proclaim 2018: parishes for the unchurched and lost

IMG_6330Held in Brisbane for the first time in its short history, Proclaim Conference 2018 gathered more than 600 participants from 12-14 July to discuss parish evangelisation with its theme drawn from John’s Gospel, “Make your home in me”. Keynote speakers over the three days included Archbishop Mark Coleridge, Cardinal John Dew from Wellington, Ron Huntley of the Divine Renovation network, Karolina Gunsser from Citipointe Church in Redcliffe, and Lana Turvey-Collins from the national facilitation team for the Plenary Council.

With a renewed process for workshops that encouraged shorter inputs and extended dialogue, and discussion panels on each day, the conversations were broad and, for the most part, unguarded. From the urgency of God’s mission, to the inseparability of evangelisation from the person of Jesus, and of the parish from the unchurched, to the health or otherwise toxicity of our parish cultures, and the ongoing experience of the sexual abuse crisis, participants were given nourishment and challenge for their pastoral practice.

I was privileged to facilitate four workshops and participate in a panel on ‘culture change, parish renewal and evangelisation’ together with Sally Hood of ACU Campus Ministry, Ron Huntley, and Andrea Dean of the Office for the Participation of Women. Below is a summary of my brief workshop input which looked at the connection of parish life to the unchurched.

Horizons of Parish Renewal 

IMG_6316As a former ‘outsider’ to the Church it has taken some twenty years to learn to live as a baptised person and still the learning continues. Through my own faith experience I have come to believe that the parish is essential to Christian growth and discipleship. Indeed, if we did not have parishes we would have to invent them – local communities of faith gathered around the Word and Eucharist where faith is given shape and social support, fostered into discipleship and then enters the world through our living witness.

Together with the family and school, the parish is where the majority of people encounter the Church and it is where the vast majority of clergy will live out their life’s vocation. So the health and vitality of the parish matters to all of us, not only in respect of our common life but also for our personal faith.

However, part of the challenge is that when our parishes have not grown in roughly six or seven decades in Australia (since at least the 1950s), it is inevitable that there will be a small amount of people who love how we do things and a whole community who don’t.

In the face of this reality, this workshop addresses parish evangelisation through four horizons toward which I think our parishes and parish ministries are called to move. Perhaps we may never fully arrive in our own local community, but these horizon lines can orient us toward our mission. A horizon places everything in its foreground into a context or perspective, shedding light and offering clarity for the journey we are on. We may need to shift our stance or be alert to rocks in our own harbour stifling our way but we are assured of making progress if we have the courage “to appreciate small things inside large horizons” (Pope Francis). I offer here four horizons that I hope shed light on your current parish practice and supply steps toward an evangelising culture within parish life.

Clarity on the Mission of our Parish

The first horizon to which we can move is clarity on the mission of our parishes. Even as a brute fact of survival, we can affirm that the future of our parishes depends on those who currently do not believe. There is no future without the lost or unchurched.

Evangelisation is a necessity to maintain even what we have as local communities of faith. This is obvious enough in the struggle to maintain our ministries, our giving and even, in some parishes, our hope. More positively, when we bring others to Jesus and the Church it plants energy and life in our communities. We know this from the small trickle of people who enjoin our community through the RCIA, who come to personal faith in the midst of the Church.

More importantly, however, a focus on those who are unchurched neatly aligns with Jesus who comes not for the righteous but for sinners, who places the needs of the outcast and ailing before his own flock.

In the Gospel of Luke, we witness Jesus walking through the town of Jericho and reach out to Zacchaeus, a tax collector for the Roman establishment. Jesus steps into Zacchaeus’ house as a guest of a sinner, scandalises the watching crowd, and rejoices in Zacchaeus’ conversion, declaring “Today salvation has come to this house… for the Son of Man has come to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9-10). We see this a pattern throughout his ministry – Jesus challenges the insiders and he comforts the outsiders.

The ecclesiology lesson we draw from Jesus’ ministry can be summarised in this way (from Sean Sears, pastor at Grace Church in Boston): the Church is not for Christians. The Church is Christians and it is for those who are not.

Crowd-People-Walking-Business-BlurryThe Church is not for ourselves. In Pope Francis’ language, our community is called to be a ‘field hospital’ serving those who most need help now, the wounded and the lost. This is the antithesis of the self-referential Church. We are called to leave the ninety-nine to find the one, or in our Australian reality, leave the one to find the ninety-nine.

The likely challenge we can feel is that as essential as this outward focus is to our survival, as faithful as it is to the mission of Jesus himself, as urgent as this mission is to our health and growth, when we start changing things in the parish to better reach out, accompany and actively welcome outsiders (whether that’s through our Mass times, our language, our carparks, or our own position in the pews), people start to become uneasy precisely because it is not about them.

Change always sound great until people start to experience it. We can call for reform but are not always open to our own conversion. The reality for our Church is that any change will tend to be a ‘big change’ because of the weight of our Church culture toward maintaining the status quo. In our ecclesial culture there tends to always be a reason not to change, and yet we experience so little fruit on the collective vine as parish participation rates in Australia decline to near 11%.

