“We have a really vital parish, just look at how many ministries there are!”
I have heard this declaration countless times over the last twenty years as a parish mission leader, speaker, consultant, evangelization trainer, and diocesan employee. On the one hand, I’m delighted to see the passion that people have for their community. On the other hand, I cringe inwardly and try to keep my eyes from rolling toward the back of my head when I hear this sentence fly out of people’s mouths.
It’s not that I think they are lying.
The people I meet in my travels are, for the most part, genuine, loving, caring men and women, and they honestly believe what they are saying.
The problem is that often times, they are wrong.
What do I mean?
The Engagement Trap
Many of our parishes are trapped in a Paradigm of Engagement. Leaders working from an engagement paradigm see their primary responsibility as getting people involved in the life of the community—which usually means
making sure people are present at parish events, supporting activities, and volunteering. Obviously, these things are desirable, but in a paradigm of engagement, they become the entire focus of leadership’s time and energy. In this worldview, the highest goods are involvement, volunteering, and activity. These become ends in themselves and often are not integrally connected to developing a relationship with Jesus or to mission.
Seen from this perspective, action and activity become confused with vitality. Leaders, key volunteers, and involved parishioners often evaluate the life of the community based on its level of activity. But if we look through kingdom lenses we discover something profound–motion is not synonymous with mission.
The human body— with its complex chemical, biological, and mechanical processes—offers some parallels in this regard. Your heart, for example, pumps blood through a network of interconnected arteries, veins, and capillaries. This cardiovascular highway has a very particular purpose, it brings oxygen to the organs and muscles of the body and removes waste, such as carbon dioxide. The arteries carry blood away from your heart, and veins carry blood toward your heart. If the arteries and veins simply decided to do whatever—for example if there was no rhyme or reason to the direction that blood flowed—your organs might die from oxygen starvation.
In short, biological activity without a particular organizing purpose can still lead to death. The same is true of a parish. Parishes with lots of activities, ministries, and socializing opportunities are not necessarily vital, alive, or transformed.
They may simply be busy.
The mission of the Church, however, is to make disciples. Therefore, if we want to gauge the vitality and life of our parishes, the real question we should be asking is not “How many ministries or activities do we have available?” but rather, “How many disciples have we produced?” Jesus called the Church into being to bear the fruit of discipleship.
It doesn’t matter how active a parish is if it is not producing that fruit. Therefore, the question of fruit bearing is the single most important question we can ask ourselves as parishes!
Consider the case of the barren fig tree in chapter 13 of the Gospel of Luke. This tree is alive, and yet it has not produced fruit for the vineyard owner. On some level, this tree is active. Sap and nutrients move between its roots and its branches, and yet it does not bear fruit. In a similar way, I have encountered parishes that are exceptionally active, and yet spiritually dead.
Breaking Free of the Trap
So how can parishes break free of the engagement trap? One way is for parish leadership to take an honest look at the action, activities, ministries, and areas of service to the world that make up their parish’s life. This can be a challenge because we all become attached to certain things in our parish–especially if they have been around for a decade or more. Looking at the elements of parish life through the lens of mission, however, means looking for fruit–real, tangible transformation, healing, and new life that are the hallmarks of life in Christ.
Here are some questions that can guide you to that fruit:
How does this particular activity or ministry foster, nurture, or support an encounter with Jesus Christ?
What are the concrete ways that this ministry contributes to the making, maturing, or missioning of disciples of Jesus Christ?
Where does this ministry or activity fit within our parish’s discipleship pathway (i.e., a linked series of processes, events, and formation designed to help people move into discipleship, mature as disciples, and be equipped as missionary disciples)?
Has this ministry or activity regularly produced intentional disciples of Jesus Christ over several years?
If you’ve applied these questions to some areas of your parish’s life, and you can’t come up with easy answers, don’t be frustrated. Chances are, you have a remarkable opportunity to reshape and redirect the focus of your parish so that it bears the fullness of fruit that the Lord desires from it.
If you’d like more help with that process, check out the latest book from M3 Ministries’ Executive Director, Deacon Keith Strohm. It’s called Ablaze: 5 Essential Paradigm Shifts for Parish Renewal. You can purchase it from Amazon.com by clicking on the image below.
While you are waiting for it to arrive, perhaps you could wrestle with this question: How does your parish’s registration process foster an encounter with Jesus Christ?
