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:


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)

10 Years Later. Still a Gem.

Musings on ordinary Catholic culture, from Sherry Weddell…10 years later, and this tongue-in-check writing from real-life mission work is still a gem:

When it comes to talking about eternal things. Jesus. Holiness. And more…we have:

Widespread discomfort with “conspicuous conversion”…Sometimes referred to as “enthusiasm” or “pietism” or “Protestant”.

A don’t ask, don’t tell [culture] because that’s what you do when we are all saved and we’ve all earned it–but none of us are saints because that wouldn’t be humble.

Because, “we’re all saved and we’ve all earned it, but none of us are saints because that wouldn’t be humble.”

Here’s the full post (from the Catherine of Sienna Institute’s not-currently-available blog site): 

We Are All Saved and We Have All Earned It But None of Us Are Saints Because That Wouldn’t Be Humble.

10 years of nearly continuous travel from parish to parish and thousands of personal interviews have given us a fairly good sense of typical ordinary-Catholic-in-the-pew’s worldview regarding intentional discipleship and our ultimate salvation — at leastKristin Thiel Embarassed among Anglo laity in the US.

(The worldview of the clergy is naturally very different but many clergy share in the assumptions described here in surprising ways. Priests are remarkably like human beings in this regard.)

The American church is huge and very complicated, so the culture I am about to describe would not include those groups of Catholics heavily influenced by evangelicalism (such as in the deep south), the charismatic renewal, traditionalism, lay movements or third orders, parishes that regularly do evangelism, groups with a strong social justice orientation or Catholics in “hotbed institutions” like Catholic universities or seminaries. Neither would this describe Hispanic Catholics, Vietnamese Catholics, etc.

The worldview I’m describing is common among ordinary-Anglo-cradle-Catholic-laypeople in ordinary parishes in the west coast, midwest, high plains, intermountain west and east coast.

Caveat: I am writing in a hurry and my tongue is rather firmly in my check. But I am also really describing attitudes what we have encountered over and over again in the field. There are remarkable exceptions everywhere but there is also, in our experience, a startling consistency across dioceses and regions.

The major premises could be summarized as follows:

We are all saved and we’ve all earned it but none of us are saints because that wouldn’t be humble.

A fascinating, if unlikely, mixture of practical universalism, Pelagianism, and work-a-day Catholic humility seems to have been absorbed by Catholics across the country.This homespun version of universalism runs something like this: *Decent* people are automatically saved because of their decency, and almost everyone is essentially decent or at least means well, which is basically the same thing as being decent. God would never condemn a decent person. Salvation is pretty much yours to lose and you can only do so by intentionally doing something really, really, not decent like mass murder and then not saying you are sorry.

Pelagianism was an early 5th century heresy that held that original sin did not taint our human nature and that human beings are still capable of choosing good or evil without God’s grace. Pelagius taught that human beings could achieve the highest levels of virtue by the exercise of their own will.

The contemporary American version holds that human beings can attain acceptable levels of *decency* by their own efforts. We earn our salvation by not doing the really, really bad things we could do if we chose. In real life, it is pretty close to impossible for most people not to attain the minimum decency requirement. (See caveat above).

Since basic decency suffices for salvation, holiness is completely optional, and is the spiritual equivalent of extreme sports. Authentic, salt-of-the-earth ordinary Catholics are appropriately humble and know their spiritual place. They do not pretend to be something they are not (see point #2 below).

Note: the role of Christ and his Paschal mystery in this view of salvation is extremely obscure.

There are two basic Catholic “tracks”:

a) The “ordinary Catholic track” which includes 99% of us. Your parents put you on this track by having you baptized as a baby. This track can be divided further into 1) “good” or practicing ordinary Catholics; 2) “bad” or non-practicing ordinary Catholics; and 3) pious ordinary Catholics.All ordinary Catholics, good, bad, or pious, are saved through their essential *decency* or meaning well and nor screwing up horribly. (see #1 above). God does give extra credit for visible devotion or piety.

b) The “extraordinary Catholic track”: priests, religious, and saints (.1%).

God plucks a few people out of Track “a” and places them on track “b”. That is what the Church means by having a vocation.

Priests and religious are also saved by being decent but the standard of decency is a bit more rigorous for them because they can’t have sex.