When we proclaim that our parish is not about us but about the unchurched, some of us in community can feel a little like the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The older brother has been utterly loyal and committed and served his Father’s house all this time. However, when he realises it is not about him but the one who has been lost, the older brother struggles to rejoice at the one who had not earned his welcome but whom the Father nevertheless embraces and lavishes upon with love.

We know in the mind of Jesus that the older brother is just as lost because everything the Father has is for the older brother too. What the Father seeks from his first son is a largeness of heart to rejoice when the lost are saved, a heart for his youngest son who was dead but is now alive.

In the culture of our parishes it is all too easy for the people inside the church to become a higher priority than reaching those outside the church. This is understandable to some extent as the ‘insiders’ keep things running, they lead our ministries and yes they pay the bills. However, for fear of making these insiders unhappy, our parishes tend to hold on to programs even if these seeds are bearing no fruit on account of the toxicity of the soil or culture in which they are hosted. This can keep our house small and our family brooding or even bitter rather than welcoming and marked by the charity that the Gospel demands.

In contrast, if we do as Jesus invites us to do and seek out and reach the lost and the unchurched, the life of the ‘older brother’ is also renewed. So, it is for our parishes: outward focused churches create the healthiest insiders.

Picture1In fact, inward looking churches create consumers with preferences, while outward looking churches create missionaries with larger hearts and stories to tell, stories about how Jesus has changed their life. This is the heart of an evangelised parish culture – one beggar telling another beggar how he found bread.

What are the concrete signs that we have moved toward this first horizon, clarity on the mission of the parish? It is that we should expect to encounter more people who have made a mess of some aspect of their past. If we find ourselves working with these people in our parishes, it is a sign we are doing something right.

We sometimes think we need to go out and make people Christians and then bring them to Church. We often want to ‘clean’ the fish before we ‘catch’ them but that’s not how fishing works. What we want to do is to bring them into our community in the complexity of their situations, create environments which are compelling and faith filled, and offer accompaniment that treats their wounds with the balm of mercy, spiritual counsel and ecclesial belonging so they can begin to walk with Christ, experience in time his sacramental life and live out his apostolate as Christ’s disciples.

As the saying goes, we will be most like Jesus when we are spending increasing time with people farthest from him. In a word, if everyone in our parish is comfortable with who is showing up (if it is all ‘older brother’ and none of the lost) then our front doors are probably not wide enough.

Recognising God’s Mission is Greater than our Methods 

The second grand horizon or vista to which we can move is recognition that God’s mission is always greater than our methods, no matter how we currently do things. If we focus anew on the unchurched for health, growth and to be faithful to Jesus’ mission, then we will need to change our practices (e.g. if we preach to the unchurched we are likely to speak to everyone).

download-1A classic example of the need to prioritise our mission over method can be found in the story of Kodak, the photography business established at the turn of the twentieth century, with the expressed purpose of preserving memories which is a seemingly indestructible mission.

However, by the 1990s Kodak were sideline players in a growing digital market and by 2012 they had filed for bankruptcy. And yet, in 1975 they had every opportunity and capacity to change and grow. In fact, Kodak created the first digital camera but dropped the project for fear that it would threaten its existing film business. Kodak was more wedded to its method than its mission.

In a similar vein, in the U.S. 90% of heart patients who are told to change their lifestyle habits or die, choose death over change! (Fast Company Report, 2005)

Parishes that choose their current methods over their mission will die, as what got us here as communities will not always take us where we need to go. If the landscape of faith has changed, and our parishes are still reading off the same maps, our parishes are going to get lost along the way.

What, then, are the methods, programs and practices that no longer serve our parish life and growth? For example, it is clear that we have been catechising and sacramentalising the unevangelised. This practice has borne little fruit over the past decades. As well, we often focus on welcome in our parishes which is certainly important. However, without a practical strategy for invitation there may be less and less people to welcome.

We need to stop setting the bar too low for ministries that matter and nurture strengths based ministry rather than engage in desperate recruitment of anyone who might be available (e.g. a bulletin notice from my own parish for musicians noted, almost as an afterthought, “It does help if you can read music and/or sing in tune and in time”!)

We might have to preach without assuming too much (e.g. that our congregations understand the gift of the Eucharist or the context of Gospel readings) and preach purposely into people’s lives (e.g. our Trinity Sunday homilies almost never touch on the Great Commission and tend to deliver flimsy abstractions that leave people disoriented or disengaged).

What no longer serves the mission of the parish and needs to be set aside so we can redirect the hard labour of maintenance to the real promise of mission? What pathway might we need to put in place to accompany people from no or little faith into an encounter with the living Christ (whether it is a five-step process of Divine Renovation or the three-step method of the parish of Rebuilt)?

It is a truth of our life of faith that prior to conversion to God’s mission, it is behaviour which determines belief (‘Things have always been done this way’) and so mere habit becomes the reason to maintain our well-worn methods. However, after conversion to God’s mission, it is belief which determines our behaviour, resulting in better responses to change (‘What can we do to now reach them?). It is our mission which will drive our methods and constitute the criteria by which we assess our groups and our programs.

Structures to Support our Mission

old-vines-south-australia-wine-story-adelaide-review-800x567A third horizon we can move toward in forming evangelising parishes is structures that support the mission. We want to grow but many parishes are not necessarily structured to grow. There can be literally “no room in the inn” for change.

