When a Doctrinal Culture Meets Alpha Culture

Community Conversation Parks Budget
Not an Alpha Table. But it could be. #RunAlpha inspiration.
Most good Alpha training for future Table Hosts (think “facilitators”) covers how to adapt to challenging situations, i.e. a guest who dominates conversation, or guests who give off-topic responses to questions. But for many running Alpha in a Catholic Context, full of Catholic parishioners, there can be a challenge when a local culture one might describe as “intellectual,” “doctrinal,” or  “didactic” exists.
When that’s the local parish culture, coaching Alpha Hosts to say, “thanks for sharing, but this isn’t the place for theological discourse,” can seem tempting. But, if that’s the culture one is operating in, and trying to transform through the Alpha experience, then “closing down” that conversation doesn’t create space for that transformation to happen.
The keys to a great Alpha discussion are love, listen, and laugh. Catholics seeped in an overly intellectual/doctrinal/didactic culture are just as much in need of loving, listening, and laughter as everyone else (um, if not more!).

How to respond at an Alpha Table?

Here’s a helpful sample of reply ideas for when someone raises a theological/doctrinal/catechetical objection or intellectual comment to a point in the episode…
1) Hmm…what do you all think? [this gives the Table as a whole a free opportunity to serve as the “peer corrective”]
2) [If no responses, try and draw it out more.] Do you agree that “xyz” is not true? Or, do you believe it is true?
The emphasis on “true” here is deliberate; we don’t want the conversation to be on what’s “Catholic” or “not Catholic,” because what matters is if “xyz” is true. All things true are going to be part of the fullness of the faith anyway 😉 There’s nothing in Alpha we don’t want Catholics to believe, and so if some Catholics don’t find messages or key points in Alpha true based on their experience and formation, then that kind of shows us where we’re at and why we’re doing this
3) Does anyone have a sense of why “xyz” matters for you personally?
This gives the opportunity for those formed in an overly-intellectual/didactic Catholic culture to reflect personally, to see doctrine not as the “end” but as lights that guide us in our relationship with Jesus.
4) How do you feel about the idea that “xyz”?
This creates the space for those at the table to “disagree” or express discomfort without having to say it so bluntly–something that would be culturally foreign in an overly-intellectual/didactic culture.
The hope would be that through these questions the “xyz” doctrine in question would be fleshed out by the guests, and they’d have the opportunity to reflect on if they believe it and what it means to them. While Alpha is normatively designed and run among seekers and non-believers, when it’s used in a Catholic culture, we want Catholics to have that same experience of reflecting on beliefs and what those beliefs mean to them.

Apprenticeship in Work and Faith

Is “parish” all too synonymous with a building [set of buildings] or a group of people who have voluntarily registered? Yes.

But how do we change that mis-perception? Actions speak louder than words. To see the parish as the full geographic entity that it is–a collection of baptized, non-baptized, de-Churched, and more–we need to do the parish well beyond the walls of the church in a way that’s intentional.

Jonathan Sullivan (building on James Pauley) kicked off some practical, catechetical reflections on what apprenticeship has to do with forming disciples and creating a more authentic manifestation of “parish life” in our communities. Christian apprenticeship is this:

something that happens outside the immediate orbit of the parish…It could center on a stable, long-term group or activity. It could involve strangers coming together for a short time…What distinguishes apprenticeship from other pious activity is a desire to come together as followers of Jesus Christ with the aim to grow in holiness through specific, intentional acts of faith

By way of example, taking teens to serve at a soup kitchen could be an act of Christian apprenticeship if it is more than just a “service trip” — that is, if it integrates various facets of Christian living, including prayer, fellowship, and theological reflection.

One I’ve been thinking about is something picking up on the Center for Faith and Work initiative of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC. When we think about what occupies a significant portion of time of any person–especially single people–one’s job often comes to mind. And this work, regardless of its essentially secular character, in most cases, is still part of our Christian lives. It spiritually forms us (for better or worse). It enables us to integrate our works of creation, service, etc. with how God models this.

