Pre-Evangelization Inklings: Tough Mudder

Why would anyone pay to go through messy, physically demanding obstacle courses and “comically extreme” challenges (Fast Company, Jun 2017)?

Indeed. Why?

From Tough Mudder CEO, Will Dean, it’s got something to do with ritual and community.  As he explains, Tough Mudder events,

“are the pilgrimage, the big, annual festivals, like Christmas and Easter, if you use Christianity as an example. But then we also have the gym, which becomes the local church, the community gathering hub. You have the media, which is a little like praying. Then there’s the apparel, which is a little like wearing your cross or your head scarf or any other form of religious apparel.”

Together, this creates a social experience with a profound “shared sense of purpose,” that many in our North American culture lack in our day-to-day lives. Coming together to achieve a common goal is essential. Many Tough Mudder obstacles simply cannot be completed without receiving help and/or helping others through.

This experience of common effort and shared victory is indeed counter-cultural. Will Dean recounts a triathlon where, “he needed help pulling down the back zipper of his wet suit as he transitioned from swimming to cycling” and “asked fellow racers for help and was stunned when no one offered any: They didn’t want to add precious seconds to their time.” This is what life, and even church life can seem like for many today. An inherent world of competition or self-interest, rather than a world that is gift, a world with others give selflessly, expecting nothing in return.

The success of the Tough Mudder company reveals that it’s quite possible to gather and attract people by offering shared experience of gift and giving, ritual rhythms of life, and community doing the difficult–together. These are longings our culture produces. The question for us is, how can our ministries and parishes connect these desires to the reality of Christian discipleship? Share your thoughts and experiences!

Tough Mudder
Image by zapmole756 via Flickr, CC-BY-NC-2.0

 

Alpha Recipe Deep Dive: Meal and Conversation

Don’t mess with the Alpha recipe. 

If you’re gearing up to run Alpha, I hope you’ve heard that message. It’s an important one. Don’t tinker with the Alpha recipe. Don’t think that your situation is “special” and people don’t need open conversation, time for a meal, or shallow-entry music, etc.

But why? What’s so special about a meal? About open conversation without “teaching”?

  • A meal is hospitality, plain and simple: whether catered or home-cooked it’s giving of one’s own resources to others, requiring nothing in return.
  • For many in the U.S., meals are inconvenient…a burden of time and coordination that seems a bridge too far for many or an implied pressure. By providing this, we’re giving nourishment beyond the physical.
  • A meal and conversation is credibility…it’s saying I’m willing to sacrifice time (something of peak value in our culture!) to simply be with you.
  • It’s face-to-face. It’s a level playing field. Many people, due to past hurts and barriers, will never experience the sanctuary or Mass this way [at least at first!]
  • Teaching says, “I know” (and you don’t). Conversation says, all of our experiences matter. And this isn’t fake. To God, all of our experiences do matter. God wants to gather up and redeem them all in Him!
Dinner party table decoration
by Elin via Flickr (https://flic.kr/p/8ZFQAR)

Peter and Paul: Conversion Models

Today we celebrate two great missionaries–Peter and Paul. Often when we talk about conversion in the Christian life, there can be almost a rivalry between the idea of our life-changing conversion as a particular moment (i.e. I remember  on such-and-such date, praying to Jesus with my whole heart and soul, for the first time, telling Him I was ready to be his disciple) or a process that happens over time in a way that we can’t really pinpoint a date or even month when it happened. A “this” or “that competition between moment and process, however, is plain ridiculous. But, it’s a temptation we Christians seem to be prone to!

The lives of Peter and Paul give us examples of both.

When the divine voice speaks to Paul in Acts Ch 9, Paul responds, “who are you?”

Now, Paul had never been on a “quest” for God. He may have been like many of us, raised up in a religious setting (for him the Pharisee revival within Judaism), always remembering praying, worshiping in Temple, etc. Yet, at this moment he hears God speak through his Son, and asks who are you? Paul knew the voice of God enough (from his life of prayer) to know this was God–and yet still had this new question, who are you?

Paul remembers this specific date and time. He speaks of it again and again to others. It’s a touch point for him. A concrete, real experience of conversion that gives his life a new and definitive trajectory that he doesn’t waver from. Paul gains a sense of his specific calling and mission, and an understanding of where God’s plan is headed, that God will be gathering the scattered of all the earth–even the Gentiles!–into one family.