The unity of prayer and purpose… its intensity …could be felt throughout our prayer space.”
–Marilyn (parish mission participant)
This past Advent, I had the opportunity to lead a mission for Notre Dame of Mt. Carmel parish in New Jersey. In the course of this ministry, I travel a great deal across the world and see Catholic life in a lot of contexts. Notre Dame of Mt. Carmel parish was truly unique. Their staff and parish leadership, including their pastor, are firmly committed to transforming their culture and becoming a community of missionary disciples–and they are beginning to change how they live as parish to make room for this new vision.
They reached out to us at M3 Ministries because they wanted a mission that would help their parishioners experience a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ. To that end, I spent two evenings breaking open the basic gospel message with them.
On the first night, we focused on the Father’s delight in us–the reality that we were created by a perfect Father who called us into existence so that we could experience His love and live in an eternal communion with Him and with all those united in Him. To hear about the goodness of our Father and explore that goodness in Scripture and Tradition is a powerful thing. So often, we carry wounded images of God based upon our earthly experience and relationship. Hearing this part of the gospel message offers us an opportunity and a challenge to allow ourselves to be loved by the One who created us for love.
The second evening, we spent time reflecting on the reality of sin and separation from God, but also the great gift of the Father in Jesus Christ, whose life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension broke the power of sin over creation and over our own lives. The Father, being good and fiercely in love with His children, could not let us remain separated from Him. So, He sent His Son Jesus to call each of us back by name.
We also explored the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, as well as the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out upon God’s people in baptism. I also had the opportunity to share my own testimony of how the power and presence of the Lord saved and transformed my life. Finally, I invited everyone present to identify and surrender to the Lord those obstacles that kept us from receiving the Father’s love in Jesus Christ.
The power of the Kingdom of God, the love and ministry of the Holy Spirit were truly present. There were many kinds of healing that occurred in the parish Church that evening–a number of people experienced not only inner healing, but physical healing as well. Most importantly, we all experienced a truly profound encounter with God–an encounter that changed many lives.
These moments of God’s Kingdom breaking through and touching us in supernatural ways are not rare. I see the hand and the presence of God often as I travel and share the gospel message. Lives changed, forgiveness granted (in situations so grim it would be unlikely that anyone would offer forgiveness), wounds healed, bodies made whole, peace given, mercy received, hearts transformed–these are the hallmarks of God’s Kingdom and the fruit of Jesus’ ministry and mission on earth . . . the same mission that He gave to His Body, the Church!
In future newsletters, I will continue to draw attention to the remarkable ways that God is moving among His people and the powerful experiences that ordinary Catholics are having.
At the end of the parish mission, Fr. Paddy O’Donovan summarized the experience of the mission and placed it in the context of the parish’s intentional focus on renewal: ”
“Folks, you know that we are on a path of renewal in our parish… In a nutshell, our renewal is rooted in what we have experienced yesterday and today: the power of God’s Holy Spirit. The renewal of our parish is simply about placing our lives in the hands of God, in the hands of Jesus Christ. Renewal is about having this God-given relationship with Jesus Christ. That’s what the Church is in need of, that’s what we’ve experienced — what I’ve experienced — these past two days in a special way…”
Thank you to every M3 Community Member whose prayers support the mission and ministry of this organization and make it possible for parish missions like this to happen! God is truly good!
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)
When Jesus called the twelve apostles, he invited each of them to follow him, and that call is extended to every human person. The words that Jesus uses to call us are active, not passive. If we want to live as disciples we must “deny,” “take up,” and “follow.” There is an intentionality to discipleship. One doesn’t become a disciple simply by birth or cultural affiliation or profession. We aren’t necessarily disciples because we were born into a Catholic family, or because we are Irish (or any other ethnicity), or even because we work for the Church. Discipleship emerges out of a sustained encounter with the Lord in the midst of his Church and a conscious decision to choose Christ each day. Sherry Weddell, in her landmark book, Forming Intentional Disciples, writes that we become disciples:
“By acting like Simon Peter: Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed Him.” (Luke 5:10-11) Simon’s experience was not exceptional, either in human terms or in the tradition of the Church. No one voluntarily sheds his or her job, home, and whole way of life accidentally or unconsciously. Simon Peter’s “drop the net decision” is what we mean by disciple. From the moment he dropped his nets to follow Jesus, he was a disciple. (p.64)
The Great Story of Jesus, although it has cosmic dimensions, penetrates into the personal, into the heart of every man, woman, and child with ears to hear. When we respond with an openness of heart, when we say “yes” to what the Great Story, and the One who is at the center of that story, offers us, the path of discipleship opens up to us.