Sanctity is reserved for the uber-elite: When someone becomes a saint, it is the mysterious result of spiritual genius or an act of God and is not expected of or related to salvation for “ordinary” Catholics (see #1), because God decreed they should be on a different track. Authentic, salt-of-the-earth ordinary Catholics are appropriately humble and know their spiritual place.

c) There is no “disciple on the way” track. When many Catholics hear the phrase “intentional disciple”, they immediately think of the only known alternative to the “ordinary Catholic” track in their lexicon, which is that of the saint and is supposed to be reserved for the uber-elite. They naturally presume that the aspirant to discipleship is pretending to have been plucked out of the ordinary track by God and is, therefore, an arrogant elitist (see #1 above).

Corollary A: Widespread discomfort with “conspicuous conversion” because it violates #1 and #2. Sometimes referred to as “enthusiasm” or “pietism” or “Protestant”.

Corollary B: don’t ask, don’t tell because that’s what you do when we are all saved and we’ve all earned it–but none of us are saints because that wouldn’t be humble.

Christian Unity: The Old, New Evangelization

Our opportunities to learn from the experiences of fellow Christians is certainly not limited to our present day and age. For me, some of the most inspiring testimony to the possibilities of evangelization that is new comes from the work of John and Charles Wesley in 18th c. England.

John Wesley Preaching Outdoors

Charles and John Wesley were ordained in eighteenth century England, a time when the sacrament of Holy Communion was often regarded with indifference or neglect. Church historian John Bowmer remarks that the sacraments and Christian life were widely disparaged in this “new age of reason,” and most people in the Church of England aimed for the minimums of religious practice”receiving the Eucharist three times a year and treating it as an historic custom, rather than encounter with the living God.

Unsurprisingly, most in the Church of England were not looking outward to form disciples or share the Gospel. In fact, many clergy and laity in the Church of England believed that England’s growing urban masses were beyond influence and simply had “no taste” for Christian liturgy and sacraments. Christianity was on its way to becoming a fruitless cultural niche.

So what did the Wesley brothers do in their setting of indifference and perceived divisions? Read more here…

Driving the Good News

A few weeks ago I pondered some images for what some of the distortions of the Good News look like for many adult Catholics–including those who are the special love of the New Evangelization, those who have lost a living sense of the faith.

For some, practicing religion is like pushing a sub-compact car around–yes, you can do it, but it’s all about your work, no help from the car. For others, it’s like driving a hideously ugly car around–it runs, but there’s nothing good about it to share with anyone. And for still others, being Catholic is like comfortably riding around in a sedan–it’s the best car around, but still not much to say about it–other than it’s a car, and if you like nondescript reliable cars, it’s a good one to ride in.

So if all of these images represent a distortion of the Christian faith, then what should the Good News of following Jesus be like for believers?

First off, the Gospel is a game-changer. The old game is over. Ended. The score’s been forgotten. A new reality with new parameters and a new destination has begun. Even if a person doesn’t acknowledge this new game, it’s still happened.

Our celebration of Christmas is a unique reminder of this. The chant of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ before Vigil masses emphasizes that God took on human flesh at a precise moment in history. It happened. It’s a different world–a new “game,” to use a common image.

800px-luminos_main_pictureAs followers of Jesus Christ, we’re not even driving combustion-engine automobiles as we know them. We’re not stuck with some car while we wait for the good and different things of heaven. God has already begun sharing with us a new way, a vehicle that’s radically different (think of the ubiquitous pop-culture futuristic vision of a flying car–that different). And this vehicle is transformative. Jesus is the first fruit of this transformation, and we in the car are transformed by Him.

But that’s not all, the reality of this new, radically different car moving about transforms the world around it. The future becomes now as we experience God’s power. Because we get to cooperate with God in this amazing car, we experience a sliver of God’s love, longings, and yearnings for the world–and we too start to yearn for the fullness of creation–when this amazing new car is no longer a sign, but normal.

This is what God gives us in the life of faith. Not a car we have to throw all of our own weight behind to push around, not an ugly whale of a car that turns people away, and not even the best reliable sedan on the road–but something utterly different. Something groundbreaking. Something that defies every one of our essentially (in our humanness) limited notions of what love and goodness are–by going further, by being Love.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. 

