10 Years Later. Still a Gem.

Musings on ordinary Catholic culture, from Sherry Weddell…10 years later, and this tongue-in-cheeck 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.


The Risk and Grace of Pre-Evangelization

This past weekend, the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, of Ann Arbor, Michigan appeared on the OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) Where Are They Now–a follow up to their appearances on the Oprah show in 2010 (here’s the trailer). Over at Aleteia, Zoe Romanowski’s description of the story behind the television show appearance offers a case study on living out our call to pre-evangelize, creating the spaces for curiosity and interest about God.

Lesson 1: Authenticity attracts.

The Oprah show’s production team was interested in finding an “authentic” women’s religious community. Authenticity is an important characteristic of any evangelizer. Authenticity requires that we be genuine. Go ahead–be a Christian. Be a witness to and disciple of Jesus Christ. As the old children’s song, “This Little Light of Mine” (based on Matthew 5:16) exhorts, “Hide it [your light] under a bushel? Oh-no! I’m gonna let it shine!” Be true to who Jesus calls you to be in his Church, and then share this true, Christ-fashioned self with the world. As St. Catherine of Sienna said, if you are what God meant you to be, you will set the world on fire.

Lesson 2: Our perception probably isn’t as rosy as we think.

Oprah was hesitant to even contact a group of Catholic religious sisters. “‘Do you really think a community like that would be willing to be on my program?’ she asked.”

Objectively, we can look at Catholic theology and our beliefs and think to ourselves, of course we’re open, approachable, and welcoming! But for many in our culture, this is unfortunately not the common perception. And perception becomes reality for the many who just don’t think anything with a connection to the Church is for them, or that church-people would be even open to forming a real relationship with them. We can say [or sing] “all are welcome” all we want, but do the unchurched actually think we’re open enough to grow in relationship with them? Fighting against a perception with words alone is often a wasted effort. When it comes to pre-evangelization ask, what could we do to break through a barrier, to get out among the unchurched and actively change a perception of being closed-off, cold, or aloof?

Lesson 3: Risks and discernment are both necessary.

Oprah gave her staff permission to make some calls to women’s religious communities. Here’s what happened:

All of the communities they contacted said ‘no,’ except for one: the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.

Recall Lesson 2, while perceptions become reality, perceptions are often based in reality. As Catholics we might wonder in frustration, “why doesn’t xyz media focus more on showing the positive aspects of the Church?” but we don’t always make it easy. Now, many of the communities that declined may have had important reasons–i.e. not enough space for television production crews to use, important community calendar events like retreats, etc. already scheduled, and so forth. But, in listening to the response from the Dominican Sisters in Ann Arbor, we see the relationship between risk and discernment in pre-evangelization.

Of course the sisters were concerned about what might happen. And it’s okay to be concerned. The question is can we prayerfully examine our desire to protect or preserve some image of the faith and our missionary, evangelistic mandate? As the Dominican Sisters demonstrated, yes! They discerned in prayer, researched through external resources, and balanced this with their eagerness to “share the joy of religious consecration with the world.” Was their decision risky? Yes. We can’t escape risk as Christian witnesses, it’s part of evangelization. And, if we’re too risk-averse as Christian evangelists, we’ll miss the opportunities that God opens for us.

As Sister Joseph Andrew noted, “I also think she [Oprah] was so open to God’s grace.”

Scripture tells us that the Lord our Savior wills “everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). In our discernment, let’s take care to make sure we are not mentally closing off some people from being open to God’s grace due to our own fear of risk, failure, rejection, or misrepresentation. God opens hears every day, but are we there to respond? Not if we’re staying far away due to our fear of the unknown.

Lesson 4: Pre-evangelization is an awesome movement of grace.

Pre-evangelization is all about preparing the way for the clear proclamation of God’s saving power (also called the kerygma, “the Gospel,” or initial proclamation). It’s the idea that since human beings are created in the image and likeness of the Trinitarian God, we inherently have an affinity with God through our basic human needs for love, communion, and relationship on earth and in eternity. Pre-evangelization awakens these needs which may lie dormant, the unevangelized become curious, open, or mildly interested in the ways of God. And the Dominican Sisters were able to be used by the Holy Spirit as conduits of this movement of grace:

Sister Maria Catherine, who was interviewed on set in Chicago, says that when the Oprah crew first showed up at their motherhouse, “it was clear they had no idea what to do with us.” But when they came the second time, the crew was much more at home with the Sisters’ routine. “They had settled into thinking of us as brides — in fact, it was refreshing to see how they grasped our prayer life and consecration. It was easier to make everything about Jesus, because it was less foreign to them.”

