Yesterday, I ran across this post at Terrence Berres’ The Provincial Emails – about >planning against decline in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. I found the whole thing depressing and frustrating in the way I have found such conversations depressing and frustrating for decades now, being as they often are massive, wasteful, misdirected exercises in Missing the Point. Certainly strategic planning is important for organizations with loads of property, serious personnel issues and financial problems. Certainly. But the issue of institutional “vibrancy,” especially for a Christian organization, doesn’t seem to me to fall in this category. This effort is not unique, just as the problems are not unique. On a smaller scale, anyone who has ever sat through endless gatherings in parish meeting rooms hammering out mission statements and strategies for helping parishioners feel involved…you know how it goes. And you know we always seem to end up asking the wrong questions. Sherry Weddell at the Siena Institute blogs on the matter:
The really startling thing is not that attendance is dropping. The really startling thing is that both the original post and the article in the Catholic Herald talk in vague terms about a crisis of “identity” and “commitment” to the institution.
“If fewer people are coming, we are falling down on our Eucharistic commitment,” Welte said. “Each of us who calls ourselves Catholic must first be critical of ourselves and ask what kind of a member am I and if I am not a good member, can I commit to being one? If I am a so-so member, what can I do to improve? Our whole community is impacted whenever someone doesn’t show up.”
“Our Catholic identity stays with us,” she said. “But when someone dies, will there be a church to provide a Christian burial? There are huge implications here.”
But neither post and article mention Jesus. They never use the word Christ. They never mention God. And that, gentle readers, is our real problem in 21st century America.
The vast majority will not come to us. We will have to seek them out, gain their trust, articulate the kergyma, and challenge them to believe and to follow Christ in communion with his Church. In other words, we will have to be pioneer missionary evangelists in the midst of a “Christian” country. And then we may well see attendance grow, not because of “institutional” loyalty but because a whole new generation is seeking to follow Christ. They will be in our midst with love in their hearts and fire in their eyes.
As you know, I’ve been sort of obsessing about various forms of Protestant evangelicalism/emergent/missional type churches. I continue to fail to be impressed because despite a couple of strengths, as a rule these groups don’t communicate the fullness of faith in Christ, they are rooted in an ethos that puts values like excitement, change, coolness, and a certain kind of “creativity” at the center of their efforts, with the consequence being personality-driven efforts to “attract” folks to listen to “great music” and the vagues sort of Christian message framed mostly in self-help language.
But what they do all, without fail, evince is a missional spirit, a determination to reach out and help others see how this version of faith they offer intersects with life and is the answer to their problems and the voids they feel in their lives.
While Catholic efforts, such as they are, remain mired in concerns about institutional health, numbers, finances and, as an attempted solution, “Catholic identity.”
The answer is not to attempt to simplistically and slavishly imitate the apparent success of these rapidly growing church plants, as tempting as it might be, since they are, indeed, growing, and so much of their growth comes from now-unchurched Catholics. (Which makes sense demographically, as someone once explained it to me, speaking, for example of Willow Creek. Someone from Willow Creek once said that 40% of their church is ex-Catholics. Well, as unfortunate as that might be, in an area in which the population is 40% Catholic, period, that is to be expected.)
Because I don’t think the growth is going to bear lasting fruit, and reading in some of their own literature, you are starting to hear worrisome noises about this, too – concerns about lasting church committment or lifestyle change, concerns about young people, and so on. It’s definitely there. These rapidly-growing places are very “contemporary” in their feel (whatever that means – one person’s contemporary is another person’s “er…lame”), so where does that leave those who grow out of the desire to have worship that’s centered on that type of music and pop culture themes? They seem to be extraordinarly centered on the personalities of the leaders. One “effort” that’s creating some sort of buzz these days is My Naked Pastor – a Florida pastor who’s letting his life be on camera 24/7 for several weeks. That’s exhausting and ultimately a distraction from the Gospel. Not even “ultimately.” The attitude to worship and prayer and ritual can’t sustain or contain much beyond the emotions of the moment. It’s totally dependent on the vigor of the crowd, the charm of the leader, the vibe of the moment. The small groups that are an important part of these efforts can be powerful means of reaching people, but not everyone is into small groups. Thinking, for example, in a Catholic context, that the answer to a parish’s ennui is to divide the whole parish in small groups and force them to meet mid-week and so on, is a mistake, because it forgets the blessed value of diversity and respect for spiritual variety that is the hallmark of Catholicism. Some might see a small group as a marvelous thing; others might run. Fast.
