Resource Review: “Living as Missionary Disciples”

Have you ever wanted a CliffNotes version of doing evangelization in parish life? Look no further. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) recently released the leadership resource Living as Missionary Disciples, a rich, yet concise, guide to the theological foundations of evangelization that includes a practical framework for understanding the process and fundamental planning questions all of the baptized must ask if we are to participate in renewing the entire Church in North America, and turning from a maintenance to missionary way of life.

What is evangelization all about in our modern American setting?

“The New Evangelization is a call for all of us to have a deeper encounter with Christ, best expressed in a simple, confident, informed, and joyous witness to the faith, which attracts others and invites them to wonder what secret is motivating the Christian disciple” (p. 7).

The necessary first step is encounter. Our faith journeys take many forms and routes. Each of us proceeds at various “speeds” throughout our life–sometimes drifting or disinterested, sometimes feeling like we’re stalled, and other times on fire with zeal. But whatever our journey, a moment of personal encounter with Jesus as Lord and Savior must happen. And that encounter propels the rest, grounds us throughout all else that follows as a believer becomes a disciple, and a disciple becomes a missionary–one who is sent into the world.

The heart of being sent in this way is captured succinctly in our quote above–sending has been effective when others are attracted and wonder what that something is that makes the Christian believer tick. If what we think is encounter is parish life is not producing that authentically confident and joyful “witness to the faith” that does indeed “attract” and inspire curiosity, then we should wonder what’s going wrong. We should wonder God might be calling us to do, to participate in transforming our parishes from maintenance to mission.

catechetical-sunday-2017-clip-art-web-posterThe Good News is that Jesus is our Friend and Brother, always welcoming each of us when we choose to “come and see” (Jn 1:46). When we encounter Him we are empowered to follow (Mt 9:9), remain (Jn 15:4), and go on to make disciples of others (Mt 28:19).

What Living as Missionary Disciples succeeds in keeping at the forefront is that, “the goal of the New Evangelization…is always geared toward others” (p. 8). If there’s no outward flow, we should be concerned. The New Evangelization is not merely a spiritual reality–something interior that fails to impact the material world around us. No, our evangelized, transformed lives are meant to provoke curiosity and inspire desire for more in others.

If you’re not enthusiastically certain that your parish is setting the conditions for truly living as missionary disciples in our world, start the conversation this summer. Share Living as Missionary Disciples, and if you’re a leader in any way, shape, or form, check out these worksheets to spur discussion with key volunteers. The movement from maintenance to mission in your part of the world might begin with your parish.


Driving the Good News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Divine Renovation 2016 Tweet Round-Up

Like Parish Catalyst, Amazing Parish, and Matter Conference, the Divine Renovation 2016 gathering brought together a dynamic group, ready to roll up their sleeves, pray, plan, and fellowship in the Holy Spirit–all for the sake of Jesus and His Church.

Here’s my Twitter-verse round-up: 

On Leadership: 

“There is absolutely NO decision that I as a Priest work through on my own for the vision of the Church”-@FJMallon#DR16#Leadership@SaintBP
— corey robinson (@CoachRobinson1) June 14, 2016

Commitment to growth is incompatible with the “good enough” attitude. #DR16
— Father Souza (@fathersouza) June 14, 2016

“An overled and undermanaged environment is unsustainable..there’s lots of activity but not going anywhere.” #DR16
— Dan O’Rourke (@DanORourke) June 14, 2016

“Good administration will not do everything, but bad administration can really harm mission.” @bishopdowd #preach #DR16
— Josh Canning (@CatholicJosh) June 14, 2016

On Strategy and Operations:

“It’s not just about random programs that aren’t connected…the purpose isn’t to be busy.” @FJMallon #DR16 #Parish #Leadership
— Colleen Vermeulen (@EvangelToolbox) June 14, 2016

“I had to repent from ‘more is merrier’ to ‘less is more'” –@FJMallon#DR16#NewEvangelization#Leadership
— Colleen Vermeulen (@EvangelToolbox) June 14, 2016

 Are you married to the method or to the mission? #DR16
— Father Souza (@fathersouza) June 14, 2016

On Stewardship of Treasure, Time, and Talent:

Per @FJMallon, (parish) money problems aren’t actually money problems. Money problems are vision problems. #DR16
— Clayton Imoo (@claytonimoo) June 13, 2016

“Our expectation is that 100% of people will end up in ministry.” @ron_huntley #DR16
— Josh Canning (@CatholicJosh) June 13, 2016

The priest can’t be a personal chaplain for every person in the parish (unless the church is under 200 ppl). #DR16
— Father Souza (@fathersouza) June 14, 2016

On Evangelization:

If there’s nothing else, it [the Eucharist] is neither a source nor summit for that individual. #DR16 #Evangelization
— Colleen Vermeulen (@EvangelToolbox) June 14, 2016

#Evangelization isn’t just something you do only when the pews are empty… It has to be a way of life!
— Father Souza (@fathersouza) June 14, 2016

Our primary interaction with the unchurched isn’t Sunday, it’s #Alpha. –@FJMallon#DR16#Catholic#Evangelization
— Colleen Vermeulen (@EvangelToolbox) June 14, 2016

Parish Truth:


You can:

  • Read more Tweets tagged with #DR16 (you don’t need a Twitter account, just click here)
  • Watch the Plenary Sessions here
  • Read the original Divine Renovation book 
  • Start tuning into Divine Renovation podcasts
  • Learn more about Patrick Lencioni’s framework for “real leadership teams,” an underlying premise of the leadership behind many Divine Renovation initiatives

Guest Gifts, Hospitality, and Getting More Visitor Cards

Getting a visitor or guest to attend Mass (or anything) at your parish is a big deal. But discipleship takes relationship. How to get to know your guests?

