If not me, then who will proclaim the Gospel? If not now, when will the Gospel be proclaimed? If not the truth of the Gospel, then what do I proclaim?
Scary questions might be particularly relevant for Lent 2020. And didn't Jesus have a knack for asking scary new questions? Today, he might put one this way: What if there is nothing wrong with "them"? You know "them" - all those families who no longer come to church. It used to be that those who had God at the center of their lives, automatically came to church. Today, churches are realizing that God has some that churches do not. Nevertheless, parish vitality still relies on families.
Families have been the most powerful discipling organisms throughout history. But we can no longer presume that these families see us as a spiritual resource in their brave new world. A church that is doing nice things is not enough. Parents want the best for their children, and that is Jesus. Do we help these families to know, love and serve God, in their lives? And, how are we different from the dozens of competing congregations which also claim to do this? Neither the grandeur of worship space, the winning personality of a leader, the popularity of programs, or clever use of technologies, are enough if our mission is not about making disciples for Christ.
According to the latest research, the fullness of truth, and access to sacraments, is not selling like it used to. What IS selling is a fervent and personal faith in Jesus, which is joyfully shared with others. Congregations that rely upon their positions on hot button issues, or cater to consumer appetites will fail with the next generation. Yes, some churches still rely on gimmicks to sustain attendance, perhaps with the honest hope that curiosity will lead to a holy longing, and cause vibrant faith. Only two problems with this theory: neither the current realities, nor the witness of the first Christians, support such an aspiration. The early church was driven by an urgency to foster in all people, a life in Christ. That is still what is needed today.
Every church should ask themselves - why are we here? Why do people come here and not drive a mile down to a more convenient Mass? What difference would it make if our church closed their doors on Sunday after the last worship service? How long would it take people to notice? What impact would it have on the community? Would people simply read the "Closed" sign on the door next weekend, and get back in their cars to find another nearby church? Is there a unique reason for our presence beyond weekly worship convenience, or some tribal affiliation? Does our parish command any particular loyalty, and is that loyalty Jesus centered? Answers to all of these questions can be found in conversation with our people.
It may be a scary new starting place. But, why not do what Jesus did? Ask the scary question that is already in everyone's mind. Your parish vitality might depend on it.
Pope Francis’ suggests that we evangelize when we encounter people at the margins. In other words, we learn to be missionaries by spending time with those whom church insiders often avoid. Sound hard? Maybe not as hard as it sounds. And, if we truly want our parishes to thrive and not merely survive, we need to be more attentive to those who are on the outside, than we are to those on the inside. Why? Because numerically speaking, that is where many of God’s people are located. It is our purpose as insiders to connect, welcome and engage with outsiders.
The method is simple: listen. Then listen until trust is built. Then listen until empathy grows. Why? What is in it for us? Just God’s people - who may possess the cure for parish dis-ease. Beware: the commitment to listen is not intended to be a one-off. Rather, it leads down a path toward re-investing and re-directing our energies, on behalf of those we encounter. These are the ones that Jesus insists are at the heart of our mission. Our success in a new evangelization is directly linked to what we learn from those at the margins.
Do you wonder to whom we can listen? Consider those with disabilities (at least one in five Americans), or those who feel discarded by the church - “Nones” (another one in five folks), or our young (yep, a growing majority), or the incarcerated, or those struggling just to live, or those wounded by church-folk, many of whom live in non-traditional households - “Dones”. With the help of those who already travel at the margins, it is still possible to hear from those who live there. Admittedly this will call us beyond our comfort zone, but I recall Jesus inviting that when he called his contemporaries to journey beyond the congregations and campuses of his day. It is it still possible that God has some that the church does not, and that the church has some that God does not.
Wondering where to begin? Listening can occur in conversations: one-to-one, tabletop conversation or facilitated small groups. It can happen at home, in the market, on break at work, etc. The purpose of such conversations is to learn about the personal needs, hopes and aspirations of another. It is essential to set aside ulterior motivations, along with pre-mature expectations (e.g. immediate results), when we listen. There can be no intentions for the person from whom we are trying to learn. We only hope to grow and appreciate those who we once saw more as different, but may soon come to see as more the same. Once trust is established, we are in a sacred space with one another. This is the place from which to receive a truth about their relationship with the church. But it helps to have a few good conversation movers. These questions might include:
- What do you most enjoy doing lately? With whom do you enjoy spending time? Why?
- For what do you most hope - for yourself, and for those you love?
- From where do you draw your strength... or find meaning or joy in life?
- Have people of faith helped or hindered you?
- How might people of faith help you, or those who you care about most, in the future?
- How has your life, or your experience with people of faith, impacted how you see God?
You might be surprised by what you hear. Interested in doing some listening? Contact Dennis Mahaney firstname.lastname@example.org or call 716-847-8393.
The Secret of Missionary Discipleship
Wondering what that secret is? It has alot to do with being sent and being with. There is a story about a church in decline. The baffled pastor of this aging congregation sent emissaries to a famous monk for advice. After hearing of their distress, the wise monk went off to pray. The next morning when they returned, the monk whispered five words of advice - "The Messiah is among you." and bid them farewell.
The emissaries were not sure if they fully understood this message, but they were overjoyed by the promise and brought it back to their congregation, each one wondering who the Messiah might be. Almost imperceptibly, the promise that one in this community was the Messiah, changed the way they treated one another.
There was a new vitality in the group. Worship grew in passion and purpose. The congregation began to attract people who wanted to join in their ministries of caring and compassion, which touched people well beyond the community. The secret to their success? Simply a joy for God's presence, which was there all along.
What about us? Are we not the body of Christ? Are we not an Easter and Eucharistic people, who know that ALL people are God's people? Any reading of the Gospel reveals that Jesus displayed a divine generosity and He spent most of his time with those least likely to be at church. Hospitality is the hallmark of anyone moved by joy for the Gospel.
Joy for the Gospel is much more than right belief and right behavior. It is an act of self-donation to God's merciful plan for all people. Missionary disciples see the church, not as a refuge from the world, but as a campaign headquarters for a mission in the world. Sabbath is when we pause and prepare for that campaign, which is either won or lost off church property. Therefore, parish is not a building but a mission field.
A missionary people listens to the signs of the times. They break open God's Word and give witness to their joy and hope at times, and in spaces, that are convenient and comfortable to outsiders and newcomers. They gather to praise God before being sent out, two by two (Lk. 10) and establish small groups which, by design, receive and welcome newcomers.
When Pope Francis insists that we are either missionaries or imposters, he is calling our attention to these divine realities. Do our catechists only address those who come to classes? Do our homilies only echo in the hearts of regular church goers? Does everyone at church see themselves as an ambassador of welcome to newcomers and visitors? Do our youth ministers and campus ministers spend an inordinate amount of their time and energy with those who already belong, believe and behave as we expect?
The mission of those who are saved is to be sent (the definition of "apostle"). Missionaries realize that God has some that churches do not, and that churches have some that God does not. Apostles are sent to be with those least likely to like us. What steps can you take to journey closer to Christ in your own life? And what about your parish - do you sense a joy for the Gospel? If you are wondering what this missionary discipleship looks like view this schema for what Pope Francis calls a Missionary Discipleship and find where you are along the road... by Dennis Mahaney
These sites are not an endpoint, but rather a first step toward encountering, following, finding joy with Christ in your life, and sharing Christ with others. Read through the sites, reflect and pray on what you see. Then act! If you feel so inspired, you may will wish to share something with a close friend, and perhaps ask them to consider how much better life can be with Christ.
Video: If I Could See Through Your Eyes - used with permission and brought to you by Array of Hope.