The Parish of Tomorrow

The Parish of Tomorrow
The Irish Spirit – Issue No. 4
From the book Tomorrow’s Parish by Donal Harrington


‘Tomorrow’ flows from ‘today’. A lively awareness of where things are at today will give indications as to how tomorrow’s parish is to be shaped.

Outreach and Inreach

Tomorrow’s parish is one that appreciates the challenges of both outreach and inreach. We talk a lot about the need to reach out. But, we must think in terms of both reaching out and reaching in. We reach out to engage with people out there. We reach in to deepen our sense of who we are as a faith community. The parish can only reach out insofar as it is reaching in. There has to be a depth of inreach in order to support outreach.


Tomorrow’s parish reaches out and it reaches in. It holds a balance. But not all responses to the situation achieve this balance. Let us describe four options. One is to ignore. Another is to deplore. A third is to restore. And the final one is to explore. Each represents a different balance between outreach and inreach. There are some who are not thinking about outreach at all. They choose to go on as before. They choose to circle the wagons, as it were. They aspire to no more than an oasis of comfort for themselves. ‘It will see us out,’ they may think. This is where people choose to ignore what is going on. Then there are those who choose to deplore. They deplore what is happening out there. They deplore the materialism in today’s world. They deplore how people have abandoned their religious practice. And they deplore what is happening within. They deplore the changes in the church. This is all they see. In both these options, to ignore or to deplore, there is little inclination to reach out. But there is no inreach either. It is complacent – ‘as you were’. The problems are seen largely to lie out there. If there were a real interest in reaching in, it would generate a desire to reach out as well. As it is, these two options are heading for slow but sure extinction. There are also those who do think about outreach, but who think that outreach on its own is enough. It is outreach without inreach. It sees only one-way traffic. It thinks simply of ‘bringing them back’ – sometimes for self-centred motives, to make ourselves feel better. It does not see what is spiritually rich in people’s lives out there. And it fails to ask, ‘back to what?’ It fails to see what is deficient or lifeless in here. This option naïvely wants to restore. The point is that reaching out and reaching in belong together. Tomorrow’s faith community is a place of exploration. Reaching out and reaching in explores new depths. It explores new ways of being church. It explores new ways of engaging with others out there. There is a sense of hope in this, a sense of possibility. There is a sense of the creative God. Exploring is unfamiliar. As a faith community, we are not used to having to reach out, especially in a way that is not patronising or condescending, appreciating the spiritual depth already out there without trying to proselytise. Equally, we are not used to having to reach in. We take our beliefs and roots for granted. We must challenge ourselves to engage in a deeper, newer faith.

A Two Way Process

Inreach and outreach work together in a mutual interplay. Reaching out does something to our reaching in, and reaching in does something to our reaching out. It is dynamic, and has the effect of enriching both perspectives. The diagram below is an expression of it. Listen refers to the attitude of the faith community towards the larger community and to what is happening spiritually out there. The faith community listens in an open, appreciative spirit. It appreciates that there is something bigger than church, that God’s Spirit is active in all kinds of ways in people’s lives. The faith community allows itself to learn, to be enriched, to be challenged. Re-discover refers to the introspective illumination that listening invites. When we see the diverse ways in which people are living spiritual lives outside of the church, it gives us the possibility of understanding ourselves more clearly. We can come to a sharper, stronger sense of who we are. We can discover what we believe as if for the first time. We can gain new insight into just what we have to offer in a world that is already spiritually rich. Re-connect refers to the outreach that is built on the foundations of listening and re-discovering. It is a very different way of engaging with people than just trying to ‘bring them back’. It respects and learns from where people are in their spiritual lives. It is filled with a new-found amazement at the Good news of the Gospel. There is now the possibility of a connection between the two – the Good news and people’s lives – that people may find creative, relevant, enriching, life-giving. ‘Faith comes from what is heard.’ It is not solely an interior thing. It is spirituality (as described in chapter two) that is interior, intrinsic to us. But Christian faith comes from without, from the other. It has to be offered in a way that is sensitive to where people are at, as well as out of a deep amazement at the Gospel. Then it can take root and grow in peoples’ hearts. It is an ongoing cycle, a spiral perhaps. Inreach and outreach feed off one another. An ever-richer sense of identity, of who we are, is emerging. An ever-richer relevance to people’s lives is being made possible.











Tomorrow’s Parish by Donal Harrington is available from Columba Books