How inspiring! While this may seem like a small change, it’s a new opening for God to work. And a necessary one. The best apologetic discourses in the world usually fall on deaf ears when we share them with someone who has no positive relationships with a Christian or experience of love in the Church. We can rejoice in the small steps leading to conversion, knowing that these are also the work of the Holy Spirit!

This post originally appeared at NewEvangelizers.Com

History and Liturgical Pre-Evangelization

In his 2010 post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Verbum Domini, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI emphasized the relationship between human history and Christianity:

“The historical fact is a constitutive dimension of the Christian faith.

The history of salvation is not mythology, but a true history, and it should thus be studied with the methods of serious historical research” (§32).

Now in this context, he’s talking about the historicity of Scripture. That the rooted-ness, the fact that every Biblical text has a real human author in an actual historical situation isn’t of passing interest to disciples of Jesus, but somehow a constitutive dimension.

Since our knowledge of ancient Israel’s qahal as a foundation for Christian worship is so deeply rooted in the Old Testament, I think the idea of historical fact as a dimension of the faith applies liturgically as well. And more clear, vibrant experiential knowledge of this can serve as pre-evangelization.

How can this be pre-evangelization?

I think the unquestioned dominance of the “New Evangelical Liturgy” in non-Catholic churches has peaked. It’s still (and will continue to be) widespread, but among non-denominational, post-denominational, and emergent churches I notice greater interest in Christian liturgy. For example, a series on the origins of Christian ritual [liturgy] and encouragement to pray the Divine Office at Mars Hill in Grandville, Michigan. Or, the Ancient-Future church network. Or this observation:

“one of the consistent themes of millennial evangelical social criticism tends to be a more skeptical attitude toward American materialism, or at least certain types of American materialism. Alongside that trend, the emergence of churches like Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan as well as the somewhat surprising resilience of many orthodox Anglican congregations suggest that the future of American Christianity likely is a more high church, liturgically informed type of Christianity–but such a Christianity is not essentially incompatible with Protestantism.” (Jake Meador, MereOrthodoxy)
Individuals in our culture do still have a human need to connect to history, to a way of worshiping and belonging to community that is not of our own modern creation. Think of the societal fervor surrounding Pope Francis’ recent visit to the United States, or the fact that individuals still flock to Ash Wednesday services (even though this is not an obligation in any Christian tradition I know of)–why? A basic human need for embodied belonging. A need so common that even though many write-off “liturgy” as “stiff” or “boring,” the desire remains within.
We pre-evangelize when we cultivate conditions to connect this basic human need to God. There’s a human need for rituals that connect us in bodily form to human history. The historicity of liturgy is not something to avoid or hide in embarrassment, but to embrace. History is powerful, and when we live in such a way that our witness speaks to this connection, we offer others the opportunity to recognize their desire for the transcendent.
In this light, Benedict’s assertion that “historical fact is a constitutive dimension of the Christian faith” is then not a crutch or constraint, but yet another means of pre-evangelization through our own joyful witness.

The Rise of the Memoir and Pre-Evangelization

Memoir as literary genre has become strikingly popular over the past few decades in our culture.

What does this teach us about evangelization and especially pre-evangelization?

In a September 15, 2015 interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” Catholic writer Mary Karr offered this theory:

GROSS: You have an interesting theory in your book about why memoirs have become so popular. And you could argue they’ve even become more popular than a lot of serious fiction. So you want to share that theory with us?

KARR: Yes. I mean, I think as fiction has become more hyper-intellectual or dystopic or unreal, I think people hungry for the real – for real, lived experience, have been forced to migrate to memoir.

The real. The authentic. Humanness. Beauty, joy, and goodness–and/or lack of it. These are connecting points that can reveal our true humanity and desire for God, the essence of pre-evangelization.

Pre-evangelization is discovering and uncovering hunger. Discovering that there’s something more, something transcendent in life–and that the most fundamental human values and experiences (i.e. love) are (even if shadowy or obscured) evidence that God exists and we are created in God’s image.