But, it’s awfully hard to do this alone.

While the work itself is likely not an intentional act of faith, the decision to meet, pray, and talk with others seeking to integrate faith and work would be an act of faith. And, as Zach Yenter suggests, this may be especially important for Millennial generation adults.

The Bible and Church teachings offer a wealth of passages worth pondering in mentoring pairs or groups of those who work in similar fields/industries. Not to mention questions of discernment or particular intercessory prayers that may be relevant to specific sectors of employment. And, the common bond of a particular field of labor can help build community and affinity for actually being intentional off-parish-grounds about meeting, praying, and sharing life.

Check out Jonathan Sullivan’s recent blog posts on this topic, how could you imagine “apprenticeship” re-shaping catechesis in your parish? 

Lifelong Learning & Technology: Implications for Faith Formation

The Pew Research Center recently published an interesting new study on how Americans utilize technology as a part of lifelong learning. While the study looked at all subjects of interest (i.e. from hobbies, to work, to new skills), we in ministry can apply many of the findings to our own design, planning, and conduct of lifelong faith formation opportunities for adults in our parishes.

Some key lessons for ministry:

The harvest is plenty! Almost 3/4 of adults consider themselves “lifelong learners.” Thus, if the adults in our midst care about their relationship with Jesus (this foundation has to come first–all too often we push learning before conversion), the vast majority will want to learn more.

Multiple [and virtual] locations matter. “By an 81% to 52% margin” adult learners are “more likely to cite a locale such as a high school, place of worship or library as the site at which personal learning takes place than they are to cite the internet.” Now, don’t use this as a reason to immediately discount online-learning–52% used the internet. That’s a lot.


Benefits align with parish life. Check out the benefits adults report from lifelong learning (see chart to the right). From a discipleship perspective, I see human formation, community formation for volunteer ministry service, and more all happening here. And, the adult learners consider these benefits, not a burden we’re heaping on them. Consider–are adults participating in lifelong faith formation experiencing these broad benefits?

Margins exist. The study found that, “As a rule, those adults with more education, household incomes and internet-connecting technologies are more likely to be participants in today’s educational ecosystem and to use information technology to navigate the world.” And, the same often goes for faith formation in parish life (or through diocese or regional centers). While faith formation for a life of discipleship certainly has an “educational” component and should use sound pedagogy–an overemphasis on intellectual formation can be a huge turn-off, and even an insurmountable barrier, to those with lower literacy levels and negative associations with “classrooms” and “schools.” Jesus desires that all come to know Him and the eternal life offered to us (starting now) as disciples–we must ensure that adult faith formation can fit the needs of those in our communities, especially those on the educational-margins.

New methods of learning are not widely known. This part mostly applies to deacon and lay ministry formation (facilitated by dioceses or other regional/national agencies). Distance learning, MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses), and Digital Badges are largely unknowns. We don’t leverage them well or in the nuanced ways to enhance formation (rather than merely substitute for F2F (face-to-face) learning). Currently models of formation are based on centralized institutional models, rather than competency models tailored for adult students and ministries with diverse needs. We have a huge opportunity to improve here and ultimately provide better formation for ministry that’s more economical and valuable for the ministries that need it the most.

Your thoughts? Anything else in the study with significant implications for adult faith formation?

When Jesus Speaks, Millennials Stay

Among Millennial generation Protestants, those who “say they believe Jesus speaks to them personally in a way that is real and relevant” remain active in church beyond high school significantly more than those who do not–68% versus 25% (Barna, 2013).

This might sound like the most unexciting, obvious statement ever.

But come back to it.

How often do Catholic leaders discuss what to “do” about younger generations leaving the church? How to do Young Adult Ministry more effectively. How to use social media to communicate with Millennials. The list goes on and on…

This study reminds us that effective ministry planning practices, use of social media, volunteer management, etc. are merely tools. Tools to empower our efforts to allow others to hear Jesus speak to them personally.

