Phrases to Ripen Conversations

Justin Chua (Flickr) CC BY ND NC 2.0

Spreading the love of God is inevitably a personal, relational experience. We know as Christians that–if we stay at this “evanglism” thing long enough, we’re going to have to talk to people. And this can seem like a burden for many of us. It can also seem fruitless. It’s possible to do a lot of talking, but continually miss the mark on creating a space where the person you’re talking to can feel safe enough to be open, to be a bit vulnerable. It’s this point of vulnerability where those unique relationships that carry us through life start to form, it’s where love is tangibly experienced.

While there’s no silver bullet to cultivating conversations like this, here are some key phrases (in no particular order) to keep at the ready:

  • Ask “How are you?” With meaning. And conviction. Give the patient listening space for an answer, and take whatever comes seriously and reverently. Follow ups like, “ah besides school, how’s the rest of life going?” can help keep this question going, allowing a person to slowly reveal what they choose.
  • “Sometime, I’d like to hear more about your spiritual journey…would you be up for that?” (h/t Cru “SomeTime,” Overview). This question “asks permission” for a future opportunity, an interval that allows a person to accept and prepare to share, without feeling imposed upon.
  • If someone’s already sharing a bit about their life, work, hobbies, passions, a deeper follow up could be, “…in all that, what are the things you really want to be true of in life [or in this season of life, the coming year, etc.]?” (h/t Cru, “New Years Conversations”).
  • “Can I pray for you about that?” or “Is there anything I can pray for you for?” For a person who is uncomfortable with religiosity, you could even phrase it, “Is there anything you’d like me to pray about or just keep in my mind for you? (while it sounds weird for us Christians, many people of no faith at all “like” the idea of prayer or others thinking about them.
  • “What was your religious background growing up?” in a relevant conversation, is a good gentle “on-ramp” to talking spirituality since it doesn’t force a person to speak about present beliefs–only about the past, and area where their may be shared humor, or silent/serious wounds to enter into.
  • Life Goals/Careers: “What do you like most about what you do? How about the least?” “What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned in life?” “Tell me about your greatest success or greatest failure along the way?” “What’s the greatest piece of wisdom ever passed on to you?” “What three principles have benefited you the most thus far in your life journey?” “What’s your ultimate vocational dream?” “What did you see yourself doing career-wise when you were eighteen?” (h/t Doug Pollock, “99 Wondering Questions”)
  • “For [insert your own situation: i.e. someone just starting out, someone with young children, someone retiring, etc.] what advice would you give about what you think he purpose of life is”? (h/t Doug Pollock)
  • After someone has shared a bit of their biography in facts, “ah, in all that…what would you say some of the major turning points in your life have been?” (h/t Pollock)
  • Relationships: “How did you meet your husband/wife (or boyfriend/girlfriend)? What have you learned about yourself through marriage (or dating)? (h/t Pollock)
  • Influences: “Has there been one book/movie that has greatly influenced you?” “Besides your parents, is there any one person who stands out as having had a major influence in your life”? (h/t Pollock)
  • “What, if anything, causes you to be hopeful about the future?”
  • Personality: “As people get to know you, what do they enjoy most about you?” “As people get to know you, what do they enjoy least?” “As people get to know you, in what area do you feel most misunderstood?”
The point of these phrases isn’t to reach some specific conclusion, or even lead directly to an initial proclamation of the Gospel–the point is to create a space for a person to be heard, to be able to share a little deeper or more personally than our busy world typically allows (or even wants!) people to share. They allow a person to be known in ways they may be craving for–that inner loneliness we sometimes feel, even when surrounded by caring people. When we have listening conversations, we ourselves can be more vulnerable with others, building the trust that’s a bridge to the Gospel–a concept written about by Sherry Weddell in Forming Intentional Disciples and inherent in our Catholic conept of “pre-evangelization,” as moments that connect the values someone actually/inherently experiences to who we know God personally to be.
Do you have other great phrases to help “ripen” conversations? Feel free to share in the Comments.

How Do You Feel About Having Your Sins Forgiven?

As today’s First Reading (1 John 1:8-10) reminds us:

If we say, “We are without sin,”
we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just
and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing.
If we say, “We have not sinned,” we make him a liar,
and his word is not in us.

We can intellectually accept Jesus’ forgiveness of one’s sins as true, a fact, a reality. But, how to you really feel about it, personally. That Jesus forgives your sins. 