The popularity of memoirs shows this cultural hunger for authentic human experience. Sharing the Gospel necessarily includes proclaimation of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior–the “initial proclamation,” as it’s called in Church teaching. Yet in many situations, before this liberating truth can be heard, a person must experience curiosity about God or the spiritual life. Cooperating with the Holy Spirit, we can help our neighbors, peers, co-workers, and family members recognize this God-sized hole by not simply sharing doctrine, Bible quotes, or Catechism passages in a vacuum–but sharing in the context of our authentic human experience. Faith is not an abstract set of propositions. Christian faith is becoming more fully human through life-giving relationship with Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. You have a story to share.

As Timothy O’Brien recounted after an interview with Karr:

So while she’s willing to talk quite openly about her faith in a voice much louder than a whisper, Karr still thinks it’s her duty to “translate my spiritual experiences” so that they can be heard today, in an age where “doubt is the American religion, and whoever believes the least wins.” This is especially true in light of her belief, mentioned several times, that she is writing primarily (though not exclusively) for a secular audience. Practically, this means that “in talking about my faith, even with people who believe, I lead with my doubt.” In her view, this is not solely a matter of speaking in a way people can hear – it’s a matter of accurately portraying the life of faith: “the truth is that love and grace don’t really read on the page unless you set them next to fear and trembling. I want to write about moments of joy, but it’s hard to show it except in relief to suffering.”

And this isn’t some radical new idea. Read the New Testament. Doubt is prominent, suffering is present–but in sharing these real, authentic human moments, we also find new freedom and poignant truth.

The simple lesson for evangelization? Keep it real. Share your faith in a way that answers our culture’s hunger for “real, lived experience.”

A version of this post originally appeared at NewEvangelizers.com

Parishes “Grappling With Culture, Conflict, and Identity” Instead of Evangelization?

In Parish-Level Evangelization: Grappling with Culture, Conflict, and Identity (part of the latest edition of the Institute for Church Life’s Journal for the New Evangelization), Brian Starks gives us a sociologist’s perspective on the New Evangelization, as he aims:

“to illustrate how strategies for attracting members differ [between two parishes] and how these contrasting strategies are rooted in distinct parish identities and develop out of alternative approaches to conflict” so that we can “recognize the entwined parts played by conflict and identity in shaping parish-level evangelization.”

Okay. I’m game. We all need to hear this, even if it’s challenging to our sense of parish life.

One of his first observations is the different perceptions each parish has the modern, American idea of “parish shopping” (or even denomination shopping)–the parishes grapple with this reality, one thinking that it has to be embraced, simply because it’s where the flock is at. The other parish, hesitating, because this is a consumer-oriented ethos at odds with the fullness of our faith.

This is a very real dilemma faced by many parishes and I think our response should be pragmatic. Accept that we can’t change people who aren’t yet in our pews–in order to form the ethos of service (vs. consumerism) we have to first get them in the doors. I think Church of the Nativity in Timonium, MD does an excellent job of this–it’s a seeker-friendly Catholic parish, yet also a parish that  challenges insiders.

Through his interviews with pastors and leaders, Starks draws out a discussion of people going where they are most comfortable vis-a-vis a liberal or conservative parish theology (while noting one pastor’s acknowledgement of the limits of this spectrum). On the whole, this liberal/conservative language makes me shudder a bit–as I have no idea what a liberal or conservative parish theology is, and the terms confuse me. Is a parish that preaches conversion, relationship with Jesus Christ, and a life of discipleship liberal or conservative? Beats me! 🙂

Starks observes that one of the parishes (fictitiously named “St. Mark’s”) in essence embraces conflict [specifically with the hierarchy] as part of their self-identity. The other parish (fictitiously named “St. Luke’s”) takes a different approach, working to ensure that culture is not polarized in the parish, thus limiting conflict. Discussions of decline at St. Mark’s seem to be linked to the hierarchy, while decline at St. Luke’s is pegged to changing culture, demographics, and decline of the neighborhood.

What troubles me reading all of the comments from leaders at St. Mark’s and St. Luke’s is that Jesus Christ seems to be absent. I could easily re-write their statements centered around a nonprofit organization–and it would basically make sense. The parishes seem to function as nondescript organizations or social clubs, rather than the local church of called disciples (remember, ekklesia, the root of “church,” means to be called out).