Take for example the ministry of the priest. A priest can certainly maintain a parish largely by himself, conscripting lay leaders to fulfil the basic functions of community and to keep the wheels turning. However, if the parish wants to go out in mission and reach the unchurched the priest will have to learn to lead with and alongside others. This is because one priest can only have so many meaningful relationships, perhaps a hundred at most. If a parish wants to go out and reach the lost and unchurched, then this realistically demands a team of lay leadership with whom the mission and methods are proclaimed, structured and taken forwards.

So, structure affects mission by default or design. Like a trellis, it will encourage growth and provide room for change and adaption, or like a small pot it will restrict the size to which a sapling can grow.

As a practical parish example, in walking alongside a priest in another diocese, he had inherited a well-resourced parish but also a structure of staff that made mission and outreach difficult.

The parish team consisted of a parish priest, two assistant priests, a three day a week secretary, a two day staff member for accounts, two days for a sacramental coordinator, two days for a pastoral care coordinator, two days liturgical preparation, and two days youth ministry (the equivalent of almost four full time staff).

You can guess how many of these staff reported directly to the parish priest – all eight. The structure of parish staff was keeping him somewhat boxed in, tied to the order of maintenance.

However, if we consider a structure with three teams – an operations team (with a secretary and a report of finance), a newly created evangelisation team (with a four day a week parish evangelisation coordinator working on Alpha, engagement and formation of ministers in the parish, with direct reports of a sacramental coordinator and the youth minister, and accompanied by an assistant priest) and a communications focus (actually integrated into the youth role, so not requiring a paid employee but remaining an area of focus) we could reduce his direct reports from eight to a more manageable five. The previous paid liturgical role was made voluntary and the pastoral care coordination role was integrated into the new evangelisation coordinator role.

This structure empowers lay leadership, and gives back time to the priest for the core work of setting parish vision through his weekly homilies, and to drive and support the evangelisation of adults from which all else flows.

We cannot address the renewal of parishes without looking under the hood or checking the fuel gauge, whether that is our staffing arrangements, our budgets or ministry structures. It is one of the hardest things to do but it is the right horizon or direction in which to move.

Mission in Action

FootprintsThe fourth horizon we can move towards is putting mission into action, perhaps the hardest pilgrimage of all. As a friend once shared, conferences can sometimes be a bit like this: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit” and when we get home, it is more “… as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end”.

I want to acknowledge that in suggesting a comprehensive focus on the unchurched, methods and strategies to support this kind of evangelisation, and renewed structures to enable growth, we can be tempted to feel overwhelmed.

However, I believe we can make change at every level of the Church, even in our own individual parish ministry groups. Parishes need ‘lighthouse’ ministries that show the way, to show that evangelisation is urgent, possible and can bring about personal and spiritual change.

Whether it is a music ministry or a form of service like a St Vincent de Paul conference, it is possible to shift toward a dedicated outward focus, a culture welcoming of outsiders and challenging of insiders, with a commitment to elevating mission over old methods and to revisit current structures to support the goals we want to achieve. Ultimately, our plan is our people, not programs, and leadership is essential to our cultural transformation. What we do every day matters more than what we do once in a while.

Conclusion

As Christians, people of the Incarnation in which the Word was made flesh, we know that the medium is the message. Jesus not only proclaims the Kingdom of God but embodies it in his person.

In that light, we can ask, ‘What image of God and God’s mission does your parish convey’? How does your parish vision, your parish method, your parish structure, and the action of your parish express the mission of Jesus who came to ‘seek out and save the lost?’ (Luke 19:10).

I believe every parish can grow in its outreach and move towards an evangelising culture but it demands our intent and conviction to bring it about. We are being called to reclaim our primary mission, to bring the nations to a living faith in Jesus who is, as the Church describes, “the light that knows no setting”.

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proclaim 2016 keynote address

SB058On the 24 November, 1999, on a drizzly Wednesday evening, I was baptised in a parish in the north-western suburbs of Sydney. Heralding from a family of Buddhist and Taoist heritage, I entered the Church at the age of twenty, gathered with a priest, sponsor, fellow catechumens and a mixed group of close friends, mostly of no religious background. A small but powerful group had accompanied me through the process of initiation and I was fully conscious and grateful for the fact that in God and this community I had been granted something which I would spend the rest of my life learning to be faithful to, learning to enter into, learning to trust.

If a history of that parish were to be taken that date in November would not have stood out for any special recognition. I am sure it was for the most part an ordinary and customary year. However, beneath the everyday rhythm of this local parish it was for me a time of great consequence, of vital, spiritual breakthrough into the life of God to discover Christ as the total meaning of my life.

I share this to affirm that amidst the unfussy pews of the parishes we know and love the grace of Christ continues to move and mould hearts to his own. The local parish, even in its ordinariness, remains a privileged location of God’s transforming grace in the world.

However, as we take a wider view of the Australian parish we must admit that the possibility of personal spiritual breakthrough is not the same thing as the frequency of its happening.