During his earthly ministry, Jesus posed this question to Simon, a Pharisee, in the midst of a symposium-style dinner discussion:

“Two men were in debt to a banker. One owed five hundred silver pieces, the other fifty. Neither of them could pay up, and so the banker graciously canceled both debts. Which of the two men will love the banker more?” (Lk 7:41-42*)

What’s the answer? Obviously the man who owed the larger sum of money.

But in Jesus’ 1st century Palestine and our modern American culture, which man would typically be considered the “good” one?

Most of us would have to admit it’s the man with less debt. The one who merely owed 50 silver pieces. He might be able to pay that off. He’s more responsible. More self-reliant. He’s not too bad.

So why is he the example of being “wrong” in the story?

Jesus’ point must not be about personal finances, but about love and gratitude in our relationship with Him. Let’s enter back into the story of the banker and the two men in debt. Imagine you’re the man who owed 500 silver coins–and had it forgiven. How would you feel?

What’s the immediate human reaction to that kind of free, gracious generosity?

It’s a mix of emotions: “Wow.” “You didn’t have to!” Feeling unworthy of such a gift. Maybe even feeling worse that you could never repay this person. Maybe feeling ashamed that it came to this point.

And it’s the same way with Jesus’ free gift of forgiveness of our own sins. There’s no way we could “earn” our way out of the wrong we do as human beings. We can’t pay it off.

The question is, how do we relate to Jesus who gives us an enormous (worth more than any earthly sum of money!) free gift of forgiveness? Is our response that joyful, grateful love for someone who gives us an incomprehensible, amazing gift?

Or, is our response something else–thinking we owe Jesus back, imagining that Jesus dislikes us for having gotten into debt in the first place, assuming we can do it ourselves and pull ourselves up by our own “bootstraps” of personal piety, wondering if this forgiveness is “for real” and “for keeps,” or if there are hidden strings attached.

We’re not saved by our own good works. We are saved for good works. Those good works flow from the love and gratitude we feel toward Jesus in our relationship with Him. We joyfully desire to extend that love to every person around us. Not because we think we “have” to in order to make up that debt or prevent Jesus from having to be like the banker in the story and forgive our debts to begin with, but because it overflows–we can’t contain that joyful love.

And this is precisely the context in which Jesus gave this example. There was someone who couldn’t contain the love she knew because Jesus had freely forgiven her. This someone was a woman, a poor woman from the city whom everyone knew was a sinner, someone who certainly didn’t have any of the external acts of religious piety. She hadn’t been someone known for “good” behavior.

Yet at some point before this dinner, she encountered Jesus and received forgiveness from her sins (i.e. Lk 5:30-32). She is living in a state of forgiveness that overflows into love and gratitude that simply looks ridiculous to those who haven’t experienced it. Just imagine…a poor woman entering a banquet dinner-panel discussion of men of the religious elite. Instead of staying on the side, like she was supposed to, she starts to bathe Jesus’ feet with her tears, anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment, and even kisses his feet. This is overflowing, joyful love and gratitude! (to say the least!)

As Christians, we’re like that man with a debt of 500 silver coins. We’re like this woman bathing Jesus’ feet. We’ve received a forgiveness we could never earn and are now living in that forgiveness, that salvation that is and continues to bring peace (Lk 7:50).

But what if that’s not you? If you feel a bit awkward about it. Like a man who owed only 50 silver coins and maybe didn’t really need that banker to forgive his debt. Consider what’s holding you back. What’s the barrier?

It’s okay to be honest with Jesus. Open your heart to him. And when we think about this woman who loved so extravagantly, it might have taken some time. Her forgiveness could have come days, weeks, or even months before this dinner. What’s most important is that her open, free, honest love does come, and brings her closer to–not farther away–from Jesus.


Wipe our Debt
Image: Flickr “Image Money” CC SA 2.0


translation: The Message + my own translation edits

a version of this post originally appeared at

“An Invitation” on Christmas

Utilizing all means of communication matters. Back in 2006, I lived in southeastern North Carolina–not a place with a large Catholic population, universities, or obvious resources to grow more in one’s faith. But, I started searching online for podcasts of good Catholic preaching, and I stumbled upon the podcast of homilies given by Msgr. Charles Pope of Holy Comforter St. Cyprian Catholic Church in Washington, D.C. His preaching was perfect for an independent Baptist formed, Catholic believer, and has remained a fixture in my podcast feed ever since.

For years, I’ve wanted to attend Mass at Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian and this Christmas, we happened to be near Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian for the Vigil Mass, hooray!

