Finding a Local Church to Call Home

From the Pew Research Center comes a new study ripe with implications for how we think about hospitality, evangelization, and growing disciples in our local churches.

Question #1: What to Americans look for in a new congregation? 

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Question #2: Why do Americans look for a new church home to begin with? 

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Let’s dig into each of these areas further to flesh out implications for how we share Jesus’ love with the world…

Becoming a Parish Ad Gentes

  1. For Americans with kids, 65% say that education/programs for children age greatly valued. How are your children/student programs? Do they run year round? Are they convenient? Are they high-quality enough that parents would choose to place their children there? Would they appeal to outsiders (not just those feeling an “obligation” to attend)? As the leaders of Church of the Nativity (Timonium, MD) often say “when you do something for my kids, you do something for me” is an important societal, parental value to respond to.
  2. When Americans go looking for a new church home, roughly half consider switching denominations (note: while this isn’t a term we use in Catholic theology, it’s common in vernacular conversation, so I use it in that sense here). This is a huge opportunity! Talk about opennessAs Catholic parishes we should ask ourselves, what kind of impression or perception would someone from a different faith background take away from setting foot on our campus or at our programs? 
  3. We may think that the unaffiliated don’t visit our parishes. But this would be a mistaken assumption. Almost “about three-in-ten current religious “nones” (29%) indicate they have searched for a new congregation at some point in their lives.” What’s for them at your parish? What would their experience be like? 
  4. How do typical Americans find a new church home? More than eight-in-ten adults who have ever looked for a new house of worship say they attended a service during their search (85%). And roughly seven-in-ten talked to members of the congregation (69%) or to friends or colleagues (68%) about the house of worship they were considering. What kind of recommendations or comments would your typical parishioners make about your parish? Would they be enthusiastic? Resigned? Unsure what to say? 
  5. Though it’s not the most important method for learning about potential local church homes, 59% of adults under 30 say they have incorporated online searches when looking for a new congregation. Your online presence matters. And, it should resonate with Millennials. 

Becoming a Parish for Catholic-Seekers

  1. What’s most important when choosing a new parish for Catholics? “nothing is more important than location. Fully three-quarters of Catholics who have looked for a new church (76%) say location was an important factor in their choice of parish.” Our first reaction might be to think (with relief or discouragement) there’s not much we can do then. But this misses something more significant–if Catholics are most likely to select a parish based on location, then it’s vitally important that every parish have a discipleship pathway, that every parish be intentional about ministering to people at every step of a disciple’s journey. We can’t be content to have some “powerhouse” parishes where intentional discipleship and fruits of the Holy Spirit are typical and then “maintenance” parishes for the rest. Taking this reality seriously might force us to think about collaborative organizational structures, networks or associations, and other ways to move more parishes from maintenance to mission. 
  2. Not convinced of the need for every parish to have pathways for intentional discipleship? Here’s another perspective: of affiliated Christians, Catholics are the least likely to ever look for a new congregation. Most Catholics will stay in the parish they’re at, unless the geography (location of household or parish) changes. What’s this mean? Our expectation must be that every parish be fully alive in the Holy Spirit, offering robust pathways for disciples to grow–otherwise, many Catholics will continue to exist in “maintenance” parishes.
  3. When Catholics are looking for a new parish, after location (76% rate as important), the next most important values are “feeling welcomed by leaders” (71%) and sermons (67%). This data supports the pitch made by Amazing ParishRebuilt, and Divine Renovation in recent years as to the importance of the “Sunday Experience.” Authentic welcome from leaders and good preaching aren’t accidents or “bonus” attributes of charismatic leaders–no, these are essential parts of ministry that must be planned, cultivated, and assessed for effectiveness.
  4. Though Catholics are less likely than other Christians to look for a new local congregation, when Catholics do go seeking, about one-in-three report exploring changing denominations or religions. This might come as a surprise to many of us–but it’s a reality we can’t ignore. The question becomes what’s going on in your parish, so that when parishioners do move or go looking for a new congregation, they seek out a Catholic one? 

Okay, so those are my takeaways from this study. What are yours? How might this data impact how you do ministry? 

Tradition and “That”

Can you imagine a culture and circumstances that might compel a person to exclaim: “If that happens, it’s the end of our faith”

What might the “that” be?

If you’re scratching your head, coming up with a blank–then good.

Here’s the thing though, someone did utter that quote earlier this year, and the “that” of discussion was the closing of Catholic schools in a particular city. The comment points to something we’re all prone to–and that’s viewing some organizational structure, custom, or way of doing things as somehow essential to living a life in the Holy Spirit, as disciples of Jesus Christ in his Church.