Ask this question of your ministry efforts, “how are we helping others hear Jesus speak to them, personally?” In some cases, we’re spending lots of energy doing lots of other good things, but while missing this critical piece. While leading adult faith formation groups, I’ve met more than a few who’ve been quite certain that God does not speak to us today. One explained confidently that this was something from the Bible, and instead, today we have the Church’s teaching authority. Yikes. How many who are less engaged in parish life hold this view (or worse!) when it comes to believing and experiencing Jesus speaking to them personally? There’s never any competition or division between Jesus speaking to each of us as individuals, through the Holy Spirit, in prayer, and faith in the Holy Spirit working through the teaching office of the Church.

Barna’s study also noted among the Protestant young adults surveyed, “the version of ‘Jesus in a vacuum’ that is often packaged for young people doesn’t last long compared to faith in Christ that is not compartmentalized but wholly integrated into all areas of life.” A focus on helping individuals hear Jesus and enter into relationship with Him shouldn’t lead to compartmentalization. And, most Catholic parishes aren’t in danger of encouraging this. There are often many more points of engagement–for service, community, and integrated living–compared to efforts to mentor individuals and help individuals open up to hearing Jesus in prayer. Or even spending quality time in prayer (liturgically, extemporaneously, contemplatively, etc.)

Unfortunately, in many Catholic settings, we jump to the trappings of integration, while young adults (and others!) trod through life without hearing Jesus speak to them personally. There’s a sadness in knowing that there are some in our parishes and pews who are not experiencing the comfort, joy, and fullness of life made present to us prayerful listening. So remember, whatever you’re doing as a disciple to build the Kingdom of God, ask yourself: “how are we helping others hear Jesus speak to them, personally?”

Lies in Catechesis (aka On the Authenticity of Evangelizers)

How authentic are you as an evangelizer? When people ask you questions, are your responses what you experience? Or a idealistic, textbook answer?

Pope Francis writes, “people prefer to listen to witnesses: they ‘thirst for authenticity’ and ‘call for evangelizers to speak of a God whom they themselves know and are familiar with, as if they were seeing him’” (Evangelii Gaudium §150). He’s expanding upon Pope Paul VI’s observation, “modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (Evangelii Nuntiandi §41). Paul VI went on to explain that authenticity exudes truth and honesty–the inauthentic smacks of artificiality (§76).

Over at Christianity Today, Tony Kriz points to places in conversations where Christians often aren’t fully authentic (Seven Lies Christians Tell | Leadership Journal). Now, it’s not what we’d usually think of as “lying” with the intent to malign or deceive (CCC §2484). Instead, it’s avoiding an authentic answer by substituting something easy. Something that avoids further questions. Something that hides our real lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. Too many Christians are substituting a lower level of integrity–limiting our ability to be the authentic witnesses the world thirsts for–all under the impression that we’re furthering the Gospel or being faithful Catholics. .

Are we prone to some of the falsehoods Kriz identifies when it comes to evangelization, catechesis, discipleship, and even basic parish community? At times, yes.

For example, as Kriz writes:

  • We lie when we claim we are more confident than we really are. The culture of pretending within Christianity seems almost at an epidemic level. Many of us feel the need to hide our doubts and questions. We feel compelled to act like our faith life is totally satisfying, when in fact it often feels limited, dry, cold or numb. I think we also believe that our “witness” will be less powerful if we reveal a less than “perfect” religious experience. The funny thing is that the opposite is often true. Non-Christians are often drawn to stories of an authentic and even struggling faith.
  • We lie when we claim that unexplainable things are in fact explainable. God is transcendent and beyond even the shadowy wisps of imagination in our finite minds. The Trinity, for instance, is not as simple as a metaphor of water (ice, water, steam) or an egg (shell, white, yoke). Sometimes I think we would be better off if we just said, “These ideas are so beyond me that if God did reveal them to me, I am pretty sure my brain would explode.”
  • We lie when we don’t acknowledge our doubts within the drama of faith. This is similar to number one above but just on a more detailed level. When another person challenges us with a difficult theological/philosophical issue, sometimes it is best to just admit that those questions are very challenging and even emotionally taxing on the soul (I think people like to know that our faith is so important to us that it does impact our soul-state in both encouraging and difficult ways.)