But, as I said, while I think it’s a total mistake for Catholics to say, “Well, it’s working for them…” (because in the long run, I don’t believe it is working, and besides what they are doing is not what Catholics do as Church), the missional attitude, the deep concern for the unchurched and the unbeliever, the welcoming spirit, and the clear proclamation that what we do here is about life – is something to call on because, you know, it’s ours. In our sacraments, in our individual devotion, in the teaching we preserve and pass on, in our works of mercy and discipleship – it is all about life. There is no disconnect, and whoever you are, you need Christ and this is the place – his Body – where he is found. He wants you to be here, and so, it goes without saying, so do we.
Remember what parish boundaries are all about. They are not so much about where you have the responsibility to go to Mass. They are essentially about for whom the pastor (and others) have responsibility. That’s right. The pastor’s responsibility is to share Christ with the parish – which is not just the people who show up on Sundays – it’s every person who lives in those boundaries, Catholic or not. Yeah.
That reality gets sucked up, most of the time, in the other realities of paying the heating bills and keeping the parish school on an even keel, but really, it’s all of a piece. The question, as raised by the Milwaukee effort, is, indeed, “Where is everyone?” But really, think about the past forty years in Catholicism – have planning meetings, chatting about vibrancy and diocesan wide-efforts to make everyone more aware of their Catholic identity actually borne much fruit? Or just more mission statements and information packets collecting dust in a bottom drawer?
Because, see, that’s not the Catholic way, either – the way of evaluating the health and future of the Church via schematics and diagrams and planning packets either. The Catholic way is to imitate the saints, it seems to me. To preach, to teach, to gather the lost, to heal the sick, to be with the poor – to plunge into it. That happens in changing circumstances, and today it happens, in our context, in a religious marketplace with few religious orders, few priests and people who seem on the surface to want everything but what Catholicism offers. With the added challenge of understanding that there is not one single means that answers this challenge – the diversity of new movements, evangelization efforts, religious orders, spiritual devotions and so on within Catholicism has to be respected and nurtured and not flattened out into programs, packets and diagrams that ironically leach out the very vibrancy they are attempting to capture.
Which happens, I usually find, because people are relying on New Things and New Ideas and Exciting Paradigms instead of thinking – just a little bit – about what tradition has to teach us. As the Pope said today:
The preachings of the Chrysostom often took place within the liturgy, the ‘place’ in which the community builds itself with the Word of God and the Eucharist. In the liturgy, the gathered assembly expresses the one Church (Homily 8,7 on the Letter to the Romans) – the same Word addressed everywhere to everyone (Homily 245,2 on the first Letter to the Corinthians), and the Eucharistic Communion becomes a powerful sign of unity (Homily 32,7 on the Gospel of Matthew).
His pastoral plan was clearly within the life of the Church, in which the lay faithful, through Baptism, take on a priestly function that is at once royal and prophetic. To the lay faithful, he says: “Baptism makes you king, priest and prophet” (Homily 3,5 on the second Letter to the Corinthians).
And so the fundamental obligation of mission comes from that, because each is, to some degree, responsible for the salvation of others: “This is the principle of our social life…not to interest ourselves only in ourselves!” O(Homily 9,2 on Genesis). Everything takes place between two poles: the larger Church and the ‘small Church’, the family, in reciprocal relationship.
As you can see, dear brothers and sisters, this lesson from the Chrysostom on the authentically Christian presence of laymen in the family and in society, is more than ever relevant today. Let us pray the Lord to make us more obedient to the teachings of this great master of the faith.