Parishes “Grappling With Culture, Conflict, and Identity” Instead of Evangelization?

In Parish-Level Evangelization: Grappling with Culture, Conflict, and Identity (part of the latest edition of the Institute for Church Life’s Journal for the New Evangelization), Brian Starks gives us a sociologist’s perspective on the New Evangelization, as he aims:

“to illustrate how strategies for attracting members differ [between two parishes] and how these contrasting strategies are rooted in distinct parish identities and develop out of alternative approaches to conflict” so that we can “recognize the entwined parts played by conflict and identity in shaping parish-level evangelization.”

Okay. I’m game. We all need to hear this, even if it’s challenging to our sense of parish life.

One of his first observations is the different perceptions each parish has the modern, American idea of “parish shopping” (or even denomination shopping)–the parishes grapple with this reality, one thinking that it has to be embraced, simply because it’s where the flock is at. The other parish, hesitating, because this is a consumer-oriented ethos at odds with the fullness of our faith.

This is a very real dilemma faced by many parishes and I think our response should be pragmatic. Accept that we can’t change people who aren’t yet in our pews–in order to form the ethos of service (vs. consumerism) we have to first get them in the doors. I think Church of the Nativity in Timonium, MD does an excellent job of this–it’s a seeker-friendly Catholic parish, yet also a parish that  challenges insiders.

Through his interviews with pastors and leaders, Starks draws out a discussion of people going where they are most comfortable vis-a-vis a liberal or conservative parish theology (while noting one pastor’s acknowledgement of the limits of this spectrum). On the whole, this liberal/conservative language makes me shudder a bit–as I have no idea what a liberal or conservative parish theology is, and the terms confuse me. Is a parish that preaches conversion, relationship with Jesus Christ, and a life of discipleship liberal or conservative? Beats me! 🙂

Starks observes that one of the parishes (fictitiously named “St. Mark’s”) in essence embraces conflict [specifically with the hierarchy] as part of their self-identity. The other parish (fictitiously named “St. Luke’s”) takes a different approach, working to ensure that culture is not polarized in the parish, thus limiting conflict. Discussions of decline at St. Mark’s seem to be linked to the hierarchy, while decline at St. Luke’s is pegged to changing culture, demographics, and decline of the neighborhood.

What troubles me reading all of the comments from leaders at St. Mark’s and St. Luke’s is that Jesus Christ seems to be absent. I could easily re-write their statements centered around a nonprofit organization–and it would basically make sense. The parishes seem to function as nondescript organizations or social clubs, rather than the local church of called disciples (remember, ekklesia, the root of “church,” means to be called out).

Could decline have something to do with lack of authentic conversion to Christ? Missing fruits of the Holy Spirit? Lack of personal evangelization in the pews? These things seem just as likely as what each parish discusses.

Starks writes, “Catholic theology and especially ecclesiology give the Church a vision and goal of a unity which exceeds that found in, or even hoped for, in other types of organizations.” Bingo. Spot on. In plain terms, this means the local parish isn’t a club. It has a mission to evangelize and both of these parishes seem more interested in their members, culture, etc. than creating spaces for all people to encounter Jesus Christ and make a life-changing, foundational decision to develop a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Starks ends with these questions:

“I hope that my research allows for a deeper reflection on what kind of identity we desire to produce as a faith community, what challenges are keeping us from enacting that identity, and what creative strategies (especially regarding conflict and conflict resolution) this vision might require. What could parish identity look like if, rather than leveraging conflict or avoiding it, a parish tried to actively engage in conflict resolution, in peacemaking? And how might this
transform parish-level evangelization?”

The question of identity is key. But, I also think that our faith makes this clear. It’s not exactly an open question. Parishes are communities of disciples following Jesus and growing in relationship with Him. Parishes are the Church in a particular locality. In this spirit, I think solving conflicts starts with questions like these between those in conflict:

• Is God someone you would say you have a personal relationship with?
• Have you had any kind of moment when you felt particularly close to Jesus? If so, can you tell me about it? If not, have you ever wanted to?
• How would you describe your view of God? Jesus? Is He a reality to you or more of a vague concept?
[Question examples from Aggie Catholics and FOCUS Equip]

Why? Because coming to an authentic understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit and person conversion in each of our lives is what roots us as disciples. It’s what we base of discipling parish communities on. When these foundational realities become more clear, a unified vision is more likely to result. Trust is built and teams form, teams that can address conflict and truly make the peace only Jesus can bring.

In this glorious Easter season, I think of Acts of the Apostles as a key example of this. The disciples faced very real conflicts of culture and identity. But, they didn’t attempt to solve those problems like any old organization. They knew that they were Church. They knew the Holy Spirit was essential. And, they knew each other’s stories and had a trust based on a recognition of the powerful reality of conversion in each other’s lives.

Though Stark’s article might seem like just a sociologist’s study. It’s not. He provides a powerful, essential reminder of what we must guard against in parish life–resisting the distracting temptation to become just another charitable organization or social club, and instead seeking authentic relationship with Jesus and others in all we do.

In short, we need to avoid “Grappling With Culture, Conflict, and Identity” at the expense of evangelization. And instead, allow the urgency of evangelization and life-changing conversion to be the shared and essential foundation for dealing with conflict, culture, and identity.

Update: Extremely insightful response from Brian Starks over at the Catholic Conversation. Well worth the read!

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One thought on “Parishes “Grappling With Culture, Conflict, and Identity” Instead of Evangelization?

  1. “Could decline have something to do with lack of authentic conversion to Christ? Missing fruits of the Holy Spirit? Lack of personal evangelization in the pews?”

    Absolutely agree with you here Colleen. I think people will be attracted to a parish when they find meaning and value for their lives. Ultimately, we must be putting people in communion with Jesus. He is where we find this. I think the average parish has just lost this goal. The lack of clear vision and goal of discipleship doesn’t motivate people to give their time to a parish.

    Like

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