Lessons for the New Evangelization:

1. Embrace of mystery and wonder is a beautiful characteristic of Catholicism. As Flannery O’Connor wrote: “Dogma is the guardian of mystery. The doctrines are spiritually significant in ways that we cannot fathom.”

But do we hold onto mystery and savor it? Or, do we feel an external, cultural pressure to have a “black and white” answer where one simply does not exist? Can we contemplatively wonder? Or do we view this as something to hide. Many of our Church’s teachings guard us from being too precise. Granted we might have personal opinions and speculative theology within the broad bounds of Catholic orthodoxy–but in the end the “answer” is the broad bounded mystery that is is our orthodox Catholic faith.

Whether we’re evangelizing those who do not know Christ, those active in our parishes, or the baptized who are removed from Christ, the embrace of mystery and encouragement to wonder can be refreshingly new (Redemptoris Missio §33). Sharing our own authentic witness to the beauty and struggle of mystery in our own lives of faith offers a counter-narrative to many cultural perceptions of “religion” or Catholic Christianity.

2. It’s not about false information, but about not sharing our true selves. We may be well formed, eager, and highly articulate in sharing what the Catechesim of the Catholic Church says–but when we’re not authentic witnesse,s our “teaching” often goes unheard. We believe in a life of on-going conversion. Can you witness to a personal struggle to believe or follow any Church teachings?

It’s great to share Church teaching by quoting the CCC. But, anyone with the internet can probe the CCC on their own, online. When you share your own story of on-going conversion and deeper formation in the faith, it builds a bridge of trust. That doubts are an okay–in fact, a likely part of most disciples’ journeys! Sharing how you were led by the Holy Spirit through those doubts can be a true gift to another person who may be in a place of turmoil, doubt, isolation, or confusion. Consider this a deeper calling to the spiritual work of mercy of counseling the doubtful.

The New Evangelization calls us to put our best foot forward. And our “best foot” is our authentic selves. As authentic witnesses we are evangelizers for a faith that is real, exciting, challenging, and personal. We proclaim a Savior who humbled himself, becoming authentically human–entering into our messy world. As evangelizers we can share truth with this same authenticity, offering witness in word and deed that is more than mere information.

A version of this post originally appeared at NewEvangelizers.com.

Six Discipling Resolutions for Fall Ministries

It’s that time of year when many ministry staff and volunteers are preparing to launch or re-start initiatives, groups, programs, and more, as students and adults transition back from summer vacation season. Sometimes we can get caught up in the complexity or scale of our plans and forget our key foundations.

I’ve been reading Chris Wesley‘s Rebuilding Youth Ministry, and while the book is a great strategic guide for youth ministry, it has a straightforward clear message for all of us–from RCIA to adult small groups to kids faith formation and beyond. Drawing from Rebuilding Youth Ministry, here are six resolutions to help keep a more personal, discipling focus in your fall ministries.

1. Remember, the vast majority of people are “relationally driven,” not event-driven. Make sure forming friendships and relationships are an ordinary, intentional part of your ministry.

2. Never assume a particular point in one’s spiritual journey or baseline religious knowledge from any participants. Yes, the bulletin announcement may have read, “grow deeper in the faith through a Bible Study of John’s Gospel,” but the reality is that some who attend may be functional agnostics, others might have erroneous notions of “Church teaching.” And this is a good thing :-) as long as you stay away from assumptions and get to know participants.