This would be suggested by the challenges faced by our communities today, well known and rehearsed – declining weekly Mass attendance, now at a “critical moment” and leaning toward single digits across the nation; an ageing profile; the critical and chastening scrutiny of a Royal Commission; low morale in some quarters; low religious literacy among some of those we encounter; the pain of structural change and amalgamations directing energies inwards; and the by-product of diocesan decline, increasing managerialism within the culture of the Church that pulls towards the bureaucratisation of pastoral care.[1]

The Church in Australia can no longer rely on a ‘conveyer belt’ which was presumed to take Catholics from the cradle to the grave in faith, the assumption that a Catholic baptism and the mere fact of going to a Catholic school, for example, would secure a lifetime of committed discipleship. Historical circumstance and cultural momentum will no longer carry the Australian parish.

A new imagination is called forth and is demanded by the mission we have received, to make disciples and apostles of the baptised and the unbaptised, to be a leaven in the world as the sign and reality of the new freedom given in Jesus Christ. The flourishing of personal discipleship and apostolic outreach must become the motivating norm for our Church. For this to become a reality we are called to become more open and responsive to what God passionately desires to do through our parishes.

The Problematic


australia-allReflecting on the Australian Church, I would concur that the central challenge for parish life is this: we are caught between a call and desire for renewal and the weight of our own church culture towards maintaining the status quo. In this moment which cries out for new apostolic zeal, we can feel bound by layers of expectation that demand the continuation of the old even while new forms of parish life and mission long for expression.[2]

How do we address the culture of a local parish that may desire change but does not want to change, that desires to grow, be joyful and bear new fruit but contains within it organisational antibodies that tend to kill anything that is new? How do we move our communities towards radical, fervent outreach when a ‘convoy routine’ permits spiritual progress or cultural change only at the speed of the slowest ship? As intimated by Pope Francis, the insistence that “we have always done it this way” – less often said than expressed in passive resistance – reveals a complacency at odds with the urgency of disciple-making which has been tasked to this generation.[3]

What are the levers or the strategies of prophetic witness that can lead us into that future which God invites, that can embolden us to ‘step into’ this future that has not yet fully arrived? The future of the Australian parish and its redemptive mission in the world are tied up with the preparedness of our local communities to take a conscious step towards their own conversion.

The Need of Vision

Such a cultural shift within our parishes demands that we reclaim the ‘why’ of our existence as local communities of faith. While talk of parish evangelisation often leaps to the ‘what’ – to programs, tools and techniques, reflective perhaps of our hardy Australian pragmatism – the ‘why’ or rationale of our parishes cannot be taken for granted.

On the ground, we appreciate the significance of the ‘why’ for our people when they receive the sacraments, those of initiation and besides. We earnestly want their ‘why’ to be Jesus, not merely school enrolment or unthinking convention. We understand the difference this ‘why’ makes to their likely future participation in the life of faith and the Church. We know that this ‘why’ distinguishes the disciple from the ‘what’ of the consumer who arrives asking ‘what do I get here’ rather than ‘who am I called to be here’. If we seek to grow our parishes for mission, we need to clarify and communicate the ‘why’ of our total parish life and this is called vision.

baptism-adultFundamentally we are called to be a Church of the Great Commission. This is our vision, the ‘northern star’ guiding our resolve. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19). As it has been pointed out, in our Catholic Church we have certainly learnt to “go” and can claim a presence at all corners of the earth. We “baptise” and confirm relentlessly. We “teach” and catechise great numbers in our schools and sacramental programs. However, our ability as Church to “make disciples” remains in question, as raised by the pastoral realities for the Australian Church we have explored.[4] A local parish vision that reclaims the Great Commission as our primary calling clarifies the purpose of our community and makes it possible for others to become a part of that purpose.

It is worth noting that a parish vision for the making of disciples and of ongoing apostolic support for the laity can arise from our hopes as well as our laments. Our restlessness and frustrations too can be helpful signs pointing us beyond what we have in hand, acting as a mirror image of our deepest desires for our community. When a bold vision of spiritual vitality is discerned it supplies the energy and constant challenge to the ethos and practices of a parish as it journeys toward that goal.

Within our Catholic culture, some voices express resistance to the need of an articulate vision and pastoral planning for our parishes and dioceses on the basis that this is a bureaucratic exercise, more at home in the Business Review Weekly than in our Church. Others oppose talk of setting a ‘vision’ for our communities on the basis that it second-guesses the providence of God whose Spirit indeed leads where it will.

As a community of faith we certainly do not have a road map or certainty for our future, a future that belongs to God. However, we do have a story of the kind of people, the kind of disciples, and the kind of communities we want to be as we make our journey towards that unknown future.

14546210When we communicate a vision of the parish, how we seek to respond to God in this context, in this time, in this local community, when we can articulate a vision of the kinds of spiritual growth we are seeking to raise up in our people, this passionate purpose becomes the heartbeat or pulse of a parish. Conveniently, and not incidentally, a renewed vision provides the case for change.

The alternative to a parish communicating vision is a community standing in the silence of an unquestioned routine. The lifeblood of the parish might occasionally receive a boost or uptick through the initiative of individuals or the occasional event but without a sustained vision to consistently stimulate a higher life, the pulse of the parish inevitably slows and returns to maintenance, to the pace of survival rather than growth.

