Christianity existed well before the present parish system. Before there was a church building on the corner—with its Mass schedule, programs, pastor, and support staff—the followers of Jesus still managed to preach the gospel and share Eucharist. So technically, the answer is no: the parish structure as we know it is not essential. But if by parish you mean a defined and stable community that assembles for worship and embraces a certain responsibility for one another, the answer is yes: such a community is vital to the fabric of Christian life.
It’s helpful to distinguish Christian faith from an individual spiritual practice. The goal of Christianity isn’t personal enlightenment, getting your act together, or building a satisfying moral ethos. From the beginning, Jesus chose to gather a community of disciples to live with him, share resources in common, and learn his teachings. There was never a time when Christian life was envisioned as a set of principles to live by that could be adopted and practiced on your own terms. From the first generation of the church, believers met in each other’s homes, prayed together, and shared what they had with those in need.
The gospel teaches how to live responsively with others. Loving our neighbors and enemies too, forgiving offenses, welcoming strangers, caring for the unfortunate—we engage these actions in service of others. Our faith is proven out by how we treat others. “Faith without works is dead,” says the Letter of James. Onlookers of the early community could rightfully say: “See how these Christians love one another.” No one was ever quoted as saying: “See how these Christians go to church.” While the gathering was essential to becoming the Body of Christ, registering for membership and weekly envelopes wasn’t the point.
The pre-parish house churches were more intimate, and perhaps more attractive, than today’s sprawling parishes which can feel alienating especially to newcomers. Meeting in homes was also necessary for a community that was vaguely suspect—and that dove into the catacombs when later judged to be outright criminal. Public worship, in buildings established for this purpose, was the gift (and in some ways the curse) of Christianity’s legality under Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. As the nature of community in our media age is transformed, how we are church tomorrow will doubtless evolve too.
Scriptures: Matthew 4:18-22; 25:31-45; 26:26-28; Luke 24:13-35; John 15:11-17; 18:20-26; Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35; 1 Corinthians 12:1—13:13; Ephesians 3:14-22; 4:1-16; James 2:14-18; 1 Peter 2:4-5
Books: We Are All One: Unity, Community and Commitment to Each Other, by Joan Chittister, O.S.B. (Twenty-Third Publications, 2018)
A New Way to Be Church: Parish Renewal from the Outside In, by Jack Jezreel (Orbis Books, 2018)