In these words of faith, we see the Good News: past, present, and future.

The Good News has happened. The Word, the Divine reason of all Creation, became human. The universe is different, as we now live in the power of the Risen Christ, being transformed and transforming. And, we know that we’re tasting the future. We sense the future enough to yearn for it. We’re not just riding around in a car hoping for the salvation of our own soul that removes us from God’s good creation, but instead cooperating with God, confident that in his Final Coming at the end of all human time, perfect justice and perfect grace meet–just as they did on the Cross (Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 42, 44).

Why does this matter? Isn’t good enough for us Christians to just say, “believe and live like us so that we can escape from this world and be with God in heaven!” or “come drive this best, most reliable car with me!” I think no. It’s a start, but it’s still a distortion from the fullness of Revelation in Christ Jesus. And in a world where pre-evangelization matters, it keeps “religion” in a box. “Religion” ends up being about me, God, and the afterlife–period. We know that the world longs for something different. God has written on the hearts of humans a desire for both love and justice. Many today look around and know that something is wrong (and that’s always been the case!). The Good News of Jesus Christ is that God’s taken care of that something, and we can start experiencing God’s radical new, transformed and transforming, reality, right now.



Unique “Goods” of the “Good News”: The Baptized Audience of the New Evangelization

Mission to places “where entire groups of the baptized have lost a living sense of the faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church, and live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel” is a defining aspect of the call to a New Evangelization, spoken of by Popes for over three decades (Redemptoris Missio, 33). While we often speak broadly of the people we are sent to in this mission field–our friends, neighbors, family, co-workers, and acquaintances among them–there’s indeed a tremendously diverse spectrum of “lost” and “sense of the faith.”

Bishop Robert Barron, summarizing one of his professors, Msgr. Robert Sokolowski, observes:

with the rise of Protestantism and modernity, an integrated Catholicism blew up and its twisted pieces now litter the contemporary intellectual landscape. As I survey today’s cultural scene, I often think of Sokolowski’s observation: one can see Catholicism everywhere, but often in odd and distorted form

These “odd and distorted” forms are in many cases the why and the what of a lost sense of the living faith. People lose a living sense of the faith because they only perceive or experience an odd or distorted notion of it. On a secondary level, as a person goes through the process of losing faith (even if an odd and distorted set of beliefs) the people around them are not likely to reach out to them with the true, radically Good News that grounds and founds the fullness of the meaning of Jesus Christ and his call to follow him as disciples, if those people also have an odd or distorted sliver of the Good News.

Curtis Martin of FOCUS ministries often recalls that when asking Catholic young adults, “How’s that Catholic thing going for ya?” the overwhelming response was, “This Catholic thing is really tough!” I heard Martin speak a few months ago at my own Diocese of Lansing’s Called By Name Assembly and he explained further, that for many young adults, it was as if the deposit of faith was like a shinny, new, fully accessorized SUV. They could get in it, and maybe even coast a little down hills. It was so much that could seem so good.

As a Millennial myself, I think this makes sense for many in my generation. We’ve never had a strongly enforced cultural/institutional religion to rebel against (as many Baby Boomers seemed to). We certainly have lived in a world where a crumbling idea of the common good and various social compacts has contributed to human suffering. We’re caricatured sometimes as “non-committal,” yet the flip-side of that is openness, curiosity, and a willingness to explore new beliefs and ways of living. In short, the image of being behind the wheel of a brand new SUV works for the experience of many emerging young adults when it comes to encountering Catholicism as an adult.

However, here’s where the problem comes. At some point, that downhill incline ends. Rolling along in this great SUV comes to a halt. The driver has to get out, and start to push that SUV–maybe even up a hill, maybe push just to keep it from rolling backwards! In Martin’s words, this is because the driver had never been given keys to the ignition. Even the shiniest car can become a burden when the engine’s not running. A SUV without a running engine is a distortion of what a vehicle is meant to do.

