Christian Unity: Giving Tuesday and Beyond

Ever hear of #GivingTuesday?

Think how much giving as part of our call to discipleship has changed over the past decades, or centuries–new means (i.e. electronic transfers), new opportunities (due to affluence), and new needs (due to growing inequality). And yet in church-world the conventional wisdom is that nobody likes to talk about money, right?

As part of our learning approach to the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, today I want to share a quick example of how inspiring and positive asking for money can be when it’s authentically part of a call to discipleship and vision for a church going forth with Jesus Christ to spread the Gospel.

Check out this Rise capital campaign video from Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC and read more about how giving as an act of discipleship doesn’t need to stop churches from dreaming and asking big.

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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.

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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…

Christian Unity: Understanding Our World

Looking to those outside the visible bounds of the Church can be tremendously helpful for evangelization leaders. It’s kind of like the canary in a coal mine metaphor, as there are some trends that Catholic parishes are often buffeted from due to cultural tendencies. Attendance is certainly one of these areas.

For some Catholics, the word “obligation” is a powerful and motivating one. It implies responsibility, a solemn privilege, an honor. Thus the obligation to worship on Sundays results in attending Mass at a local parish. However, that particular cultural lens on obligation has shifted. For more and more Americans, obligation carries connotations of being forced to do something undesirable, being compelled to choose what is obviously not wanted.

Yet, for our nondenominational brothers and sisters in Christ, obligation has never been an operative part of why people attend Sunday services. Now, this isn’t true for all of our Protestant brothers and sisters, as most historical denominations have had attendance policies and culturally enforced “norms” of attendance.  But by definition, a nondenominational church is outside of denominational assemblies, policies, and the like.

Empty SeatsSo, when a vibrant church leader (Carey Nieuwhof) from this sphere shares insights on why even nondenominational church attenders are attending less and less often, as an evangelizer, I’m interested.
Understanding this trend, Nieuwhof observes, “probably marks a seismic shift in how the church will do ministry in the future”–and I think he’s right. It doesn’t mean timeless truths change, but it means we change our how, just as St. Paul changed his how in different ministry contexts in Acts of the Apostles. It means pre-evangelization, not just the initial proclamation of the Gospel, becomes more and more essential (hint: it’s already essential 🙂 ).

Check out Nieuwhof’s 10 Reasons behind this trend of less frequent attendance, and consider how your ministry can respond, adapt, and be prepared for our continuously changing cultural landscape.

Can’t Imagine Parish Small Groups?

You know that connecting people to a group–a place to belong, a place that actually notices when you’re missing–is vitally important to the life of a Christian disciple.

Yet even though we know this, the reality of becoming a parish of small groups seems had to imagine. Just on the logistical and organizational levels alone.

For a dose of encouragement, check out some of the webpages from St. Anthony of Padua down in The Woodlands, TX that show how a parish can use technology to ease the logistical and organizational burdens of growing a network of groups:

  • Community Groups Landing Page with a short video trailer, longer message, and more
  • Recruiting and inviting group hosts
  • Custom search to find the right group options for you [seriously, I think this is my favorite part of the whole set-up]

So, time to share…how do you conquer the logistical challenges of boosting small/community group participation in your parish?

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Gambling to Faith in Jesus

Exploring if and/or how faith in Jesus Christ can be certain matters for catechesis, disciple-making, and evangelization as a whole. Certainty is related to confidence. If the “Good News” isn’t confidently known as something good with certainty, then why share it at all?

A few weeks ago I dropped in on Part 3 of an annual series by Ron Bolster entitled “Philosophy for Catechists” as part of the St. John Bosco Conference for Catechists at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Prof. Bolster picked up these practical questions of confidence and certainty from a philosophical angle to consider how we (in real life) come to know people and things that are beyond our finite human experience.

And the reality is this: most of the things we know and accept we haven’t witnessed; we believe on the testimony of someone else (a textbook writer, Wikipedia editor, etc.).

What does this bit of philosophy (epistemology, to be precise) have to do with evangelization?

As Bolster noted, sometimes, before a person has the encounter with God themselves, they have to “gamble” on the testimony of others.