A visitor/guest card is usually the first step to attaining the concrete information for follow up.

Image: CC BY NC ND 2.0, Dazegg via Flickr

Some churches will provide a small gift as a thank-you to those filling out and returning cards. And this is good. It’s not bribery. It’s being hospitable. If you come
visit me at my house, I’d probably offer you a beverage and snack (or at least I should!). Likewise, a gift of a $5 gift card to a local coffee shop for visitors who take the time to stop by a Welcome Table after Mass isn’t a sin.

But, some parishes just don’t like doing gifts. Period.

Here’s an awesome alternative idea from Life Point Ohio, from their website:

After our church service is over, please visit Guest Central outside the main auditorium doors to get your questions answered. Do you want to hear a fast and easy way to do a good deed? If you bring us a completed Guest Info Card (inside your listening guide that you’ll receive before the church service) we’ll make a $5.00 donation to a local or international charity.  It’s our way saying, “Thanks for joining us!”

A parish could even give visitors who come to return or fill out a card a choice of 2-3 places to make a donation (just look at the success of “Donors Choose” and other initiatives).

What does your parish do to boost or increase the # of visitor cards or contacts you make at parish events?  Share your successes and failures here, since it’s great to have visitor cards, but without guests returning them or a follow-up strategy, the value for growing disciples seems limited.


Review of Jared Dees’ “To Heal, Proclaim, and Teach”

heal_proclaim_teach-3dOkay, so I’m not going to lie. When I first picked up Jared Dees’ new book, To Heal, Proclaim, and Teach: The Essential Guide to Ministry in Today’s Catholic Church (Ave Maria Pres, 2016), I was initially underwhelmed. Even a little bored. I mean, Dees was just saying stuff that’s obvious over and over, that people in ministry know, right?

But I kept reading. And as I worked my way through the book, I realized that these characteristics are precisely what makes this book so valuable. Absolutely needed in American parish life. I cannot think of another book that summarizes the essential theology of evangelization in such an approachable, easy-to-reference way.

But this book is more than theology–it moves to a basic framework of practice that places all functions of typical parish life (that so many like to silo and separate) within the unity and fullness of evangelization. Dees explains:

Church leaders have talked and written and read about evangelization so much in recent years that we have placed it in a category of actions all to itself—as if evangelization were one mode of acting and speaking that ministers undertake completely separate from the work of other ministries. It would be a very big mistake to think that only those with offices and titles that include the word evangelization are responsible for it. It can be easy to separate, and our minds, the good work of managing soup kitchens are planning weddings or educating children in Catholic schools from the work of evangelization. But all ministries must be characterized by an evangelizing spirit, and all efforts at evangelization must be rooted in the ministerial priorities of Jesus (13-14).

In a thorough (almost 300 pages), yet remarkably readable way, Dees goes on to present the evangelization basics that lie behind parish transformation books like Rebuilt and Divine Renovation and provides the broader context for Sherry Weddell’s best-selling book on conversion, Forming Intentional Disciples.

The need for a book like this is real. As an adult educator, I get to know Catholic ministry volunteer leaders and parish staff from a wide range of backgrounds. Lots of different dioceses. Off the beaten path parishes. While it’s easy to look online and hear about Our Lady of Good Counsel in Plymouth, MI or the Amazing Parish work, and think that this is the big picture, it’s not. My husband and I are reminded every time we travel that “typical” Catholic parish life involves ministry staff and leaders who are in maintenance mode of a status quo that isn’t suited for our current evangelistic setting. There are huge gaps when it comes to having any sense of how authentically Catholic evangelization is and how it should organize and define all of parish life (rather than be sidelined as a burdensome “add on” or “new” ministry).

When engaging these well-meaning staff and volunteer leaders in conversation, there’s often a bit of hopelessness. A sense that there’s nothing “we” can do about the slow death of their parishes. Dees confronts this head on, explaining:

one possible response [to our setting] is to blame an uncontrollable consumer culture and simply admit defeat… but another possible response is to look at ourselves as Christian leaders and the work we have been doing to see if there’s something we can do differently to meet the spiritual—indeed, religious—needs of Americans today (viii).

He later adds:

We in Catholic leadership, in ministries complex and simple, are left with a choice. We can continue acting only as teachers resenting those who don’t “get it”, all the while wishing there were more people at mass on Sunday. Or, we can do things differently (9).

There you have it. A call to transformative, transforming, change leadership. A call for every baptized person–especially those comfortably self-identifying as catechists or religious educators–to own the mantle and privilege of evangelization.

The concrete practices he offers are simple. And really, what should we expect? Evangelization isn’t about a silver bullet or magic-perfect-program, it’s about the most fundamental motions of the faith. It’s about first being evangelized and surrendering to Jesus Christ as Lord, and then sharing this personal Good News as if divinely empowered to do so (Pentecost spoiler alert: we are!)

Who would I recommend this book to? Anyone who (like pastoral theologian, Zeni Fox, on the back cover) experiences discomfort with “evangelization.” Anyone who expresses concern about, or wants to know how Rebuilt, Divine Renovation, and Forming Intentional Disciples are solidly rooted in the Church’s teaching on evangelization. Anyone seeking a foundational “textbook” or “desk side reference” for catechesis or RCIA ministry [in fact, I’m pretty sure this will be on a required book list for some classes I teach in the future…]

If you’d like a peek, a free chapter is available for download here.

Disclaimer: Ave Maria Press provided me a free copy of this book. The opinions presented in this review (and all other posts referencing To Heal, Proclaim, and Teach) are my own.




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?”