The worship aid/program for Mass included this excellent example of a kerygma-filled invitation:

On this feast of Christmas, we celebrate the fact that the eternal Son of God came forth in greatest love to save his people from their sins.

Our Lord Jesus Christ came not only to live among us, teach us, and to die on the cross but also to gather unto himself a people, who would love, support, and encourage one another in the ways of holiness.

He then sent his apostles forth to gather his people into the community of the Church by baptism and the proclamation of the Good News, the Gospel. This work continues today as it has down through the centuries.

Kerygma without the Church can be a problem–but this example incorporates that fullness in plain language, without context-less theological jargon.

The invitation goes on to address individuals–showing that it’s not simply that “we” have “stuff to teach you,” but that we are meant to be a bigger we in God’s plan.

At Christmas, many people find their way to church who are not otherwise very connected to church. There are many reasons for this. Some have simply drifted away, others have experienced some hurt or disagreement related to the Church or her members. Still others have never been formally related to any church. Whatever the reason may be, know that you are wanted and needed in this community of faith. We need your experience, support, encouragement, and love. You also need these same things from the Church. We need each other. The doors of this church are open if you seek a spiritual home…We are grateful for your interest in our parish and are here to serve you in whatever way we can. May you have a blessed Christmas and joyous New Year.

Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Church 

The Last Moment Before the Next

From the final Gospel of Advent*

“In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us” (Lk 1:78)

And isn’t that how God always happens.

Breaking upon us.
Surprising us.
Seemingly not there, and then suddenly there.
There like never before.
There all along.

We see the dawn coming. We know the dawn comes. And yet, to experience it takes one’s breath away.

Thank you, God, for those divine shocks.
Thank you for the Dawn from on High.
Let that Dayspring break upon us.

Donald Jackson. Luke Frontispiece: The Birth of Christ (Lk 2:1-20)


*yes, missing in action this year due to Dec 24th falling on a Sunday

Worship That’s Not Mass

Fr. Dwight Longenecker writes,

In this age when so many Catholics are drifting away from the church and there are so many others who are genuinely interested in the Catholic faith, I wish we had some form of non-Eucharistic worship where we could evangelize and catechize effectively. This would also provide a way for Catholics who, for whatever reason, cannot receive communion to belong to the church and worship God while they are working out how they can be full members of the church. These forms of worship would also get around the clericalism in the church because they could be conducted by laypeople–both men and women.

It would be pretty radical, but what if once a month we actually put in place a simple, dignified act of worship which was not a Mass?

Absolutely! There’s a vital need for this because Mass is inherently and distinctly not a seeker-service. Mass is designed for those who have experienced encounter with Jesus Christ and conversion, for those initiated into the fullness of Christian life. While this doesn’t mean we completely ignore the reality that in our culture, seekers and those in need of pre-evangelization and evangelization are present at Mass, it does mean that we take seriously the need of “outsiders” of those who are not already a part of our parish life when it comes to their inherent desire to worship.

St. Paul recognized this desire in humankind to celebrate, praise, and worship in his own ministry, for example among non-Christians in Athens (Acts 17:20-22). He understood the cause of this to be the “invisible attributes of [God’s] eternal power and divinity” present in the created world that all experience (Romans 1:20).

And the same is true today. Men and women of all ages and cultures have the desire to experience silence and awe in close connection with the Creator and ultimate spiritual force in the world (even if they do not yet name or “know” this Creator personally, as we do). Many studies have shown the positive value of cultivating gratitude and mindfulness toward the world and people around us. The act of worship encompasses all this and more in giving glory to God.

As Fr. Longenecker suggested, setting a goal of offering a monthly service pre-evangelistic and/or evangelistic in character is a great start. The General Instructions for the Liturgy of the Hours offer a wide range of options and flexibility that makes Liturgy of the Hours ripe for customization.

Other ideas include:

  •       Taizé-inspired prayer services.[4]
  •       Modeling a service after the XLT (pronounced “Exalt”) nights popular with teenagers and young adults. XLTs “combine quality music and a dynamic teaching with worship of the Eucharist in an energetic and reverent setting.  In other words, you are sure to hear a fun and relevant talk, some of the best new worship music, and experience the intimacy of spending time with Christ in Eucharistic Adoration”[5]
  •        Reviving the Cathedral Vigil services (or other adaptations of the Liturgy of the Hours) popular in the Patristic era. A version of this is currently popular among young adults in Colorado.[6]
  •       Making use of services that do not include reception of the Eucharist, since receiving the Eucharist is often not applicable for someone in need of initial proclamation and allows for wider use of the baptized faithful as preachers of the Word or Liturgy of the Hours as a venue for evangelistic preaching (i.e. Liturgy of the Hours, Liturgy of the Word). [from “Why Do We Have to Preach For Evangelization in a Catholic Parish?]