Could decline have something to do with lack of authentic conversion to Christ? Missing fruits of the Holy Spirit? Lack of personal evangelization in the pews? These things seem just as likely as what each parish discusses.

Starks writes, “Catholic theology and especially ecclesiology give the Church a vision and goal of a unity which exceeds that found in, or even hoped for, in other types of organizations.” Bingo. Spot on. In plain terms, this means the local parish isn’t a club. It has a mission to evangelize and both of these parishes seem more interested in their members, culture, etc. than creating spaces for all people to encounter Jesus Christ and make a life-changing, foundational decision to develop a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Starks ends with these questions:

“I hope that my research allows for a deeper reflection on what kind of identity we desire to produce as a faith community, what challenges are keeping us from enacting that identity, and what creative strategies (especially regarding conflict and conflict resolution) this vision might require. What could parish identity look like if, rather than leveraging conflict or avoiding it, a parish tried to actively engage in conflict resolution, in peacemaking? And how might this
transform parish-level evangelization?”

The question of identity is key. But, I also think that our faith makes this clear. It’s not exactly an open question. Parishes are communities of disciples following Jesus and growing in relationship with Him. Parishes are the Church in a particular locality. In this spirit, I think solving conflicts starts with questions like these between those in conflict:

• Is God someone you would say you have a personal relationship with?
• Have you had any kind of moment when you felt particularly close to Jesus? If so, can you tell me about it? If not, have you ever wanted to?
• How would you describe your view of God? Jesus? Is He a reality to you or more of a vague concept?
[Question examples from Aggie Catholics and FOCUS Equip]

Why? Because coming to an authentic understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit and person conversion in each of our lives is what roots us as disciples. It’s what we base of discipling parish communities on. When these foundational realities become more clear, a unified vision is more likely to result. Trust is built and teams form, teams that can address conflict and truly make the peace only Jesus can bring.

In this glorious Easter season, I think of Acts of the Apostles as a key example of this. The disciples faced very real conflicts of culture and identity. But, they didn’t attempt to solve those problems like any old organization. They knew that they were Church. They knew the Holy Spirit was essential. And, they knew each other’s stories and had a trust based on a recognition of the powerful reality of conversion in each other’s lives.

Though Stark’s article might seem like just a sociologist’s study. It’s not. He provides a powerful, essential reminder of what we must guard against in parish life–resisting the distracting temptation to become just another charitable organization or social club, and instead seeking authentic relationship with Jesus and others in all we do.

In short, we need to avoid “Grappling With Culture, Conflict, and Identity” at the expense of evangelization. And instead, allow the urgency of evangelization and life-changing conversion to be the shared and essential foundation for dealing with conflict, culture, and identity.

Update: Extremely insightful response from Brian Starks over at the Catholic Conversation. Well worth the read!

Catholic “Follow-up Strategies” for the New Evangelization?

As far as I can remember, I’ve never been to a Baptist church that didn’t have a “follow-up strategy” for visitors they identified attending services or events. At a particular church I was a member of, it was that Thursday was “Pastor’s Visitation Day,” where, in addition to visiting those who may have lapsed in attendance, the pastor and a volunteer made a house call to anyone who had been a visitor in Sunday morning service the past week.

In contrast, in the many Catholic parishes I’ve called home, I don’t recall ever seeing or experiencing any follow-up strategies to keep in touch with me after my initial visit. The closest I can remember is, after registering as a member of St. Patrick Catholic Parish in Fayetteville, NC, I received a visit from two members of the church, giving me a small welcome basket, some additional info on the parish, and just sharing some friendly conversation.

This prompts the question, are follow-up strategies important for Catholic parishes? In the New Evangelization? Theologically?

The USCCB’s Disciples Called to Witness: The New Evangelization is mostly quiet on follow-up strategies as an evangelization technique. However, we get a mention in Part IV that, “All participants would benefit from followup contacts.” No further details are given. Yet, even on its own, it’s a pretty bold statement. It applies to everyone (“all”) and the follow up is presumed to further some benefit. Seems like something the USCCB is encouraging, at least in the context of participants in RCIA activities and other evangelization efforts. Theologically, I can think of nothing wrong with following-up with visitors, so long as it is done in a spirit of love, humility, and hospitality (which, is ideally how all of our actions should be conducted 🙂 ).