While no substitute for the parish, it must be acknowledged that the ecclesial movements in their charisms and narratives of holiness have shown us the power of a story to tell, as do the saints, those ‘bright patterns of holiness’ who image or supply a vision for the divine touching human lives.

I would like to suggest that in establishing its vision and promoting cultural change, a parish can gain much from imagining or visualising itself ten times better rather than only ten per cent better. This is because a small goal will tend to lead us to incremental changes that are based upon the existing rhythm, resources, programs and assumptions of the parish, leading to only slow or grinding progress.[5] Aiming for the sky, however, forces us to question our community assumptions and the fruit of our present culture, sheds bold and even new light on the taken-for-granted details of the everyday. Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom was so grand that it cast fresh light on who could eat at table. It was so immense that it gave meaning to tiny seeds. It was so extravagant it could sustain meaning in a Gethsemane night, even on the Cross.

It is no accident that the missionary determination of Pope Francis in The Joy of the Gospel begins with a grand dream, by looking out, not looking down.[6] In any case, if we do not cast a vision for our parishes, the question will inevitably rise from the pews, ‘Are we going anywhere?’

Prayer 1_2It is worth noting that when a parish makes a commitment to a clear vision of personal discipleship and spiritual community, presenting this before its people, other good things begin to flow. With a vision pointing the parish beyond its own concerns and circumstance, the parish can begin to move from a culture that engages people to build up the Church to become a Church that builds up people.

When we routinely engage people to build up the Church, the focus inevitably falls on maintenance and functionalism. A parish calls people forward to maintain its own life, its ministries, functions and tasks for which there is never enough human labour. We engage people, in other words, to ‘fill the gaps’ and out of a mindset of deficiency, with the best of our energy, dedication and resources flowing into the upkeep of our established groups, ministries and schedules. However, our parishes are not called to be factories, to keep the cogs turning over at any cost.

We cannot confuse our means with our end which is the abundant spiritual life of our people. As it has been said, ‘if you build the Church, you rarely get disciples. If you make disciples, you always get the Church.’ Parishes begin to change their culture towards mission when all forms of its preaching shift from a focus on what it wants from people to what it wants for them.

When a community understands itself as existing not for its own preservation but for the spiritual and personal change of its members and non-members, then all that the parish undertakes, its programs, groups, structures, and finance, will be seen and considered in the light of its mission to make disciples. We will begin to measure our life not by the standards of conservation – the managing of internal concerns, the parish patrimony, nest egg or tranquillity – but by the standards of our outwards mission. We will begin to gauge our life not only by our seating capacity but also by our sending capacity, and the extent of the spiritual fruit and personal change we nurture into life.

Increase over Addition

In reflecting on the Church’s living tradition and the experience and best practices of growing Catholic communities, I would like to suggest four elements as being integral to the renewal of parish culture toward deeper discipleship and wider evangelisation.

In sharing these suggestions, I am mindful that when a community or group has a vision but no strategy to achieve it, it will tend to simply add on new programs and activities to an already busy routine hoping this will affect a difference. Yet we know, even implicitly, that addition is not synonymous with increase, that ‘more’ is not always tantamount to ‘better’.

Indeed, we are learning on a national, diocesan and parish level that a “spaghetti” approach to Church life, over-programmed with a splattering of disconnected activity, tends to encourage silos rather than unity or strength of mission. This is because events, programs and groups compete for space on the common calendar, rivalling one another for the same pool of finite resources, increasingly busy people and limited attention. If we become content with the unrolling of copious activity, without heed of the fruit these initiatives bear or otherwise, we in fact succumb to the “spiritual worldliness”, or busyness for its own sake, of which Pope Francis warns.[7]

So, to four principles drawn from growing and evangelising communities that can take us beyond the comfort of routine and the opposite temptation of mere addition.

Foundations of an Evangelising Parish

1. Proclaiming Christ

Christ Mosaic Cefalu Sicily 12th CenturyFirst of all, at the heart of evangelising communities is the proclamation of the Good News, specifically the kergyma which is the basic truths of our Christian faith. This word kerygma, or keryssein in Greek, may not be very familiar to us but it in fact appears in the New Testament some nine times, and refers to the very heart of the Gospel, the core message of the Christian faith that all believers are called to believe and proclaim.

The words of Pope Paul VI still challenge us today, “There is no true evangelisation if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the Kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed”.[8] This is the kerygma. It is explicit and focused entirely on the person and saving message of Jesus Christ.

We note that this kerygma stands apart from the catechesis or instruction in the fuller doctrinal and moral teaching (didache) that the Church notes is to take place after someone has accepted the initial kerygma and been baptised. We can in fact school people in our parishes, in the RCIA for instance, about the Church, various themes of theology, the intricacies and rubrics of liturgy and so on but with slight reflection on the life and person of Jesus whom our people are first called to encounter, though our preaching, priorities and witness. The heart of our Gospel is Jesus, what he has done, and continues to bring about for us and within us.

