Beyond Fans and Followers

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a popular sermon title

Are you a fan or a follower? Quite a few Christian preachers and teachers (including Catholic ones) have used these images as the basis for helping us move beyond merely liking Jesus, to actually following Him. And that’s a good thing. But one particular passage of Scripture gives us unique insight into precisely what kind of followers God desires us to be.

Coming back into Jewish territory after performing powerful deeds among the Gentiles, Jesus is surrounded by a crowd. So surrounded, he actually stays right by the sea, where he’d come across by boat (Mark 5:21). Jesus heads off to respond to the desperate pleas of Jairus, a synagogue official whose daughter is gravely ill. At this point, we see that this isn’t just a crowd of fans, they are followers (vs. 24). They follow Jesus and even press in upon him! Yet during this movement, a woman from within the band of followers makes her way up to Jesus–and touches his garment (vs. 27).

Just imagine the scene, how difficult it would have been for this one follower to push her way through an in-motion crowd of followers, to get to one person–Jesus–the person the entire group was following. Physically, it’d be tough to follow Jesus directly from among this moving crowd. But this woman also suffered from hemorrhaging bleeding. She wasn’t even physically well. On top of this, to the rest of the Jewish followers, she would have been considered ritually impure or unclean for having this medical condition. They would not want her near them at all, lest any of them be “infected” by her impurity. Imagine the disapproving looks, or even those who use their bags, cloaks, or walking sticks to keep her back. And yet, she makes it to Jesus!

None of us aims to be just a fan of Jesus. We want to be followers. But following is complex, why? Because we’re inevitably part of a crowd, part of a community–we have to interact with others, get close to them, and follow Jesus together. In church life, it’s possible to happily exist among the crowd of followers, but never make that decisive move to reach out to Jesus with the faith that He can heal, forgive, or transform whatever it is in our own life.

Why do we stay passive as followers? Maybe it’s our own pride, we struggle to admit that we can’t do it on our own, we can’t earn our way to heaven, we need Jesus to heal us personally. Or maybe it’s that we want to appear “normal”–not “too Christian” or “too holy” for a “regular parish” (whatever that is!). Maybe we’re comfortable as a follower, just moving along with the crowd, and don’t think Jesus would respond to us; we don’t want to “bother” Jesus by touching his cloak.

This woman is saved by her faith. She leaves in peace, cured, and called daughter by Jesus.

This is what awaits any one of us, any person who comes to Jesus in faith. God does not reject any one who comes to Him.

Don’t just follow. Be transformed by the power of Jesus.

a version of this post also appears at http://www.newevangelizers.com

Vision in a Homily

So your parish has a vision, and maybe even a catchy vision statement–now what?

Vision that’s not communicated broadly falls flat. Because the point of vision is that it guides everyone. Not just the elite. Not just leaders. Everyone.

VISION
How to communicate broadly in a Catholic parish?
The Sunday Homily.

I can hear the mental excuses now. All the reasons why your parish can’t communicate vision in homilies, how the people won’t like it, how it can’t be planned, there’s not enough time, etc. But, none of the excuses override the critical importance of preaching the vision, frequently and repeatedly, to the broadest parish audience.

As Fr. James Mallon, author of Divine Renovation and The Divine Renovation Guidebook, explains:

I remember catching myself saying once, ‘But I spoke about that in a homily last year.’ It is foolish for us preachers to think that most parishioners are going to remember something we said two weeks before, never mind a year before. In truth, if the sign on the bus is to be plainly recognized, we must speak about vision over and over again. In the last three years, I have committed myself to preaching some form of visioning homily at all the weekend Masses every three weeks. I am convinced that this is necessary (Divine Renovation, 255).

Sometimes it can be tempting to think, it’s in the bulletin right? We’ve got a sign up? The staff knows? It’s on the website? But that’s not enough, “there are no shortcuts when it comes to communicating vision: it takes time and intentionality” (DR Guidebook, 60).

Let’s start with the practical: what is a visioning homily?

  • not simply information, but the inspiration and motivation “to desire that preferred future and be wiling to make the changes necessary” (DR Guidebook, 60)
  • “A homily that attempts, in some way, to address the question of why are we here, where are we going and why we do the things we do, or are trying to do the things we are trying to do” (DR Guidebook, 62)
  • “Preaching about the mission of the Church and the future of your parish in a way that all your parishioners can hear and understand” (DR Guidebook, 62)

Does it really need to be repeated so often?

Answer: Yes. Here’s why: “If a parish is becoming truly missional and is innovating, there will be ongoing change within the parish. Change must always be explained in light of the vision” (Divine Renovation, 256). Most people don’t love change. By communicating the vision frequently (as Fr. James Mallon does, roughly every 3 weeks) the parish helps each and every person know and understand how concrete changes and decisions fit into the big picture, and help guide the efforts.