Looking at Peter’s life, we see more of a process of conversion into God’s plan for us to be missionary disciples to all the world. Peter encounters Jesus, recognizes his own unworthiness, and follows Jesus as Lord early on (Lk 5:1-11). Later, Peter stands out among the Twelve, making a clear confession of Jesus as Messiah–the Savior sent of God (Mt 16:16). Yet, Peter falters from his discipleship, strays from following Jesus most profoundly in this three denials leading up to Jesus’ saving death on the cross. Peter repents and returns to Jesus’ love, however, and through this on-going process of conversion starts to grasp the breadth and depth of truly missionary discipleship. Of how far God’s love is meant to go. Of the Twelve, Peter is the one who hears God’s communication of how non-Jews are to become part of God’s family. While praying before lunch one day, Peter hears a divine voice say: “What God has made clean, you are not to call profane” (Acts 10:15).  And he doesn’t know what to make of it. But, as Peter continues to follow the Holy Spirit’s lead, it becomes clear. God’s plan is for a radically open discipleship that can even include the “unclean” Gentiles! Peter goes on to passionately advocate for this stance of missionary discipleship between the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). And yet, Peter pulls back from this missionary discipleship later on, as we hear from Paul that Peter “began to draw back and separate himself” from Gentiles (Gal 2:12). Nonetheless, Peter recovers. Again 🙂 and goes on to participate in God’s mission fully, even to the point of giving his own life. Peter offers us a vivid and authentic portrait of conversion as a process.

The important thing for Peter, for Paul, and for each of us, is that our conversion to becoming a disciple of Christ happen. And that once we follow Jesus as Lord, we become fully open to his Holy Spirit, leading us to be missionary disciples in the world around us. There’s no need to think our conversion more or less “real” than any other believer’s, so long as we know the love of God and know of our relationship with Him and the mission God empowers us for.

Petrus et Paulus
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., cc-by-nc-2.0 via Flickr https://flic.kr/p/4NBuEa

 

Resource Review: “Living as Missionary Disciples”

Have you ever wanted a CliffNotes version of doing evangelization in parish life? Look no further. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) recently released the leadership resource Living as Missionary Disciples, a rich, yet concise, guide to the theological foundations of evangelization that includes a practical framework for understanding the process and fundamental planning questions all of the baptized must ask if we are to participate in renewing the entire Church in North America, and turning from a maintenance to missionary way of life.

What is evangelization all about in our modern American setting?

“The New Evangelization is a call for all of us to have a deeper encounter with Christ, best expressed in a simple, confident, informed, and joyous witness to the faith, which attracts others and invites them to wonder what secret is motivating the Christian disciple” (p. 7).

The necessary first step is encounter. Our faith journeys take many forms and routes. Each of us proceeds at various “speeds” throughout our life–sometimes drifting or disinterested, sometimes feeling like we’re stalled, and other times on fire with zeal. But whatever our journey, a moment of personal encounter with Jesus as Lord and Savior must happen. And that encounter propels the rest, grounds us throughout all else that follows as a believer becomes a disciple, and a disciple becomes a missionary–one who is sent into the world.

The heart of being sent in this way is captured succinctly in our quote above–sending has been effective when others are attracted and wonder what that something is that makes the Christian believer tick. If what we think is encounter is parish life is not producing that authentically confident and joyful “witness to the faith” that does indeed “attract” and inspire curiosity, then we should wonder what’s going wrong. We should wonder God might be calling us to do, to participate in transforming our parishes from maintenance to mission.

catechetical-sunday-2017-clip-art-web-posterThe Good News is that Jesus is our Friend and Brother, always welcoming each of us when we choose to “come and see” (Jn 1:46). When we encounter Him we are empowered to follow (Mt 9:9), remain (Jn 15:4), and go on to make disciples of others (Mt 28:19).

What Living as Missionary Disciples succeeds in keeping at the forefront is that, “the goal of the New Evangelization…is always geared toward others” (p. 8). If there’s no outward flow, we should be concerned. The New Evangelization is not merely a spiritual reality–something interior that fails to impact the material world around us. No, our evangelized, transformed lives are meant to provoke curiosity and inspire desire for more in others.

If you’re not enthusiastically certain that your parish is setting the conditions for truly living as missionary disciples in our world, start the conversation this summer. Share Living as Missionary Disciples, and if you’re a leader in any way, shape, or form, check out these worksheets to spur discussion with key volunteers. The movement from maintenance to mission in your part of the world might begin with your parish.

Is Your “Church” the Same Age as Your “Parish”?

Torrance CA
What’s the average age of those attending your church?

