Would the community be impacted if your parish ceased to exist? Would there be a decline in concrete acts of love?
Would fewer people experience transformed lives in the power of the Risen Lord?
There’s no such thing as a functional, yet irrelevant parish. It’s not okay to be a parish or church that’s extraordinary at providing “spiritual food” for insiders, yet is irrelevant to the world at large, to the mostly secular community around it.
How do any of our parishes or ministries become a place that’s an island without bridges to the world around us? In Good Faith, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons offer some insights relevant to all churches:
First, “irrelevance happens when your interests and someone else’s don’t overlap…the other person may admire your passion but cannot related to it” (p. 26). This is what being a disciple of Jesus Christ is like for most of our secular friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers. Christians (at best) come across as passionate in a way that can be admired, but it’s simply a compartmentalized passion others see–there’s no sense of overlap. This overlapping area is what in Catholic language we’d call pre-evangelization, intentionally following bridges of trust to connect a person’s lived experience and values with who God truly is.
How important is pre-evangelization? Kinnaman and Lyons data analysis suggests that 30% of Americans are “practicing Christians,” meaning they attend church once a month, and this attendance overflows into their lives–it’s not just a cultural identifier. On the other hand, 75% of Americans are “legacy Christians,” meaning “Christianity is background noise” a “muscle memory” of practices that are now “just part of a landscape, not guiding priorities” (p. 27). For these “Legacy Christians,” genuine Christianity is experienced as irrelevant.
I think for most of us in 21st century America, we should assume (unless overwhelming evidence to the contrary presents itself) that most of the people in our “mission fields,” our local communities find Christianity benignly irrelevant. This is a paradigm shift away from an “if we build it, they will come” mentality that expects people to become interested in Jesus and show up at our door, ready to speak our language and do what we suggest.
Where are you in this paradigm shift? A thriving parish that’s irrelevant, isn’t truly thriving. God offers us so much more. Jesus makes us His Body, his co-workers, and shares His mission of reconciliation, of healing, of teaching, and more–with the entire world. In what ways are you and your parish called to be more?
using evidence/examples from the audience’s [in this case secular] perspective (that’s right, so Paul, a trained Pharisee doesn’t even quote the Old Testament!)
avoiding stumbling blocks too early on in the relationship, i.e. while Paul talks about Jesus, he does not use terms that would cause pagan-defensiveness (like the name of Jesus)
inspiring curiosity, rather than giving answers
What does Acts 17 look like today, in our culture?
Check out this fantastic example from Bishop Robert Barron, as he heads over to the Rubin Report for an unscripted interview:
The reactions captured by Brandon Vogt highlight how much this is indeed an Acts 17 example in our modern world. Remember the aftermath of Paul’s speech:
When they heard about resurrection of the dead, some began to scoff, but others said, “We should like to hear you on this some other time.” And so Paul left them. But some did join him, and became believers. Among them were Dionysius, a member of the Court of the Areopagus, a woman named Damaris, and others with them. (Acts 17:32-34)
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.
So, 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.
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.
As 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.
As human beings, we seem hard wired toward sharing news when it’s great news. We enthusiastically communicate with others all the time when we have really good news to share. It doesn’t take any special training or programmatic preparation. So why isn’t talking about heaven something exciting and great to share?
A lot of Christians just aren’t sure about what eternal life includes. We believe in eternal life in the abstract sense, but deep inside, we’re not sure if a heaven that includes the worst sinners makes sense, we’re not sure if we want this eternal life if it’s just some manipulative reward for our own good behavior, we’re not sure if we want an endless continuity of a “better” earthly existence (i.e. a pop culture image of heaven as a place with endless luxury cars or something along those lines).
On this very day, nine years ago, Pope Benedict XVI opened the season of Advent by teaching on this ultimate hope in an encyclical letter called Spe Salvi [“in hope we were saved”]. Now, I wasn’t the type of person to be reading encyclicals when Spe Salvi first came out (truth be told, I think I was busy on a deployment in Iraq at the time)…however, since then I’ve come to love this encyclical. I find myself quoting it all the time to help offer language that resonates when it comes to talking about eternal life and the purification for those rooted in Christ that makes perfect communion with God possible!
So how does Pope Benedict describe eternal life with God?
the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality…like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy. (Spe Salvi, 12)
This way of thinking about heaven isn’t just about me as an individual. We believe that God’s final judgement “appears at the reestablishment of unity, in which we come together once more in a union that begins to take shape in the world community of believers” (Spe Salvi, 14). Heaven “presupposes that we escape from the prison of our ‘I'” (Spe Salvi, 14). We are not saved to be alone, but saved to be in perfect loving relationship.
As Pope Benedict goes on to explain:
Life in its true sense is not something we have exclusively in or from ourselves: it is a relationship. And life in its totality is a relationship with him who is the source of life. If we are in relation with him who does not die, who is Life itself and Love itself, then we are in life (Spe Salvi, 28).
But who can confidently look forward to eternal life knowing what Jesus teaches? i.e. we must be perfect as God the Father is perfect (Mt 5:48). The key is that what God calls us to is not a condition for eternal life with God; not a simple human quid pro quo. Yet it’s still the objective reality of who God is. Perfect. Complete. Love. Life. And logically, though we can be forgiven from any sin (except deliberately refusing to accept God’s mercy by repenting), we can’t be in perfect communion with the objective reality of God, if we ourselves can’t let go of all that holds us back, what’s not holy, our sinful tendencies. This is where purification, cleansing, or (as it’s commonly called) the process of purgatory comes in. As the Church believes, this spiritual purgation isn’t about cartoon skulls, bones, hard labor, and a time clock–but true salvation.