The Church reminds us that we’re not to think of everything we see before our eyes in parish life, in recent centuries, in North America as “the faith” or “the Tradition.” As the Catechism explains:

Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s Magisterium. (para. 83)

Tradition is a “living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit” (CCC para. 73). It’s not specifically something we merely “stick to” or a scapegoating target that “prevents us” from a certain choice. Though those phrases may apply in some situations, they are ultimately a shallow and incomplete understanding of the living dynamism of authentic Tradition. 

Yet, we’re human beings. Made in God’s image, but still finite in our capacities to see, envision, imagine, and think outside of ourselves at times. And this is why any of us might, at some point, say or think: Oh no! If that happens…

This human response can monopolize our thinking. Make us scared. Hinder our abilities to apply reason and judgement to the situations we face in our parishes and dioceses. And most detrimentally, distract us from the eternal beauty of God’s Revelation.

As many parishes enter a “new year” of faith formation, evangelization, and discipleship initiatives, we can each as a leader or follower, ask ourselves: where am I called to discern Tradition from traditions more clearly? Is there an “if that happens…” that I need to prayerfully understand more fully? 

a version of this post originally appeared at NewEvangelizers.Com

 

Lay Disciples

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Can you name any or all of these lay disciples?

Give it a try in the comment box🙂

Gambling to Faith in Jesus

Exploring if and/or how faith in Jesus Christ can be certain matters for catechesis, disciple-making, and evangelization as a whole. Certainty is related to confidence. If the “Good News” isn’t confidently known as something good with certainty, then why share it at all?

A few weeks ago I dropped in on Part 3 of an annual series by Ron Bolster entitled “Philosophy for Catechists” as part of the St. John Bosco Conference for Catechists at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Prof. Bolster picked up these practical questions of confidence and certainty from a philosophical angle to consider how we (in real life) come to know people and things that are beyond our finite human experience.

And the reality is this: most of the things we know and accept we haven’t witnessed; we believe on the testimony of someone else (a textbook writer, Wikipedia editor, etc.).

What does this bit of philosophy (epistemology, to be precise) have to do with evangelization?

As Bolster noted, sometimes, before a person has the encounter with God themselves, they have to “gamble” on the testimony of others.

Practically, a person trusts the real experience of someone else–takes a gamble–in order to take their own personal step further in life. Big implication? Witness matters. Your witness, my witness, our witness together just may be the stuff worthy of someone else taking a “gamble” on.

And these gambles can be successive. Have ripple effects. Take for example, Jesus’ midday conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well (John 4:7-39). Jesus and the woman engage in weighty conversation. It’s a probing conversation that’s even a little pointedly blunt at times as they go back-and-forth with tensions between Jews and Samaritans, misunderstanding of Jesus’ directions, etc.

And it ends as seemingly abruptly as it begins, as the woman declares: I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Anointed; when he comes, he will tell us everything” and Jesus responds “I am he, the one who is speaking with you” (4:25-26).  And that’s it. Over. The disciples return in amazement that Jesus is even talking to a woman, and without further recorded conversation, she heads back to the village. 

How certain is she walking back to her village? How confident is she in the person she has encountered?

Our Evangelist John gives us a glimpse in verse 29 as we see the woman’s message to her fellow villagers: “Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Messiah?”

So that’s it. How certain is she? How confident?

She’s certain enough to tell others “come see.” She’s confident enough to report what Jesus has done, “told me everything I have done.” And yet, she’s not sure about Jesus’ ultimate identity, seemingly wondering aloud, “could he possibly be the Messiah?”

The Samaritan woman is taking a gamble on Jesus as testimony to God the Father. Jesus’ actions and words–his witness–have given her enough to go a step further, even though she’s not yet at the point of running around telling everyone for certain that she’s found the Messiah (outside the village at a well, and oh-by-the-way he’s the rare Jew who talks to Samaritans).

Her gamble is in Jesus. That Jesus is divine, though she does not fully understand in this moment.

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“Ripples” (Flickr) CC-BY-SA-2.0

And what happens? A ripple effect. The villagers leave the town in the afternoon heat and come out to see Jesus. The villagers have now taken their own gamble on the woman’s gamble.  This gamble-on-a-gamble leads them to Jesus, where they can experience their own encounters with Jesus and know him as a person.

As John concludes:

When the Samaritans came to him [Jesus], they invited him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. Many more began to believe in him because of his word, and they said to the woman, “We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world.” (4:41-42)

Now that each knows with confidence, they do not need to rely on their gamble, or the woman’s gamble. Now each has encountered Jesus and with certainty (CCC para. 157) and can declare “we know that this is truly the savior of the world.”