Practically, a person trusts the real experience of someone else–takes a gamble–in order to take their own personal step further in life. Big implication? Witness matters. Your witness, my witness, our witness together just may be the stuff worthy of someone else taking a “gamble” on.

And these gambles can be successive. Have ripple effects. Take for example, Jesus’ midday conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well (John 4:7-39). Jesus and the woman engage in weighty conversation. It’s a probing conversation that’s even a little pointedly blunt at times as they go back-and-forth with tensions between Jews and Samaritans, misunderstanding of Jesus’ directions, etc.

And it ends as seemingly abruptly as it begins, as the woman declares: I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Anointed; when he comes, he will tell us everything” and Jesus responds “I am he, the one who is speaking with you” (4:25-26).  And that’s it. Over. The disciples return in amazement that Jesus is even talking to a woman, and without further recorded conversation, she heads back to the village. 

How certain is she walking back to her village? How confident is she in the person she has encountered?

Our Evangelist John gives us a glimpse in verse 29 as we see the woman’s message to her fellow villagers: “Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Messiah?”

So that’s it. How certain is she? How confident?

She’s certain enough to tell others “come see.” She’s confident enough to report what Jesus has done, “told me everything I have done.” And yet, she’s not sure about Jesus’ ultimate identity, seemingly wondering aloud, “could he possibly be the Messiah?”

The Samaritan woman is taking a gamble on Jesus as testimony to God the Father. Jesus’ actions and words–his witness–have given her enough to go a step further, even though she’s not yet at the point of running around telling everyone for certain that she’s found the Messiah (outside the village at a well, and oh-by-the-way he’s the rare Jew who talks to Samaritans).

Her gamble is in Jesus. That Jesus is divine, though she does not fully understand in this moment.

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“Ripples” (Flickr) CC-BY-SA-2.0

And what happens? A ripple effect. The villagers leave the town in the afternoon heat and come out to see Jesus. The villagers have now taken their own gamble on the woman’s gamble.  This gamble-on-a-gamble leads them to Jesus, where they can experience their own encounters with Jesus and know him as a person.

As John concludes:

When the Samaritans came to him [Jesus], they invited him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. Many more began to believe in him because of his word, and they said to the woman, “We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world.” (4:41-42)

Now that each knows with confidence, they do not need to rely on their gamble, or the woman’s gamble. Now each has encountered Jesus and with certainty (CCC para. 157) and can declare “we know that this is truly the savior of the world.”

As evangelists, catechists, and disciple-makers, let us remember this: those beautiful declarations of faith? They started with a gamble on the testimony of another. Let us ask the Holy Spirit to make us more and more gamble-worthy as witnesses each and every day.

A version of this post also appears at NewEvangelizers.com

Sharing the Heart of Pre-Evangelization

 

In his great teaching on evangelization in the modern world, Pope Paul VI noted the importance of the sentiments of the human heart when it comes to pre-evangelization–the critical bridge of trust and interest before the Gospel of Jesus Christ is explicitly proclaimed and responded to (Evangelii Nuntiandi, §51).

We just ended the liturgical season of Christmas where the sentiments of the human heart were on peak display as many early believers experienced Jesus, God-Made-Man, in a new and unique way.

Think of the shepherds, who came to Jesus’ side in Bethlehem and spoke a message that left everyone amazed. The shepherds continued to glorify and praise God on their return trip home. Their hearts were moving and the sentiments of their hearts were simply overflowing (Lk 2:16-21).

Recall Simeon, who upon seeing the baby Jesus in the Temple, took him from Mary and Joseph and held him tightly. Did Simeon ask permission of the new parents? Or, did he just grab the baby in his enthusiasm? We’ll never know! But Simeon’s heart was on display as he immediately began blessing God in praise and thanksgiving for this encounter with Jesus the Savior and Light to the Nations (Lk 2:22-35).

Remember the magi–maybe two, maybe two dozen–the Scriptures don’t give us an exact number. But, we know they traveled a great distance to reach Israel. When they saw the guiding star stop they were overjoyed–completely overwhelmed and overcome with joy. Their hearts were bursting with emotion (Mt 2:1-12).

In the weekday readings following the Epiphany (here and here) we hear of the early reactions to the adult Jesus–where the sentiments of the heart continue, leaving people “astounded” and “amazed.”