Okay, I’m ready. But what goes into a visioning homily?

Drawing from Divine Renovation (pg. 256-257), here are the key elements in a visioning homily, with examples from a visioning homily (Groundbreaking 05: Vision, April 24, 2016) at Church of the Nativity in Timonium, MD.

  • Answer: why are we here? Remind the listeners why the parish exists, what God has called you to, what your mission is. For Church of the Nativity, it’s growing disciples while growing as disciples. This gets mentioned twice in the first four minutes (at 1:50-2:08 and 3:50-4:04).
  • Name: what’s not right at the gut level. Scratch the point of dissatisfaction that people are experiencing. Help everyone feel the need. For Church of the Nativity, it’s that it’s “hard to invite people to come people to church when there’s no place to park and no place to sit” (4:30-4:45). This is something tangible. Lots of people in the parish may have experienced this…tentatively thinking about inviting a friend to Mass, but wary of doing so because of the seemingly crowded experience.
  • Explain: why the current situation or past models won’t work. This might include some transparency or vulnerability. Or showing how the parish has “done its homework” in trying to address the point of dissatisfaction in the past. Aim to be clear and honest about how a particular [old] way of doing things isn’t working, but without blaming people, staff, specific groups, etc. Since Church of the Nativity is addressing how to accommodate growth, the leaders share what they’ve done in the past or tried (different times, off-campus sites, etc), and how these solutions don’t effectively lead toward the parish’s vision (1:00-1:22).
  • Inspire: capture imaginations, invite people to dream. Encourage everyone listening to join in the “imagine if…” for the parish. What could it be? This is a time, not for information, but to make our hearts leap, make even the most change-averse person in the pew have a momentary optimism about the future. In the example from Church of the Nativity, Brian Cook reminds the community of pieces of plywood the parish had “filled with the names of all your friends, family members, co-workers…people you’re praying for, that one day they’ll come to church and meet their Heavenly Father…this project is about making room for them, all of them” (5:30-6:00) and continues to spur the imagination as to the wider significance of the parish’s direction, that “This new building can stand as a hopeful sign that intentional growth is still possible…that God is still using the local church to change lives” (6:10-6:41).
  • Share: the plan for how we’re getting to where we’re going. This part is the most intuitive. We like to talk about what we’re doing. But remember, this is just one of five key elements. Without the other pieces, this part of a visioning homily can quickly become a litany of information, rather than the transformation that’s at the heart of vision and change leadership. Church of the Nativity puts it concisely: it’s about “creating empty seats at optimal times” and that phrase is used at least four times in the 7-minute vision-casting portion of the Sunday message (remember, repetition works!). The “how” is that as the parish responds to the call to “invest your treasure in the Church” this will result in hearts “connected to the Church” and the “growth in faith that comes somewhere outside of your comfort zone.”

A well-crafted visioning homily weaves these elements together, independent threads yet repeated and interrelated. There’s a logical flow from reminding who we are, to identifying and understanding the “situation” (Name & Explain), to inspiring, and only then speaking the plan.

A visioning homily doesn’t need to take a lot of time. While this entire message from Church of the Nativity is “long” (20 minutes in total) by most Catholic standards, the vision casting portion is solidly within the first 7 minutes. Visioning homilies can be done in any Catholic parish on a regular basis.

The other lesson from the Church of the Nativity example is that a parish need not have a singularly incredible, awesome, best-preacher-ever to communicate vision. Brian Cook, Tom Corcoran, and Fr. Michael White (the 3 speakers in the Church of the Nativity message) are ordinary folks, just like you. They stumble on their words (as we all do). It’s not always the most beautiful language. And think about it–if you’re preaching on vision once every three weeks, not every one is going to be your personal best. The point is, they commit. They do it. One doesn’t have to be an especially-gifted dynamic preacher to communicate vision. Check out their book, Rebuilding Your Message (and related podcasts) for practical tips on how any disciple of Jesus Christ can grow as a communicator.

Do you have a great visioning homily to share? Post a link in the Comment section to help us all grow in this essential area of parish ministry.

p.s. Download the “Groundbreaking 05: Vision” example I used here. All vision casting elements are present within the first 7 minutes. I’m not sure how long beyond March 2017 the download will be available, but all key excerpts are in this post–viewing is optional 🙂

Because We Know: A Christmas Kergyma

Because we know what has happened, definitively in history, we can start to act.

Start to bear fruit.

Between The Shadows… Your Singing Light…!!! :)))

Second, third, and fourth fruits…of the Firstfruit, Christ our Lord.

Blossom as signs of He who was born to restore our nature.

Why think less of ourselves?