I’m currently reading Adam Hamilton’s book on pastoral leadership, Leading Beyond the Walls: Developing Congregations with a Heart for the Unchurched (2002). Hamilton is a pastor in the United Methodist Church. He devotes Chapter 6 to the topic of effective follow-up strategies, explaining:

Every time a first-time visitor walks in the doors of your church an opportunity unfolds. This individual or family has taken the time to worship with you for some reason. Visitors likely have a need they are wondering if you can fulfill…Effective follow-up is among the most important things a pastor or leader will do if she is seriously interested in reaching the unchurched (p. 42-43).

Hamilton notes that he is aware of other pastors who specifically do not conduct follow-up with visitors because of a belief that it “taints the church’s mission.” But, he argues that in a “post-Christian era” we can no longer assume that visitors are “generally Christians” who will join another church on their own initiative if they choose not to return to his church–as a result “we want to do everything in our power to help the visitor feel the welcome of Chris throughout our church  and to motivate him to want to return the following week.”

So what does Hamilton recommend?

1. Get the Name and Address of First-Time Visitors. Hamilton’s church uses attendance notebooks, with a left side full of info sheets/newsletters for first-time visitors to take, and the right side with a register for all in attendance to sign. The ushers pass these  during a break in the service with the pastor inviting all to “take a look and see who is sitting net to you and where that person lives; there may be someone who lives in your neighborhood sitting right next to you. Be sure to greet those sitting next to you by name after the service” (p. 44). This helps the visitor not feel singled out. Hamilton’s congregation used this technique until attendance surpassed 500 per weekend (single service, I think).

I’ve experienced this technique at Saints Peter and Paul Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Houghton, Michigan. It was fairly unobtrusive, and if I recall, the notebooks were passed concurrently with the collection plates, so it did not significantly add to the total time duration of the service. I could see something like that done concurrent to the collection, but without the announcement. (Maybe do the announcement before Mass begins and have the instructions printed on the notebook folios?).

Another spin on the idea of all in attendance (visitors and regulars alike) providing information is the use of a “contact card.” I’ve experienced this many times at Faith Covenant Church in Farmington Hills, Michigan. The contact card is a small card with a place for providing address and contact info (or updating it for regular attendees), prayer requests, and an opportunity to ask questions or check boxes about receiving more information on programs the church offers. This might be a little faster than passing a notebook during collection, and I like that it has more purpose for regular attendees (who wouldn’t be updating an address every week), but would have regular prayer requests, etc. I could also see a contact card being customized at certain times of the year to facilitate distribution of information about retreats, mission trips, etc.

Another technique. I have been in Catholic parishes where visitors are invited to stand, introduce themselves, and be welcomed before the Mass begins. This would also be an easy time for an usher/greeter to then deliver to them a folder of info and a card designed to be turned in during the collection with their contact information. The downside of this method is that shy visitors will likely not stand and many visitors would naturally not want to be singled-out in a public way, especially at the beginning of Mass. A twist on this method would be doing the same announcement in the post-Communion announcement space. This enables the usher/greeter to quickly collect the contact info card, and since the visitor was just introduced, it increases the chances other worshippers will informally welcome him/her after Mass ends (only a few minutes later).

We spent a lot of time on #1, but without finding a consistent way to do this, there will be no information to make follow-ups possible! All the love and virtuous intentions in the world can’t conquer not having an address, phone number, or email of a visitor.

2. Deliver a Gift. On Sunday afternoon following service, Hamilton would then personally deliver a coffee mug printed with the church’s logo to each visitor from the morning. The mug served two purposes: 1) it gave him a “reason” for the visit (so it wasn’t awkward conversation, and the first-time visitor didn’t feel intruded upon or forced to bear his/her soul to a near-stranger!), 2) gave an ongoing reminder of the church that was seldom discarded (in contrast to, say, a gift of a refrigerator magnet). Hamilton funded the coffee mugs annually by ordering twice the amount needed and also selling them (above cost) to the congregation. Members knew that by participating in the annual coffee mug sales, they were providing a gift to a visitor for each mug purchases. [I include this tidbit, because, in many Catholic parishes, any “new” ministry often has to be self-supporting or without a significant start-up cost.]

Hamilton delivered the gifts himself, thanked them for attending, gave a copy of the church’s newsletter, asked if they had any questions, and departed. No spiritual probing. Each visit took less than 10 minutes. He did this at the latest, by Monday night–so the church was still fresh in the minds of those he visited.