Here’s Benedict summarizing a way we can speak about this:
The encounter with him [Christ] is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation.
His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God…At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his [Christ’s] love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy.
It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning—it is the heart’s time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ. (Spe Salvi, 47)
If that’s not the most beautiful explanation of how encountering Christ in judgement isn’t a moment of terror, but instead a moment of hope, I don’t know what is!
How good is this news for those burdened with the idea that they need to earn salvation?
Or those living without the freedom of knowing how forgiveness and judgement can be possible?
It’s great news, that our earthly lives aren’t meaningless (and many people regardless of religious labels feel this, almost instinctively), that we can draw close to God now in preparation for eternity!
And, though as disciples of Jesus Christ we’re shouldn’t aspire to have lots of baggage that holds us back from perfect Love with God in eternity, it’s a blessing to know God is ready to make us “like Him” (1 Jn 3:2).
Finally, our belief in heaven does not exclude justice every human being yearns for. This is the comfort and hope of a final judgment, when all is revealed–the farthest consequences of all actions and in-actions (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1039). This great and final judgment does not reverse each of our individual judgments at the end of our earthly lives, but brings to completion God’s justice and grace. As Benedict observed, “a world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope. No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering” (Spe Salvi, 42). Eternal life includes this great and final judgment, where God’s power reveals all. In in this revealing, comes God’s justice–the suffering we cause or alleviate matters, not above or against God’s mercy, forgiveness, and purification, but within God’s ultimate plan to bring all things into perfect Divine Love and Life.
How’s that for a robust description of “heaven”? These Church teachings are great news.
Ask people about spirituality beyond this world, about the afterlife, about cosmic judgement…you’ll be surprised how many people (regardless of labels like atheist, agnostic, non-practicing Catholic, etc.) have a sense of a supreme moment of satisfaction, of contact with perfect Love that impacts both themselves and relationships with others, of a supernatural justice. You’ll be surprised how many Christians have always believed in heaven, but never thought deeply about how Christ purifies them, or have a way to speak about how our actions matter, without resorting to a [false!] works-based salvation.
We indeed have good news to share that can change a person’s life, bring them freedom from having their hopes constrained by the physical world we see each day, and open them up to the Truth that comes with this Love and Life.
When something becomes popular, there’s a tendency to focus on the “brand” or the “name” rather than the essentials that make it what it is.
Last week, I was blessed to attend the Diocese of Lansing’s Called By Name Assembly. A theme uniting speakers and our table discussions was the importance of pre-evangelization, that initial proclamation of God’s saving plan doesn’t happen in some sterile vacuum. It happens between individuals, usually people who are acquainted with each other, and always people who trust each other enough to be a little bit vulnerable, be a little more open than our unfriendly culture encourages–and, just a little bit more loving.
Of all the popular “on-ramps” into the Christian life or “processes that foster conditions for conversion” (as we might call these in a generic sense), I think Alpha embodies the heartiest dose of pre-evangelization principles. Pre-evangelization is a core part of Alpha. Cut out the pre-evangelization (because you don’t think you need it, don’t have the time, etc.) and turn it into a catechetical program, and you’re all good, right? Wrong.
If you’re a little bit uneasy, wondering if your Alpha (or plans for running an Alpha) are turning into straight up initial proclamation of the Gospel in a vacuum or catechesis, then I highly encourage you to listen to an absolutely fantastic 3-part podcast from St. Benedict’s Parish in Halifax, Nova Scotia called “How to Kill Alpha in 10 Easy Steps” (it’s episodes 10, 11, and 12 here). The heart of the 10 steps all comes back to ignoring the importance of pre-evangelization, of belonging, of experiencing authentic human life and values as part of the “normal” life of the Body of Christ, as the vast ocean in which any and all proclamation of the Gospel must occur.
One more intriguing tidbit from the Pew Research Center in this new study: insight into the factors common among those who now attend religious services more regularly than they used to.
First off, how common is it for a person to increase their rate of religious attendance? 27% of Americans fall into this category–a reminder that, despite some popular perceptions, we actually live in a very open and curious society, where many are experiencing changes in their religious practices toward the positive.
So how do these Americans explain the reasons for changes?
49% mention changes in their personal religious beliefs as the main reason for attending more often
23% mention social factors, including changes in family structure (such as marriage or the birth of a child), entering different phases of life (e.g., going to college, joining the military, etc.) or a desire for fellowship or community
20% mention practical changes, such as having a work schedule that permits them to attend church more often now than in the past
Implications for Ministry:
Changes in belief matter more than anything else. What beliefs are adults learning and entering into more deeply in your parish life? Is what’s emphasized the most something that would inspire increases in practice?
Times of social transition are opportunities. This means thinking beyond sacramental preparation for baptism and marriage as “the” coming back moments. How are we aware and responding to these transitional life stages?
Practical things–like transportation, universal accessibility, times of Mass/programs, childcare, etc.– matter, a not-insignificant 20% of the time. How can we remove practical barriers to increased participation, not as an afterthought, but as an intentional part of our local strategies.