As Pope Francis makes clear,

. . . we have rediscovered the fundamental role of the first announcement or kerygma, which needs to be the centre of all evangelising activity and all efforts at Church renewal. This first proclamation is called “first” not because it exists at the beginning and can then be forgotten or replaced by other more important things. It is first in a qualitative sense because it is the principal proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another throughout the process of catechesis, at every level and moment.[9]

There is no sense that we ever graduate from hearing this Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the proclamation for which our Church exists and that calls to be preached in our liturgies, parent and children’s formation, in our youth ministries and initiatives of social outreach, in the development of our parish teams and staff, our talk of parish finance, structural change and carparks. We are constantly challenged to re-centre our parishes, our total life, on this central proclamation for it is the sole source of discipleship and evangelisation. There is no other.

Jesus Christ 2The heart of evangelisation is to announce who Jesus is, the Son of God, the Word made flesh, the man who is God, who died for our sins and was raised on the third day. It is to announce the Good News of the Risen Christ who is with us even now and opens up for us the way to life without end. Evangelising parishes proclaim Jesus’ ascension, his seating at the right hand of the Father as King, and his sending forth of the Holy Spirit. It is this Spirit which reveals Christ and even enables us to say ‘Jesus is Lord’ and it is this Spirit who empowers the Church, who empowers us, to be faithful to Christ’s mission in our own lives and in this moment of the world’s history. Finally, this Good News of Christ calls us to conversion, to repent and believe in this Gospel, calling for a change of life in the light of what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ whose life we share by baptism, the anointing of the Holy Spirit, in communion with his mystical body, the Eucharist, and by our communion with His ecclesial body, the Church. In prioritising this proclamation, we seek to build up a culture in which Jesus is not swept into our parish story intermittently but our parishes and lives are swept into his.

As a former media buyer, I am conscious that corporations spend millions after millions of dollars each year, even each week, to get people into their shop. It is humbling, then, to recognise that each year thousands upon thousands of people come into our ‘shop’, walk through the front doors of our parishes, without always knowing why they are there or their stance towards the saving Gospel or proclamation which is the lifeblood of our communities.

And yet, whether entering the parish via the door of our sacramental programs or school enrolment, walking through our doors on account of baptisms, marriages or funerals, or for the sake of their children, these persons fully expect to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed by our parishes whether they ultimately accept that saving message or otherwise.

It is essential to our future that our truth is proclaimed with courage and with faith, not as something but as someone to whom we owe our life and devotion, someone who calls not to be a part of our life but our very existence and the total shape of our living.

2. Growing Personal Discipleship

FootprintsHowever, the bold proclamation of Jesus’ name, life, promises, Kingdom and mystery, in itself is not sufficient for the growth of a missionary culture in our parishes. As a second foundation, evangelising parishes cultivate personal discipleship, create room and opportunity for a personal response to the Good News proclaimed. The call to be a disciple is a gift but it also involves a choice and personal decision that cannot be delegated to any other.

In its personal dimension, the heart of all evangelisation could be described as one person telling another person how the encounter with Jesus Christ has changed their life, one beggar telling another beggar how he found bread. This is indeed the living tradition of our Church, ‘hands clasping hands stretching back in time until they hold the hand of Jesus who holds the hand of God’.[10] Personal witness, testimony and exchange are at the heart of personal and spiritual change. It is our long and ancient experience as Church that programs do not make disciples; disciples make disciples.

In speaking of personal change, it is a sober reality that 60% of those who attend Mass in Australia reported only some or no spiritual growth through their experience of parish life.[11] It is clear that we cannot adopt a mindset that assumes the sacraments, or the school RE program for that matter, will simply ‘take care of it’. While this emphasis on personal faith may seem obvious, it underlines the fact that we cannot assume that disciples just happen because we have a parish and people show up.

An effective process of evangelisation in our communities will need to recognise the various stages of personal growth through which people journey on their way to the Gospel. A parish of personal, realised faith is something different than the motions of a crowd that produces ‘conventional sounds when stimulated by the appropriate noises’.[12] While the conversion of our people always remains the work of the Holy Spirit, we can help or hinder that process depending on how we walk with people.

The people in our pews and those besides are at varying levels of faith and commitment. When we can recognise with honesty where our people are in the story of discipleship, we can begin to engage them in ways that are fitting to their disposition – building bridges of trust with those that do not yet have a basic positive association with Christ, the Church or ourselves as Christians; for the curious, asking questions to encourage their initial desire to know more and sharing with them our own story of faith as it has become central to our life; for those exhibiting spiritual openness, expressing our willingness to pray for them and asking questions to validate their openness though they may not yet be actively seeking to know God.[13]

The essence of evangelisation is to engage with others on the road to Emmaus as they ask their questions, leading them to an encounter with Christ who is, in fact, already present to them, already active in their lives awaiting the ‘yes’ of a spiritual awakening, an assent of faith.

jp11 version 2Bringing together these first principles of evangelising communities, we hear St John Paul II affirm, “Faith is born of preaching and every ecclesial community draws its origin and life from the personal response from every believer to that preaching”.[14] It is both the preaching of the kerygma and personal conversion that sustains and grows a missionary culture.

Parishes do not grow when their people do not. The call to spiritual growth challenges ourselves for each of us shapes the Church and its mission by our personal participation in it. The extent to which we grow in faith and holiness will be the extent to which the Church grows in faithfulness and holiness. 