As evangelists, catechists, and disciple-makers, let us remember this: those beautiful declarations of faith? They started with a gamble on the testimony of another. Let us ask the Holy Spirit to make us more and more gamble-worthy as witnesses each and every day.

A version of this post also appears at NewEvangelizers.com

Apprenticeship in Work and Faith

Is “parish” all too synonymous with a building [set of buildings] or a group of people who have voluntarily registered? Yes.

But how do we change that mis-perception? Actions speak louder than words. To see the parish as the full geographic entity that it is–a collection of baptized, non-baptized, de-Churched, and more–we need to do the parish well beyond the walls of the church in a way that’s intentional.

Jonathan Sullivan (building on James Pauley) kicked off some practical, catechetical reflections on what apprenticeship has to do with forming disciples and creating a more authentic manifestation of “parish life” in our communities. Christian apprenticeship is this:

something that happens outside the immediate orbit of the parish…It could center on a stable, long-term group or activity. It could involve strangers coming together for a short time…What distinguishes apprenticeship from other pious activity is a desire to come together as followers of Jesus Christ with the aim to grow in holiness through specific, intentional acts of faith

By way of example, taking teens to serve at a soup kitchen could be an act of Christian apprenticeship if it is more than just a “service trip” — that is, if it integrates various facets of Christian living, including prayer, fellowship, and theological reflection.

One I’ve been thinking about is something picking up on the Center for Faith and Work initiative of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC. When we think about what occupies a significant portion of time of any person–especially single people–one’s job often comes to mind. And this work, regardless of its essentially secular character, in most cases, is still part of our Christian lives. It spiritually forms us (for better or worse). It enables us to integrate our works of creation, service, etc. with how God models this.

But, it’s awfully hard to do this alone.

While the work itself is likely not an intentional act of faith, the decision to meet, pray, and talk with others seeking to integrate faith and work would be an act of faith. And, as Zach Yenter suggests, this may be especially important for Millennial generation adults.

The Bible and Church teachings offer a wealth of passages worth pondering in mentoring pairs or groups of those who work in similar fields/industries. Not to mention questions of discernment or particular intercessory prayers that may be relevant to specific sectors of employment. And, the common bond of a particular field of labor can help build community and affinity for actually being intentional off-parish-grounds about meeting, praying, and sharing life.

Check out Jonathan Sullivan’s recent blog posts on this topic, how could you imagine “apprenticeship” re-shaping catechesis in your parish? 

On Giving the Zebedee Family a Hard Time

By virtue of baptism, we are joined to Jesus Christ–and thus, supernaturally joined to all other baptized-believers. It’s a powerful reality! But, this truth can often be hard to see behind the human struggles we have when it comes to relating to each other and Jesus in our earthly existence.

Today’s Gospel passage (Mt 20:20-28) provides a poignant example of how easily we can go wrong in relating to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.

We hear in the Gospel of Matthew that the mother of James and John, sons of a man named Zebedee, comes to Jesus.

Now, if you’re already thinking negative, critical thoughts about the request she’s about to make (because you’ve heard the story before), well–stop. Because Matthew the Evangelist provides a striking detail. How does this mother approach Jesus? She comes to Jesus and “did him homage.” Homage. If that word sounds familiar to you in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, you’re correct! The magi (wise men) come and do Jesus homage at his birth. It reveals this woman’s great reverence, her knowledge of who Jesus is–she is not ashamed to bow down before him.

And then she makes her request. Not asking of her own needs, but asking something for her sons, that they sit at Jesus’ right and left in his Kingdom.

And what’s our instinct? For most of my life, it’s been to judge her. To look down on her. She doesn’t “get” Jesus’ model of servant hood. She’s arrogant about her family, maybe even selfish to ask such a thing. Do we sometimes think the same things of our brothers and sisters in Christ in our own day and age? Am I tempted to judge another’s striving to be close to Jesus so quickly?

Yet we see that Jesus’ response is not like ours. Jesus does not dismiss her. He does not rebuke her. And Jesus never dismisses us, either! Praise God🙂 We can ask Jesus anything. Especially when we approach him as Lord, giving him homage. Jesus is ready for us. We need not hold back for fear of asking too much, for asking incredible things, or asking a “stupid” question.

Jesus states simply that she does “not know” what she’s asking, and then takes her deeper–presenting this mother and her sons with this probing question: Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink? They all reply to Jesus in the affirmative–we can.

What an amazing statement of faith on the part of this mother and her sons! To trust in Jesus enough to say yes–even if their knowledge is imperfect (as we see in Jesus’ full response).

