lead” these communities. We provide encouragement, training, and support for those who do.
The new parish requires us to rethink the concept of leadership, which I will cover in my next post… stay tuned!
 Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community (New York: Marlowe, 1999), 16.