We quote our heroes for inspiration. Or we sometimes mis-quote them, but nevertheless, still feel inspired. Sometimes the quote of a well-known Christian helps add clarity or meaning to a sermon or Bible study. Maybe it gives us a sense of inspiration so we stick it on our wall, or on a mug, or on Facebook.
“The world is my parish” is one of these quotes. Depending on which biographer you read, the quote either comes from the 18th century evangelist, John Wesley, or from Wesley’s friend and colleague George Whitefield. Either way, the quote is intended to inspire us to see the whole world as needing to hear the proclamation of the gospel, not just our parochial ‘patch’.
For Whitefield and Wesley, this quote meant outdoor preaching, since they were not allowed to preach in established church pulpits (not only because of the chaotic emotional effects displayed by those converted in their gatherings, but because they were not licensed to other churches). So Whitefield (or Wesley’s) response was, I will preach outdoors, since the whole world is my parish.
The quote appears on memes, mugs and inspirational posters. Sometimes it’s hung on church office walls, alongside quotes from the likes of Jim Elliot, or Corrie Ten Boom, etc.
Yet, as inspiring as it sounds, I think it’s wrong. “The world is not my parish”. By all means, yes, let us be passionate for the Great Commission. By all means, let us plant new churches and ‘re-pot’ or revive established churches and ‘do the work of an evangelist’ (2 Tim. 4:5). By all means, yes! But at the same time, the world is not my parish.
As inspiring as it sounds, I think it’s wrong. ‘The world is not my parish’ … my job is to be faithful to the Lord Jesus in the place he has put me, with the gifts he has given me: to serve the people he’s given me to love.
For most of us, the part we have to play in the Great Commission is to be faithful in the place where God has placed us; either in the church or fellowship group we happen to belong to (whether that’s a church or AFES group, etc). We might have a leadership role: paid or unpaid (as the assistant curate/ youth pastor/ senior minister/ discipleship minister, etc) of a local church. We might be in lay leadership of a Bible study, Mainly Music, Playgroup or youth group. Or, we might be working amongst a particular people group to bring the gospel to them through cross-cultural mission.
Regardless of where it takes place, my job is to be faithful to the Lord Jesus in the place he has put me, with the gifts he has given me: to serve the people he’s given me to love.
In that sense, the whole world is not my parish—my parish is my parish! It has a location, and a name, with real flesh and blood people. It has a squeaky organ, a postcode and not enough storage space. I have been placed to serve the Lord Jesus in this location and among these people.
Especially in these days of online services, there is a temptation for me to think the whole world is my audience! But no! my primary responsibility in a smaller sphere of relationships with people whom God has given me to love.
My parish is my parish. Its people are the ones God has entrusted to my care. They are those I am to teach, encourage, equip, discipline, shepherd, suffer with and pray for, with the goal of presenting every one of them mature in Christ (Col 1:28).
And, by God’s wisdom and generosity, they are a gift to me for my own growth in godliness and maturity in Christ. Adopting the view that ‘the world is my parish’ tempts me to have unrealistic expectations and ingratitude for the many small but tender mercies in the ordinary mess of church life. It might lead me to arrogance or pride as though I alone were the Lord’s servant.
Seeing ‘my parish as my parish’—belonging to God, purchased with the blood of his Son—helps me to see how precious and valuable my local church is. It’s God’s church! And he brought me into it. I should therefore take it seriously to belong to that church, invest my time in it; pray for it; give myself to it; care about its relationships; stick with it over a period of time. And I should be doing this, not only to build it up, but because it will help me grow in my godliness, repentance and maturity.
I thank God for great revivalists of the past. I pray for revival in the present. But I also need to remember: the world is not my parish; my parish is my parish. Only the Lord owns “the earth and everything in it.” (Psalm 24:1).