Humility and blessedness go hand-in-hand. [Just ask Mary, cf. Lk 1:48]

As Peter Chrysologus explained:

The earth was adorned with flowers, groves and fruit; and the constant marvelous variety of lovely living things was created in the air, the fields, and the seas for you, lest sad solitude destroy the joy of God’s new creation.

And the Creator still works to devise things that can add to your glory.

He has made you in his image that you might in your person make the invisible Creator present on earth.

He has made you his legate, so that the vast empire of the world might have the Lord’s representative.

Let us to go to Him, from Him, in Him.

For He comes to us.

Today.

 

Image Credit: Denis Collette (via Flickr), CC BY-ND-ND 2.0

 

Jesus in Your Story

Our eight-day countdown to Christmas begins today—in the fog of a rather long and obscure family tree.

But don’t be dismayed. Don’t skip today’s Gospel reading. The glorious mystery of Jesus’ identity begins to unfold in this genealogy. It starts with the summary in the very first line—Jesus Christ is “son of David, son of Abraham.” To name Jesus as the son of David is to declare that he is God’s own and nothing less than the true king of God’s chosen people, Israel.

But that’s not all. Jesus is also the “son of Abraham”—the heir to Abraham, who responded to God and was blessed to become the founding ancestor of God’s people, Israel. Jesus fulfills God’s covenant with Abraham—because of his obedience, “all the nations of the earth will find blessing.”

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Donald Jackson, Matthew Frontispiece: The Genealogy of Christ
We are being introduced to grand claims about this Jesus. But then Matthew brings it down to our level. The bulk of what follows is dedicated to recounting the human history of Jesus. And it’s not always so high and mighty, predictable and orderly, or even dignified. We hear of Tamar, who disguises herself as a prostitute to seduce her father-in-law; Ruth, a non-Israelite woman who seizes her own destiny by boldly presenting herself to Boaz, a powerful Israelite; and others whose lives are rather messy and oh-so-human.

And this is why the birth of Jesus matters for each of us. Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of everything promised to David and Abraham. Yet not merely in the abstract—he enters the human story in his very own family tree.

Has Jesus entered your story? As we near the culmination of our Advent watch, today is a good time to invite him in. Jesus is ready to take on your past, and remain with us, transforming us, today and always.

See the Gospel text and prayers at: FaithND (where this post originally appeared)

Abundant Life as Sheep

The comfort God gives to us by giving us Jesus his Son as our Shepherd isn’t just some poetic, feel-good pasture scene that goes over well in Vacation Bible School or children’s catechesis. No–it’s a reality with hard-hitting promises and assurances.

John the Evangelist gives us the most detailed look at the relationship between Jesus the Good Shepherd and His sheep in Chapter 10 of his Gospel. The setting and build-up to this moment is intense. The first half of John’s Gospel is devoted to revealing the signs of Jesus, and examining how specific people respond. And it’s been a mixed bag, for sure! Early on, some respond to Jesus with belief–or at least genuine curiosity.

But then, hostility grows to a near-breaking point between Jesus and those who do not believe, those who oppose Jesus and those who profess belief in Him! This comes to a head as Jesus comes to the Temple at Jerusalem for the Feasts of Tabernacles (aka Booths or Sukkot) and Dedication (aka Feast of Maccabees or Hanukkah) and makes clear through symbolic declarations that Jesus is Divine, he is the Son of God, he is with God the Father in the most profound, eternal sense.

What to think?

As many Christian apologists have noted, when someone stands in a public place, on a great religious feast, and declares that he is God, we’ve really only got three logical responses, the person is either a pathological liar, a lunatic, or correct–truly the Lord God.

If you believe that Jesus is indeed the Lord God, well then what?

As today’s Psalm 100 answers:

“We belong to him, we are his people, the flock he shepherds” (vs. 3)

Being a sheep has serious consequences:

Sheep1. Jesus knows our name and calls us by name. We cannot remain anonymous to God. We cannot use our own sinfulness, anxiety, low self-esteem, or secret doubts about ourselves as an excuse as to why we are not “good enough” to be in relationship with God. It’s not about our goodness–we can know Jesus personally because he already knows our name and calls us by name (John 10:3-4).

2. “Whoever enters through me will be saved” (John 10:9). If we remain in God through Jesus, “one can be confident of one’s present salvation” and “by looking at the course of one’s life in grace and the resolution of one’s heart to keep following God, one can also have an assurance of future salvation” (Catholic Answers). Do you have this confidence in your present and future salvation? What doubts are holding you back?