As leaders we must realise that everything we do or say teaches people something about the Church. Ecclesial operators or ‘professionals’ can never replace the holiness of saints, managerialism the spirit of charity. As we have learned from painful history, it is entirely possible for parish leaders to ostensibly live a life for Christ without living a life in Christ. Personal conversion calls for change within us as much as others in the community of faith.

3. Discipleship in the Midst of the Church

sbPersonal discipleship also calls for the nourishment of an ecclesial community of faith. Evangelising parishes create disciples in the midst of the Church.

We know that discipleship is vulnerable without the ongoing, living support from other Catholic disciples. Significantly, a parish sustains personal faith not only through a shared life, mutual witness and spiritual support but by opening individual lives to more possibilities for the life of faith, vocation and holiness than we might otherwise recognise, to a vision that discipleship is possible even in this way.

In the same way as a number of first European settlers arrived in Australia assuming they were, if you like, dragging land and civilisation behind them, we can be tempted to consider our increasing diversity as Australian parishes as something which is being added ‘from the outside’ rather than a theological fact and principle of our life from its earliest beginnings at Pentecost. The challenge and companionship of fellow Christians, diverse in cultural expression of faith and piety, liberates and enables a faith richer and deeper than what we could gain on our own.

How might our parishes better integrate and express difference? Research and experience tells us that at the heart of all evangelising and growing communities are small groups as a vital instrument of ecclesial support and differentiated unity. I am not aware of any growing Christian community that does not have an economy of small groups in place to deepen at the same time its members’ experience of Jesus and the Church as encountered in fellow Christians. The experience of liturgy alone can render it difficult for persons to feel instantly at home or connect with others intimately in the context of faith. Most of us have come to the heart of the Church through a small group of some description, whether this was a youth group, a prayer group, a parent or family group.

The introduction of small groups within our parishes and an accompanying culture of invitation, one that communicates in effect that ‘we are incomplete without you’, will enable people to be brought into and nurtured by a supportive network of disciples.

While speaking intimately with one another about our lived experience and friendship with Jesus can be counter-cultural for many Catholics, I am heartened by the fact that no one knew they needed an iPhone until Steve Jobs invented one. We are similarly challenged to offer our people the small group of discipleship and learning that they never knew they needed, an experience of personal relationship with Jesus and his Gospel in the midst of others.

baby_plant.28104733While our vision needs to be as large as the Kingdom, our implementation of that vision needs to begin small. With encouragement for us, it is worth noting that when large evangelical and Pentecostal communities are asked what they seek for their future it is to establish smaller, stable communities in the midst of a local neighbourhood, offering a consistency and intimacy of worship and local service in personal connection with the wider community. In other words, what many megachurches are seeking is a parish.

We have already in our Church the scale of community to foster powerful spiritual relationships with one another, by small groups and other means. It is not a matter of structure but our capacity for interrelationship and mutual trust in faith, our ability to grow together and also our capacity for collegiality.[15]

It may be news to some that a national ecclesial event, a Plenary Council, has been proposed by the bishops of Australia for 2020, a council to embrace not only the faith of the bishops but to take up the faith of the Australian Church, the collective vision, gifts and charisms for our common future. To be collegial is to be receptive of the faith with which Christ has already endowed the Church. As Australian Catholics we ought to place great hope in our collective ability to discern a future and are challenged not only to have faith in God but in our capacity to respond to God as his people.

To anchor this potential for collegiality, shared discernment and decision-making in our parishes, our capacity for co-responsibility for mission begins within the local parish team and the parish pastoral council as the most immediate opportunities for living the theology we profess.

The risk of not attending to the faith of the faithful as expressed in the local parish, as much as a national plenary council, is no less than turning away possibilities, the manifold charisms and vocations of lay men and women, which God continually offers to us. An Australian parish, and an Australian Church for that matter, that is not discerning God’s call cannot hope to grow because it cannot see what God has already given and deeply invites.

4. Missionary Orientation

Picture193Finally, we recognise that the proclamation of the Gospel, the call to personal discipleship and the life of the Christian community are not for their own sake but for the sake of the world. All that has gone before must bear fruit in our connection with others beyond our communities of faith, beyond the boundaries of the parish.

In his own way I think Pope Francis has reminded us time and again, with a certain cheek, that the parish is not an organised way to avoid the issues of the world. The parish is not a spiritual refuge or a hotel for the spiritually comfortable. Rather it is a hospital or wellspring open to all who bear wounds or thirst, who await a personal answer for their hope on the road of humanity.

A premier ecclesiologist in the English-speaking world, Joseph Komonchak, reminds us:

To enter the Church is not to leave the world, but to be in the world differently, so that the world itself is different because there are individuals and communities living their lives because of, in, and for the sake of Jesus Christ.[16]

To be a community of disciples is not to stand apart from the world or hover above it but to be within the space of the world differently. To be a Catholic parish, to be a community of believers, is not to withdraw into a ghetto of like-minded individuals but to speak, witness and inhabit this world, a world which is very much in our hands, with a perspective and a commitment to a person whom we believe illuminates its depths and heights.