Is it the same as the average age within your parish ? (Remember, a parish is generally a geographic area–it’s not simply those who attend, but all within a designated area. Think of it as your pre-defined mission field!)

If not, what do you make of this divergence between “registered” or “attending” parishioners and the rest of the parish? For example:

  • Is it good for church attendees to be demographically quite different from those in their surrounding neighborhoods?
  • Is the difference a cause for alarm?
  • Does it evoke a response of hopefulness and opportunity, or defensiveness and fait accompli?

Lee Kricher suggests some basic steps if your registered parishioners are aging way faster than the rest of your geographic parish (and, these would also be useful if, say, your Mass attendees are ethnically, racially, or linguistically different than your parish neighborhoods):

  • Take key staff or lay leaders on “field trips” to healthy churches that have every generation well represented
  • Regularly weave into weekend messages the importance of reaching the next generation
  • Proactively engage church members in one-on-one discussions and conversations in small groups about the importance of becoming agents of change instead of blockers of change
  • Make a commitment to develop young leaders [paraphrase]

What have you seen work (or not work) in terms of practices and spirituality as your church has adapted to and with the parish area surrounding it?

An Irrelevant Parish Isn’t Thriving

Would the community be impacted if your parish ceased to exist?
Would there be a decline in concrete acts of love?
Would fewer people experience transformed lives in the power of the Risen Lord?

There’s no such thing as a functional, yet irrelevant parish. It’s not okay to be a parish or church that’s extraordinary at providing “spiritual food” for insiders, yet is irrelevant to the world at large, to the mostly secular community around it.

How do any of our parishes or ministries become a place that’s an island without bridges to the world around us? In Good Faith, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons offer some insights relevant to all churches:

First, “irrelevance happens when your interests and someone else’s don’t overlap…the other person may admire your passion but cannot related to it” (p. 26). This is what being a disciple of Jesus Christ is like for most of our secular friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers. Christians (at best) come across as passionate in a way that can be admired, but it’s simply a compartmentalized passion others see–there’s no sense of overlap. This overlapping area is what in Catholic language we’d call pre-evangelizationintentionally following bridges of trust to connect a person’s lived experience and values with who God truly is. 

How important is pre-evangelization? Kinnaman and Lyons data analysis suggests that 30% of Americans are “practicing Christians,” meaning they attend church once a month, and this attendance overflows into their lives–it’s not just a cultural identifier. On the other hand, 75% of Americans are “legacy Christians,” meaning “Christianity is background noise” a “muscle memory” of practices that are now “just part of a landscape, not guiding priorities” (p. 27). For these “Legacy Christians,” genuine Christianity is experienced as irrelevant. 

I think for most of us in 21st century America, we should assume (unless overwhelming evidence to the contrary presents itself) that most of the people in our “mission fields,” our local communities find Christianity benignly irrelevant. This is a paradigm shift away from an “if we build it, they will come” mentality that expects people to become interested in Jesus and show up at our door, ready to speak our language and do what we suggest.

Where are you in this paradigm shift? A thriving parish that’s irrelevant, isn’t truly thriving. God offers us so much more. Jesus makes us His Body, his co-workers, and shares His mission of reconciliation, of healing, of teaching, and more–with the entire world. In what ways are you and your parish called to be more?  

 

What’s Your Acts 17? Inspiration from Bishop Barron

I love the account of Paul speaking at Mars Hill in Athens in Acts 17. While pre-evangelization includes witness without words, we’re often called to converse or speak in the midst of pre-evangelization, and Paul’s speech is verbal pre-evangelization at its finest:

  • identifying shared values
  • using evidence/examples from the audience’s [in this case secular] perspective (that’s right, so Paul, a trained Pharisee doesn’t even quote the Old Testament!)
  • avoiding stumbling blocks too early on in the relationship, i.e. while Paul talks about Jesus, he does not use terms that would cause pagan-defensiveness (like the name of Jesus)
  • inspiring curiosity, rather than giving answers

What does Acts 17 look like today, in our culture?

Check out this fantastic example from Bishop Robert Barron, as he heads over to the Rubin Report for an unscripted interview:

rubinreport-740x465

The reactions captured by Brandon Vogt highlight how much this is indeed an Acts 17 example in our modern world. Remember the aftermath of Paul’s speech:

When they heard about resurrection of the dead, some began to scoff, but others said, “We should like to hear you on this some other time.” And so Paul left them. But some did join him, and became believers. Among them were Dionysius, a member of the Court of the Areopagus, a woman named Damaris, and others with them. (Acts 17:32-34)