3. “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand” (John 10:28). Now, you might be thinking, “that sounds a bit like some ‘once saved, always saved’ falsehood.” And, the idea that a person’s salvation is guaranteed regardless of anything a person does, regardless of their free will in the future is indeed counter to Christian teaching (and even the most secular understanding of free well). Here’s the difference, though, in our Catholic teachings, confidence in God’s promises and acknowledgement of each individual’s free will coexist, as apologist Tim Staples writes, “our eternal life is contingent upon our choosing to abide in God.” No earthly powers, no other person, no harsh words or judgement from another can cause us to perish–only our free choice to leave Jesus’ flock. As the Church teaches:

There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss. (Catechism of the Catholic Church para 1864)

The only unforgivable sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit…and what does this mean? As Pope Saint John Paul the Great explained, “it consists rather in the refusal to accept the salvation which God offers to man through the Holy Spirit, working through the power of the Cross” (Dominum et Vivifcantem, para. 46). So that’s it–only our free, knowing, and intentional will to reject the power of God’s forgiveness and mercy is what can remove us from God’s hand of love.

4. “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). Does being a sheep bring you a deep joy and comfort? As one apologist noted:

Sometimes Fundamentalists portray Catholics as if they must every moment be in terror of losing their salvation since Catholics recognize that it is possible to lose salvation through mortal sin…But this portrayal is in error. Catholics do not live lives of mortal terror concerning salvation. True, salvation can be lost through mortal sin, but such sins are by nature grave ones, and not the kind that a person living the Christian life is going to slip into committing on the spur of the moment, without deliberate thought and consent. Neither does the Catholic Church teach that one cannot have an assurance of salvation. This is true both of present and future salvation.

And the beauty and fullness of joy is that this salvation is both present and future. We have eternal life that starts now, and stretches into eternity. And this life? It’s more abundantly “life” than anything a life without God’s friendship and Lordship offers.

We are God’s flock. You are (or can be) His Beloved Sheep full of joy and confidence in God’s eternal love and mercy. What’s holding you back? Wherever your heart is, pour it out to God, and ask Him for the blessing of knowing what it means to be a Sheep.

Image Credit: CC BY 2.0 via Flickr user Katriona McCarthy

a version of this post also appears at newevangelizers.com

When to Not Imitate Jesus

As disciples of Jesus, we seek to follow Jesus–to be like him as much as possible while on earth. This conformity to Christ is a foretaste of future glory, when, as John writes, “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

Yet today’s Gospel (Lk 6:6-11) offers an example of Jesus that we can’t follow. Something we shouldn’t imitate or even attempt! Here’s the setting: Jesus is teaching in a synagogue, where a man with a “withered” hand is present. Scribes and Pharisees are watching Jesus closely to see what he will do–will Jesus heal on the sabbath?

Jesus engages in demonstration (healing the man) and careful dialogue with the onlookers. These actions and words are deliberately provocative. Designed to elicit a response. And what kind of response? Well, it could be a response of radical conversion, of a new openness, of definitive life-change. On the other hand, it could be a response of anger, of circling the wagons, of increased frustration or outrage. Jesus indeed takes a situation that could have entrapped him and turns it into a question that “traps” the scribes and Pharisees, “is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?”

As modern day disciples, we could look at this example and think to ourselves, That’s right! I need to think up questions that “trap” and provoke in a way that leads to rage on the part of those I converse with!

But, this would miss an absolutely important detail. A critical, humbling detail that reminds us that while Jesus is fully divine, we are simply human. Before the “trap” of this episode occurs, Luke the Evangelist explains that Jesus “realized their intentions.” Jesus knew the intentions of those who questioned him. Jesus completely understood their response and ramifications.

But us? No. We do not know the intentions of those we converse with. Of those we meet in the public square. Of those we interact with online. Of those who enter our churches.

Unlike Jesus, we are not in the position to know the intentions of others–their deepest motivations, longings, hurts, and (sometimes) hidden or emerging relationship with God. We can guess a little, but at best this is merely an assumption, especially if we haven’t developed a genuine relationship with the person.

Sometimes, in a society where conversation and dialogue can seem like a “battle,” it can be easy for us to make an idol of “winning” a conversation, making “an example” of those who disagree with us, or trapping others in a way that is less than charitable. Yet this is a dangerous path for us to take!

Unlike Jesus, we never know the full intentions of another. What presents itself as aggressive questioning of our Christian faith may really be a hidden wound or genuine curiosity. A question that comes across wrong or rudely may not be fully intended that way. As evangelizers, we must take the route of greatest charity, of greatest openness to the possibility that God is ready to work in those we meet.

Right now.

Even in the midst of an uncomfortable conversation or a debate that makes us feel a little defensive.

As we evangelize, let us remember this simple truth–Jesus knows the intentions of all. We do not. May the Holy Spirit grant us the wisdom and charity to speak and act accordingly.

a version of this post also appears at NewEvangelizers.com

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?