Even with their misunderstandings, Jesus accepts their response of faith. In this we see just how open Jesus is to our yes moments. Even when we say “yes” and don’t fully understand. Even when we say “yes” to him after asking a question that others look down upon. Jesus faithfully offers us more. Offers us more of Himself to say yes to. And we see the role that community played here. Without the mother’s initial question, neither James nor John would be in the position to say yes to Jesus. And so it is the great mystery of the Body of Christ for us too, that our brothers and sisters in Christ sometimes function as James and John’s mother–asking a question on behalf of a group, lunging closer to God and thus pulling others with us.

But what are the responses of Jesus’ other disciples? For me this is the most poignant, illustrative line of the Gospel passage: “When the ten heard this [conversation], they became indignant at the two brothers.”

Ouch.

An oh-so-human response.

I mean, wouldn’t it be more logical to get angry at James and John’s mother for starting the conversation to begin with? Or even turn in frustration toward Jesus for inviting and accepting their response of “we can” rather than rebuking them?

But no, the disciples get angry at their fellow believers for making such an audacious request out of faith. A request that–of course–revealed great misunderstanding. But, a request that also revealed genuine commitment and ardent desire to follow Jesus.

Now, we might not be as forward about our anger or indignation as the other ten disciples were in this Gospel. But, pause and consider the last time you may have gotten indignant or angry at a fellow Christian for their prayer hopes, for their attempts to grow closer to Jesus, for their attempts to take risks for the Kingdom…

When we act indignant, and lessen our true bonds of charity with other believers, we’re losing focus on Jesus. As we saw in this Gospel, the ten others aren’t even paying attention to how Jesus acted or who Jesus is–no–they are simply angry at James and John for wanting to be close to Jesus, for saying “we can” to sacrificial holiness, to progress in discipleship. And this can happen to us too…instead of paying the Lord our own homage, we focus our energy on picking apart and judging the discipleship of others. Not wanting others to “get ahead” of us or grow beyond our preconceived notions of discipleship.

James, John, and their mother needed guidance, and Jesus was there to converse with them. Let us remember–as we live, play, pray, and work within the Body of Christ present to us in our daily lives–that Jesus is the center. We conform ourselves to Jesus’ lead and example.

Jesus does not push us away, but invites conversation with us in prayer–never judging us unfairly, but leading us into deeper truth. As brothers and sisters in Christ we should encourage each other, rather than compete or grow indignant with each other when it comes to seeking Jesus.

p.s. I find it quite interesting that Mark’s Gospel includes the same content about the other disciples’ indignation, even though Mark’s does not include the tidbit about Mama Zebedee asking the question to Jesus. In the collective memory of Jesus’ early followers, the reaction of others, rather than initial question/offense/inquiry, seems to be what “stuck” most clearly. Again–very convicting for us modern disciples!🙂

A version of this post also appeared at NewEvangelizers.Com

Turn Until You Know Jesus: The Feast of Mary Magdalene

From Lorraine Cuddeback via I Have Seen the Lord | Daily Theology, a Gospel message for today:

“Mary’s hopelessness is almost palatable.

The angels that appear — those who so helpfully explain the meaning of the empty tomb in Mark, Matthew, and Luke — cannot draw Mary’s attention in this narrative.

Her weeping overwhelms her sight, her senses, and she offers no reaction to the two men suddenly sitting where the head and feet of Jesus should have been. Instead, she only reiterates the problem: “I don’t know where they laid him.” Mary is lost in her grief until Jesus himself calls her name:

She turned around and saw Jesus there, but did not know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” She thought it was the gardener and said to him, “Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni,” which means Teacher. (Jn 20:14-16)

Read the passage carefully, and you’ll see that she turns twice — she turns towards Jesus when she first sees him, but does not know him. Then, despite supposedly looking at him to ask her question, she turns again when he calls her name.”

Turning.

Turning evokes another mightily important New Testament word, metanoia.

Though sometimes translated to English as “repentance,” metanoia is much more–it’s a full turning, conversion. And, conversion of one’s whole self. Heart. Mind. Soul. Body. Everything conversion.

This is why I love that Mary the Magdalene turns twice. Many of us raised in Christian settings “saw” Jesus from a young age. We learned of Him and objectively experienced Him in sacraments (even if our dispositions were lacking faith…). But, we may not have known Him. Personally. Sometimes it’s the second (or third! or fourth! etc.) turning that’s true metanoia, the conversion that allows us to exclaim from the depths of our hearts and souls, like Mary, Rabbouni–a personal term of relationship with Jesus.

Turn once. Turn twice. Turn thrice. The important thing, is to turn as metanoia. Experience, as Pope Emeritus Benedict encouraged, “the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est, para. 1). Turn.

Turn

Image: CC 2.0 via Ivan (Flickr)