He writes:

Some have suggested that the laity should deliver these mugs instead of the pastor. In a large church this becomes a necessity, to be sure. But in a smaller church, it is impossible to overstate the significance of the pastor delivering these mugs. Nearly every pastor I have told this to has dismissed it at first. But once they tried it, they found I was right; their retention rate of first-time visitors went up and they became more effective in connecting with and pastoring their flocks (p. 46).

3. Add to Newsletter Mailing List. This mailing list becomes a valuable resource for the congregation. The newsletter initially had an evangelistic design, however, over time Hamilton’s church evolved to using the mailing list of visitors instead as a place to send full-color postcards and other tidbits announcing special events and sermon series. He found that people often might show up once, but then return in a few months (or years!) if they saw something that interested them.

4. Making a Pastoral Evangelism Call. After a visitor had attended Sunday worship for a third time, Hamilton would call and say “Hello [visitor’s name], this is Adam from Church of the Resurrection. I am so excited that you and [kids/spouse name] have been worshipping with us! My goal is to get to know the people who worship better so that I can be a better pastor to them and I would love to come bay and get to know you and your family. Would that be okay?” (p. 48). He’d then set up a time for a 45-min visit. During this visit conversation generally included:

  • Asking a couple how they met
  • Asking where a person was from
  • Asking about careers/career interests
  • Asking about church background

Hamilton would share his own background and story, including how and why he ended up at Church of the Resurrection. He emphasizes, “not preachy” and not like I was specifically witnessing to them. Finally, he would ask them if he could pray for them, and then offer prayers for the family, any job situations/transition challenges that had come up in conversation, and for God to guide them to the right church, and if Church of the Resurrection was the right church, for God to give them excitement about that.

I like that prayer time. The only thing I might change would be asking for God to give them contentment or confirmation about “St. XYZ Parish” as a home, since I’m not sure everyone relates to feeling “excitement” about finding a church home (though I certainly do, whenever I move!).

As a leader…Hamilton notes that he expects all of his ministerial staff and program leaders to develop timely methods for providing follow-up to the first-time visitors in their ministry areas.

Has anyone seen follow-up done in an effective and/or inspirational way in a Catholic parish? Please share!

Stephen Wright’s Contemporary Functions of Preaching


In Alive to the Word: A Practical Theology of Preaching for the Whole Church (SCM Press, 2010), Stephen Wright identifies functions preaching serves, addresses, and engages with in our contemporary setting:

1. Shared worship

  • “preaching is both effected by worship and enables worship” (p. 17)

2. Contemporary culture

  • “if preaching imitates too closely either the communication style of a previous generation or that of today, its transformative potential will be reduced. The question is not wehter our preaching ‘looks’ or ‘sounds’ strange in a culture accustomed to many other media, but whter that stragenes is a vehicle of transformation or a mere eccentric relic” (p. 21)
  • Potential roles of preaching: “voice of reconciliation withint he mistrustful and often polarized arena of public discourse,” “moment of refreshing and personal simplicity after the frenetic virtual world of internet exchange in which ‘friends’ may be ‘online,’ yet are not ‘there,'” “preaching can also function as a necessary and reassuring voice of wisdom in an ether awash with ‘knowledge’ which few know how to judge” (p. 22)

3. Theology

  • preaching is concerned with the way a congregation’s theological mind is shaped (p. 28)
  • “Churches today are no longer so purely ‘local’. Many Chrsitians are regular attenders at conferences and festivals, regular readers of online Christian material or printed notes, regular receivers of Christian magazines, regular listeners to Christian radio stations, and so on. What is said and done in these various forums may be far more penetrating of people’s perspectives than the preacher’s words. It may hold far greater sway over how, in practice, congegations interpret the Bible and construct a theology that appears to be both faithful and applicable” (p. 29)

4. Pastoral care

  • “To identify the preaching encounter as a ‘pastoral’ one does not imply anything about the hearers with respect to their prior commitment, allegiance or church membership; it encompasses ‘evangelistic’ preaching as much as ‘teaching’. Whatever kind of spiritual life our hearers have or do not have, we are their pastors inasmuch as we co-operate, or not, with the desire of Father, Son and Spirit to bring fullness of life to all” (p. 30)