I believe parishes will move to a missionary footing when they believe in their heart of hearts that there is a harvest, that Christ is preparing people for us to reach, and that we have been anointed by our baptism to speak, live and act by God’s Word in our world.

A missionary parish will prepare people for this assignment, preaching and teaching that the Christian life it is not about choosing between Christ and the world, as if they were utterly opposed. Rather, as the twentieth century spiritual master Thomas Merton observes, Christian life is about choosing Christ by choosing the world as it really is in Him.[17] God’s mission calls us to a constant orientation beyond ourselves, so that the world can witness the spirit of Christ in action, can see and come to believe.

Summary

I suggest four lenses by which we might review and renew the evangelising mission of our parishes:

  • proclaim the name, teaching, promises, Kingdom, life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God (the ‘kerygma’)
  • call forth a personal response to this Good News
  • foster discipleship in the midst of the Church
  • and send these disciples into the world in constant missionary outreach

I believe a parish requires all four elements without exemption, so as not to:

  • proclaim the Gospel without personal conversion (we can preach the Gospel and be entirely orthodox, proclaim a sound understanding of the faith, but as Pope Benedict XVI be merely ‘proper’ but ultimately loveless, bearing little actual fruit in the lives of our people);
  • we can experience personal conversion but minimise or castoff the influence of the Church (an erroneous sense that it would feel more like real worship if it was ‘me’ praying alone, or a sense that the parish community is something I could rather live without; a ‘private’ Christianity withdrawn from the varieties of discipleship that God offers us in others);
  • we can develop an ecclesial life and participate in the Church’s public life but without personal conversion and a living relationship with Jesus (merely ‘attending Mass’ out of custom or working within the Church or school without an attachment to the Gospel, working only for Christ but not working with him);
  • or we can proclaim the Gospel, foster personal conversion and a commitment to the Church without any implication for the wider world, displaying a forgetfulness of the fact that we are ‘sent’ as missionary disciples by our baptism to share the life of Christ we ourselves have received.

When our communities grow in these foundations, a culture of discipleship and evangelisation begins to thrive.

candlesIndeed, it can be seen that these foundations encourage and direct our efforts in this Jubilee Year of Mercy, in which the tenderness and compassion of God calls for announcement. An evangelising community proclaims the mercy of God whose face is Jesus Christ, nurtures our people to know themselves as personally forgiven by God and brought into the freedom of a new life, offers the experience of forgiveness and compassion within the life of the Church, sacramentally and in the companionship of fellow Christians; and equips and emboldens the forgiven to ‘go out’ to share mercy with others who too await someone to pour oil on their wounds, who await the Good News given in Jesus Christ, who is the promise and presence of God’s mercy.

Conclusion

SB012We cannot change that of which we are not aware. We must name and face head on the present challenges for our culture as Australian parishes, parishes that I believe desire to be missionary and in their heart of hearts wish to receive the grace of God who still desires much for our parish life.

However, receiving this grace entails movement on our part, a shift from where we stand and a constant reaching out beyond the complacency of routine or a simplistic ‘silver bullet’ mentality that holds only one way, one program or technique as the exclusive key to growth. We are called to cultural change, to change together and personally which is the perennial challenge of mission.

To build a preaching, discipling, gathering and missioning Church calls for a multidimensional approach filled with bold vision, personal faith, mutual support, and the resolve to be our deepest selves in Christ for the sake of the world.

Ultimately, it means responding with hope and trust in what God can do for us, with us and through us, even on a drizzly Wednesday night in the well-worn pews of the parishes we know and love.

 

References:

[1] Robert Dixon, Stephen Reid and Marilyn Chee, Mass Attendance in Australia: A Critical Moment. A Report Based on the National Count of Attendance, the National Church Life Survey and the Australian Census (Melbourne: ACBC Pastoral Research Office, 2013), 8.

[2] Fr James Mallon, Divine Renovation: Bringing Your Parish from Maintenance to Mission (New London, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 2014), 53.

[3] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 33.

[4] Mallon, Divine Renovation, 19-20.

[5] The fatalistic expression “that won’t work” commonly emerges from a perspective that measures new ideas by the life that we currently know.

[6] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 27.

[7] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 93-97.

[8] Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi 22.

[9] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 164.

[10] John Shea, An Experience Named Spirit as cited in Robert A. Ludwig, Reconstructing Catholicism: For a New Generation (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2000), 61.

[11] NCLS Research, Denominational Church Life Profile: The Catholic Church in Australia. A Report from the 2011 National Church Life Survey (Strathfield: NCLS Research, 2013), 10.

[12] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (London: Burns & Oates, 1961), 43.

[13] A helpful schema of various stages or ‘thresholds’ of discipleship is provided in Sherry Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 2012), 125-184.

[14] Pope Paul VI, Redemptoris Missio 44.

[15] The challenge of collegiality for our Church recalls the remarks of the late Ukranian Catholic Metropolitan Maxim Hermaniuk who dismissed Roman synods as nothing more than “international study days”.

[16] Joseph A. Komonchak, “Identity and Mission in Catholic Universities”, 12. Available at https://jakomonchak.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/hubbard-lecture.pdf. Accessed 25 August 2016.

[17] Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998), 153.