Opportunities for preaching and worship together are what’s key for cultivating that pre-evangelistic desire to worship, creating space to encounter Jesus, and offering a chance for those present to hear the message of salvation through preaching.

Marketing is a key part of inviting others to attend, and for many, the name of a church or a location on a church campus can be a barrier. Parishes can consider off-site locations, as well as “internal spin offs” through a “specifically themed/marketed sub-ministry within a parish (see: Christ the King in Ann Arbor’s Upper Room as an example of this), etc. These aren’t merely programs, but initiatives that create a new organizational identity within the parish” (from “Catholic Takeaways from ‘Increasing Young Adult Participation in Churches and Other Faith Communities Today'”).

If a monthly commitment is too much, consider offering non-Mass worship around a religious or civic holiday that motivates many non-church-attenders to consider attending, i.e. Christmas, Ash Wednesday, or in the United States, civic holidays such as Thanksgiving or Mother’s Day.

Saint Benedict Parish in Halifax, Canada specifically offers “Christmas Unplugged”–a Christmas Eve service designed for people who aren’t regular churchgoers. As Saint Benedict’s explains:

Why have Christmas Unplugged? Christmas is a time where many people, even
those who aren’t religious, feel a tug on their hearts calling them back to church. But for someone who hasn’t been to church in awhile, a long and crowded Christmas Eve Mass can be difficult and not very engaging – especially for children. Christmas Unplugged is a family-friendly, welcoming alternative for anyone who wants to reconnect with their faith around Christmastime. (“Bene Dictus,” Dec 2017)
For an in-depth look at “Christmas Unplugged” listen to this podcast interview from Saint Benedict Parish.
Remember, just as preaching is wider and bigger than the Eucharistic homily alone, so too is worship a broader category than Mass alone. To connect with those who have not yet experienced a foundational conversion in Jesus Christ, or who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” we need to offer opportunities for them to experience a taste of belonging in Christian community and the awesome, transformative power of God.
Photo by Geetanjal Khanna on Unsplash

Trust-Barriers for Teams

Why is it so hard to build the trust that’s essential for productive conflict as a team doing ministry?

If you’ve ever delved into Pat Lencioni’ s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team you’ve got the idea that trust is a foundation for any team–and only on that trust, can a team truly engage in healthy, productive conflict.

Pat Lencioni’s Pyramid of the Five Common Dysfunctions of Teams

One of the barriers to this, however, can be the “accidental values” in an organization. These are the values that aren’t intentional and actually hinder the long-term good of the organization.

Another barrier to trust is the “fundamental attribution error.” This is the tendency in an organization to falsely attribute the negative behaviors of those whom we disagree with, who are newer to an organization, or otherwise on the margins to their character (an internal attribution), while attributing one’s own negative behaviors to environmental factors, like a decision made by someone else, etc. (an external attribution).

Organizations with teams that hold onto “accidental values” or are prone to the “fundamental attribution error” in decision making will likely struggle to build the trust essential for a healthy organization.  At its heart, organizational health for a ministry means that the body of believers who have been first joined together in Christ, and now come together for a specific purpose, are consistently living out strategy and operations within a culture and values that all hold together–that make sense, that are consistent.

Organizational health starts with a team. And then spreads to other teams. A team of teams. A culture, values, norms, and way of being that’s best caught, rather than taught.

Truly living as a team is a difficult thing, a very specific thing. It means more than simply being together or working together. This is another stumbling block for many organizations–assuming that “we” are a team, when it’s not the case. Lencioni explains:

a team is a relatively small number of people (anywhere from three to twelve) that shares common goals as well as the rewards and responsibilities for achieving them.

Many groups that aren’t true teams succeed. There are good reasons not to be “partially” a team without going all-in on trust and productive conflict. Even within the Body of Christ, people can get hurt when there’s a pretense of forming a team, without commitment to the tough values of trust a team requires. As Lencioni cautions:

if your group is not meant to be a team, it’s far better to be clear about that than to waste time and energy pretending you’re something you’re not. Because that only creates false expectations, which leads to frustration and resentment.