So, what of other situations, especially in non-Millennial generations? There’s as much diversity within generations as between, but here are some adaptations of Martin’s SUV metaphor to describe some of the incomplete or distorted notions I’ve observed while while teaching Catholic adults:

  1. Pushing a lightweight sub-compact around. This person is in shape. They’ve been pushing around a lightweight sub-compact car for years. They can make the car move, and that’s good, because in their mind, you gotta do the moving to get to heaven. Most everyone around them is moving too–no matter what they’re driving (or walking, or biking). Except for those few maniacs who deliberately wreck their vehicle in spectacular ways (think mass murderers). Everyone’s pretty much earning heaven by being a basically good, moral, and civic-minded person. And they stop and think about it, “heaven” isn’t even really the point, it’s being a good person now that matters.
  2. Driving a hideously ugly car. This person is aware of how hideously ugly their car is. In fact, that’s kind of what makes it the right car to be driving. They put keys in the ignition and drive this ugly whale of a car around as if under daily orders to do so. Because the car is just so ugly and clunky, they assume the car’s manufacturer is like a rigid military commander–out to “catch” them not following orders if they don’t drive. They worry that even by following the car manufacturer’s orders, they’ll never please him. But, they drive on nonetheless, because Hell is awful and any driver turning the ignition key could accidentally end up there. You can never tell with car manufacturers.
  3. Cruising in a reliable sedan. This person loves their sedan. The values. The smell. The familiar dashboard. The owner’s manual in the glove compartment. The eternal reliability. The way other sedan drivers behave on the road. Yeah, maybe things were better when more people drove sedans, but nonetheless, the sedan is still the the only car that’s got it all. This person is exited to learn more and more about their sedan, even tips to show off the best of the interior design. They’d welcome anyone who wanted to take a ride, but that doesn’t happen very often because the invitation, “Sedan driving has the best sedan-values and best sedan rewards program” doesn’t seem to attract many passengers.

Now, all of these are metaphorical caricatures–all images “limp” at some point (as Barbara Morgan so often notes in her talks) and when it comes to evangelization of any type, “never accept, a label in place of a story” (Sherry Weddell). But, if these sketches ring a bell for you in terms of naming the wide range of the “baptized” that are an audience of the New Evangelization, I encourage you to dig deeper in your own setting. My list is not exhaustive, and may not fit your setting at all.

Really think about the audiences of baptized you’re trying to reach–what makes each unique? What unique theological affinities or distortions might each be prone to? What connects each group to the Church to begin with at this point in their lives? This process of imagining the baptized “lost” in your mission field (i.e. one example from Church of the Nativity) paves the way for being able to not only “smell like the sheep” (as Pope Francis exhorts pastors) but think like the sheep, and only then design your strategy accordingly. As Jonathan Sullivan has explained, there’s no such thing as “average” catechesis. And the same goes for the New Evangelization, especially when it comes to the audience of the baptized.

ancient symbol of baptism. unique + uniquely weathered. image source @ceasol (Flickr) CC BY-SA 2.0



An Alpha Must: Pre-Evangelization

When something becomes popular, there’s a tendency to focus on the “brand” or the “name” rather than the essentials that make it what it is.

Last week, I was blessed to attend the Diocese of Lansing’s Called By Name Assembly. A theme uniting speakers and our table discussions was the importance of pre-evangelization, that initial proclamation of God’s saving plan doesn’t happen in some sterile vacuum. It happens between individuals, usually people who are acquainted with each other, and always people who trust each other enough to be a little bit vulnerable, be a little more open than our unfriendly culture encourages–and, just a little bit more loving.


Of all the popular “on-ramps” into the Christian life or “processes that foster conditions for conversion” (as we might call these in a generic sense), I think Alpha embodies the heartiest dose of pre-evangelization principles. Pre-evangelization is a core part of Alpha. Cut out the pre-evangelization (because you don’t think you need it, don’t have the time, etc.) and turn it into a catechetical program, and you’re all good, right? Wrong.

If you’re a little bit uneasy, wondering if your Alpha (or plans for running an Alpha) are turning into straight up initial proclamation of the Gospel in a vacuum or catechesis, then I highly encourage you to listen to an absolutely fantastic 3-part podcast from St. Benedict’s Parish in Halifax, Nova Scotia called “How to Kill Alpha in 10 Easy Steps” (it’s episodes 10, 11, and 12 here). The heart of the 10 steps all comes back to ignoring the importance of pre-evangelization, of belonging, of experiencing authentic human life and values as part of the “normal” life of the Body of Christ, as the vast ocean in which any and all proclamation of the Gospel must occur.