Read more here

Review of Chris Wesley’s “Rebuilding Youth Ministry”

Rebuilding Youth Ministry: Ten Practical Strategies for Catholic Parishes (Ave Maria Press, 2015) is the third in the “Rebuilt parish” series–following Rebuilt and Tools for Rebuilding. I recommend this book for anyone in a specialty/functional area parish ministry–i.e. youth ministry, adult faith formation, young adult ministry, children’s religious education, RCIA, etc.

Now, this might strike you as a curious recommendation–I mean the title says youth ministry and it’s about youth ministry–but the value of this book as a resource for ministry leaders goes well beyond youth ministry.

The Big Picture

Rebuilt and Tools for Rebuilding focus on renewal from the perspective of a parish leader–a pastor, pastoral council, or pastoral associate. Rebuilding Youth Ministry is different. It’s a shorter, more focused primer on how to plan and specialty/functional ministry in the parish–through the lens of youth ministry. It’s an easy read filled with clear explanations of leadership and management basics, ideal for someone who has theological training, but wants to be more effective in ministry, without the detail that HBR or SSIR articles on leadership and management provide. Wesley writes for youth ministers, but what he says is so practically applicable, any leader of a parish formation/catechetical ministry could benefit from reading this. Read it and substitute your functional area (i.e. adult faith formation, RCIA, etc.) for youth ministry 🙂 it’s a fun and useful thought experiment.

Nuts and Bolts

The starting premise (provided by Rebuilt parish authors Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran in the forward) is simple:

Students…are an important part of the Church right now. God very much desires a growing relationship with them and has granted them gifts and talents to serve him and his family. (vii)

Basically, if you’re only concerned with youth ministry for the sake of the future, you’ve got an inadequate view of how the Holy Spirit can use all believers, today, for the sake of the Gospel.

So how to respond? Have a sense of irresistible, joyous urgency that “every even remotely interested teen living within your parish boundaries needs to be connected to a small group that is focused on evangelization and discipleship (growing a relationship with Jesus and learning how to serve him)” (25).

Whoa! (You might be thinking). That’s impossible. Youth ministry in my parish has been a struggle of kids not showing up, burn out, parents forcing kids into Confirmation, etc. If Church of the Nativity is having success, I want whatever program they’re using…

And this is where Wesley urges us to change our thinking. Stop with programs, retreats, and events as silver bullets–“teens are not event-driven; they are relationally driven. The last thing they need is another program” (9). [Note: kids and adults are probably the same way 😉 hence why I recommend this book to those with no connection to youth ministry.] Wesley accurately observes, “you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who disagrees with the concept that relationships are essential to a person’s faith journey” (29). But putting this into practice is a challenge in many parishes because we try and think big too quickly–skipping the critical step of building a “structure of authentic relationships” (29).

To build strongly means to grow a solid foundation of vision, mission, a volunteer team, parish buy-in and resourcing, prayer, personal ministerial identity, and more–and this is what the ten strategies of Rebuilding Youth Ministry help walk us through. Each chapter dissects one strategy and includes concrete “First Steps” that ministry leaders can immediately begin to discuss and take action on, developing (step-by-step) the sustainable ministry Wesley describes.

In Summary

Overall, Wesley focuses on ministerial strategies rather than specific tactics/techniques, programs, curricula, events, or formats–and this is a good thing. It’s a discussion of how to think, envision, and build/develop–rather than a simple prescription of what to do. All too often parishes focus on what to do and doing more, rather than on the deeply rooted, essential vision and relationships behind ministry growth. Rebuilding Youth Ministry challenges the assumption that “more is better” in when it comes to ministry (or parish) health. It’s an outstanding guide for anyone ready to honestly assess and renew youth ministry in a parish setting. And, (if you can think outside the box a little) it’s also widely applicable for all parish ministers–something I’ll be diving into over the next few weeks with some of my favorite takeaways from the book.

Your thoughts? Have you read this book or applied parts of it? What were your experiences? Share here or on Twitter using the hashtag #RebuildingYM to continue the conversation.

Disclosure: Ave Maria Press provided me a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. Opinions expressed are my own, completely honest enthusiasm. 😀