In summary, these three challenging barriers to overcome in building trust as a team are:

  1. Your “accidental values” — the deeply ingrained norms, cultural habits, and values of your organization that work against the team you’re trying to become.
  2. The “fundamental attribution error” of limiting one’s own vulnerability by justifying negative tendencies of the “in” group to external, environmental factors beyond one’s control, while calling out the negative tendencies of others as unchanging character or personality flaws.
  3. Experiences of false expectations of being a team. When team building with people who have experienced the perception of a “team” without the direct and vulnerability-based trust, there’s a brokenness to be overcome.

What have your experiences been? What, for you, has been the most challenging hurdle to becoming a trust-filled team in ministry? 

What Fitness Centers Can Teach Us About Parish Life

Fitness Classes
Flickr: Nottingham Trent Univ., CC by-ND-NC 2.0

From YMCAs to PlanetFitness to the latest CrossFit outpost in your local strip mall, gyms and fitness centers are an ubiquitous part of most American communities. The rise and fall of certain models can give us insight into factors we ought to consider when designing parish life experiences that foster moments pre-evangelization and evangelization.

Let’s first think about a large, full-service fitness center–like a YMCA.

Why do people go? Because it’s available nearly all the time and has nearly everything they’d want. A one-stop shop for their family. With group classes for both adults and children offered at the same time, as well as drop-in individual opportunities for fun, it’s designed for families to use together. While you may simply come for the pool, the hope is that someday you’ll see that sign for a yoga class and give it a try–because it’s there, because it’s accessible.

What can we in parish life learn?

  • Appealing to and serving entire families is a win. Whether of strong faith in Jesus Christ or no faith at all, almost all American families today desire to spend more time together. Places where adults and children can flourish, together, are sought after.
  • A mix of both structured/scheduled events and generous time to simply be and be around one another is a powerful combination.
  • A church large enough to be open nearly all the time, as a place to seek the spiritual–both as individuals and in groups–can reach a large number of people. Think of the beckoning of the bells on a campus with a religious community, people don’t need to dive into the deepest spiritual practices right away, but by simply being around, they’ll hear those “bells” and someday try it out.

What about an upstart, like Orangetheory Fitness?

Orangetheory Fitness takes a different approach from a large, full-service fitness center, instead offering a specific type of workout–interval training. The entire gym is setup to support this one method of fitness training. Yet, it’s a method suitable for everyone, at any level. The emphasis is on progress and immediate feedback, “relative to each user’s fitness level, making it accessible to a broad audience” (Tanya Hall, Inc.).

What can we learn?

  • Positive feedback isn’t just fluff–it plays a vital role in motivating and encouraging people, regardless of their “level” of expertise/experience. This means that both new and mature members of a church community need to be valued and encouraged to keep moving forward and deeper in the spiritual life. Putting out the “prayer equipment” is no more of a genuine encouragement than putting out the “fitness equipment”– a personal connection for positive reinforcement matters.
  • Having a clear plan to cultivate the spiritual life matters. When people see the pathway and become aware that they can participate right alongside those who’ve been living it for decades, they become part of the community–not merely onlookers to those “real” or “serious” Christians.

And, that entrepreneurial fitness guru down the street…

Yes, even the independent personal trainer model of a “fitness center” provides insights for parish life. An independent trainer, well he or she likely has a collection of clients and meets with each one at whatever regular intervals (i.e. twice a week, twice a month, etc.) works best for that person. The personal trainer will sometimes go to a big gym with a client, and other times work with them one-on-one with just a few pieces of equipment, at their own studio, miles away from the “pressure” of a gym. The trainer can take on the role of a coach, a consultant, or sometimes an accountability-partner. (h/t Catherine Caimano, “What if the church was more like a gym?”).

What can we learn?

  • Discipling relationships are powerful in the life of a Christian. No matter how great the YMCA or Orangetheory Fitness center, on-going personal connection plays a unique role in spiritual growth and transformation.
  • A personal (or small group) fitness trainer takes a lot of commitment, so it’s not right for every stage and season of life–but to reach certain goals, learn a new skill, or build a habit that requires accountability, it’s often the only way (and indeed a very Biblical model).
  • Many will inherently assume they’re “not ready” or “not right” for a discipling relationship, but the reality is that we can all benefit from these authentic and loving relationships.

Which model is best?

None. It’s about your parish community and setting for mission. It’s about the resources, natural strengths, and stories present in your parish life. The point is to have a vision. Know what you’ve got inklings of, take it, and run with it. Grow it. Think about the different touch points within your community, what would attract an unchurched person to join in–and even flourish in your parish? While the missionary task before us is ultimately more important than what goes on in any fitness center 🙂 we can strive to learn lessons about what keeps people coming (and coming back) to this common fixture in American life.