Sometimes we can be quick to discount or even downplay emotion, the “sentiments of the human heart,” in discipleship. We rightly recoil at the thought that the Christian life is about finding emotional highs or feeling good all the time. God didn’t send His Son to suffer and die on the Cross at Calvary to thrill our emotions. Not at all.

But, this doesn’t mean we need to squash out emotion or be afraid of being amazed, astounded, overcome with joy, or bursting out from our hearts, like Simeon did. In some circles, showing one’s sentiments of the heart when it comes to Jesus can be looked down upon–you know, as not being “theological enough” or “acting Protestant.” I wonder too, if sometimes our pride gets in the way as well. We don’t want to show how really moved we were by something God did in our lives or a particular prayer God answered. We want to keep up the outer appearance of complete self-sufficiency our culture promotes.

Regardless of our circumstances, the heart of the matter is that the heart matters.

Sentiments of the human heart are a means of pre-evangelization. We can’t hope to be used of God to spread the Gospel if we’re not open to sharing what’s really going on in our faith lives, of being spontaneously called to prayer like Simeon, or overwhelmed with joy like the Magi. This year, I’ll be trying more to pay attention to the sentiments of my own heart, and the hearts around me–and I invite you to do the same. The Holy Spirit may be preparing a bridge, using you for the pre-evangelization our world so desperately needs.

Measurement, Assessment, and Programs

Measuring the work of the local parish isn’t easy. But, it must be done.

As David E.K. Hunter writes in Working Hard–And Working Well: A Practical Guide to Performance Management:

“Few beyond the occasional Luddite would dispute the assertion that if an organization does not collect key information about operational functioning, it cannot manage its performance effectively, reliably, sustainable, and accountably. The issue for performance management is not whether to collect data; it is which data to collect–and then how to convert performance data into actionable information to support both tactical and strategic decision making.” (p. 31)

Popular, traditional measurements for churches have often been # of attendees at any given service or event, spiritual giving ($), and (for missions/charity) # of people served or hours of service.

Problem is, these give an incomplete picture.

As Ed Bahler and Bill Cochenour write:

We’re not likely to throw away the traditional forms of measurement anytime soon, but increasingly vibrant churches comprised of spiritually maturing individuals are placing a higher priority on metrics that measure commitment and discipleship. They’re driven by how well they’re impacting their communities. They realize that being on mission is more than initiating and participating in mission trips and food drives for the homeless. It means taking ownership for tangible, positive results outside the church, investing in nurturing and growing the trees that ultimately will bear fruit.

This requires some customized, deep thinking at the local level to figure out the best ways to measure and monitor a parish. Remembering that we monitor because we care and want to do whatever God’s calling for us in ministry is with excellence. Measurement is a means, not an end. 

Here are some concrete examples from Bahler and Cochenour:

• The number of families led out of poverty
• The improved literacy rate of school kids tutored by church volunteers
• The number of mentors to teenagers of single parents
• The number of families in the church that have adopted underprivileged kids in the community
• The number of people in the church (not on staff) that see themselves as full-time, everyday life missionaries
• The number of micro loans your church provides
• The number of non-religious community groups using your church facilities
• The number of projects leaders in the community ask your church to be involved in
• The number of former convicted felons your church places in jobs
• The reduction of domestic abuse incidents from the time the church became involved in supporting at-risk families
• The percentage of the church budget allocated for those outside the church
• The ratio of people involved in ministry outside the church compared to people involved in ministry programs within the church

Most of these are probably irrelevant to your parish ministry. But, that’s the point 🙂 Your metrics and measurements need to be customized for what matters most in your parish.

Working Hard–Working Well (BTW, this book is available as a free download) offers the acronym CREAM to get on the right track with indicators for measurement, monitoring, or assessment. Each indicator should be:

Clear – described in concrete language

Relevant – tightly linked to essential variables that drive the outcome you’re looking for

Economical – affordable to measure! 🙂

Adequate – sufficient for the collection of what’s essential

Monitorable – measurable within the capacities of the organization

Now it’s your turn–have you had any positive or disastrous experiences with identifying indicators for assessment in parish life? If so, please help edify our online conversation by sharing!