The word “disciple” comes from the Latin, and it means “one who learns.” In the culture of Jesus’ time, a disciple sat at the foot of a rabbi (teacher) and learned from him. Disciples were also expected to take on the lifestyle of the one they followed, absorbing not only knowledge but their rabbi’s way of life. Both in his interaction with the original twelve disciples, and now with each of us, Jesus keeps this dimension of discipleship and goes a step further. Jesus doesn’t simply want his disciples to act like him, rather we are invited to become like him. We do this through the outpouring of his life, which comes to us through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Christian disciples, then, are men and women who have heard the Great Story of Jesus, who have allowed it to penetrate and enter the circumstances of their lives, and who have given themselves over to Jesus. In this way, they bear that Story (and the one who sits at its center) within them and become heralds of that Story to everyone they meet. Saint Paul talks about this in a related way when he writes that “we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20). The power of the Great Story is the reality of the kingdom lived out in the daily rhythms of life.
What Does Discipleship Look Like?
Although the working of God’s grace on each human heart is a mystery, and each person responds uniquely to God’s invitation to relationship, discipleship looks like something. Though uniquely lived out, all disciples share some common characteristics. For example, since discipleship is an intentional choice to enter into a relationship with Jesus in the midst of His Church, someone who is a disciple can articulate (even at the most basic level) their own experience of that relationship–what is it like to be in a loving relationship with Jesus.
In a similar way, all mature disciples of Jesus embrace six common disciplines–habits of life that are both expressions of their love for Jesus and ways that they grow in union with Him. So, what are the disciplines of discipleship? While a full exploration of each of these disciplines is worthy of a book, here’s a quick summary:
Daily Scripture Reading
The Bible is the very Word of God and, along with the teaching of the apostles, makes up the foundation of the Christian faith. The author of the book of Hebrews had this to say about the power of the Word of God: “Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we encounter the risen and living Jesus in a personal way when we read the scriptures. God’s desire is to meet us, speak to us, instruct us, console us, and challenge and transform us in and through our reading of scripture EVERY SINGLE DAY.
If you grew up Catholic, you may have the sense that someone told you not to read the Bible, or discouraged you from picking it up. Or you may have had a very large, coffee table Bible in your home that seemed too ornamental or unwieldy to sit and read. Or perhaps the Bible just seems too difficult to understand, and that makes you uncomfortable to try it. The reality is that the Bible is accessible, and reading it is an essential part of being a disciple. If you are not sure how to start reading the Bible, then I suggest beginning with the gospel of Mark in the New Testament. It is the shortest of the four gospels, and you can take fifteen minutes each day and read just one chapter a day, asking the Lord to open your heart to his voice before you read it.
It is important to read Scripture with “the mind of the Church,” meaning that we are to read the Bible connected to the Church’s teaching authority. It is equally important to read Scripture with the “ears of the heart,” in order to begin to discern the voice of God as he speaks to us through his Word. This is more than simply learning the scriptures through participating in a Bible study (though taking advantage of Bible study groups can be very important as you grow in Christ). It means reading with a prayerful attitude of receptivity, listening with the ears of your heart for whatever God wants to say to you specifically.
At the heart of the kingdom is relationship—intimacy, encounter, and communion. Jesus lived that out on earth through his daily times of prayer. Prayer unites our heart with God’s heart, allowing us to spend time with the One whom we are growing to love more deeply. Before I married my wife, we spent time together, getting to know one another and growing in intimacy. Prayer is simply getting to know God. It can come in many forms. There are standard rote prayers that we say (the Our Father, or the Hail Mary, for example). There are devotions (like the Rosary or the Stations of the Cross). There are more formal liturgical prayers (like the Mass or the Divine Office). Prayer can occur anywhere and at any time throughout the day. What it requires is some focused time with the Lord.
In prayer, we engage in a dialogue with the Lord. While it is definitely important that we speak to the Lord what is on our hearts, it is also critical that we learn how to hear his response. There are many books and resources on prayer, but there is no substitute for being personally formed by someone who understands this discipline. Your pastor, another priest, a deacon, or any other member of your parish’s staff can be a great resource in teaching you how to pray.
Living a Sacramental Life
The sacraments are particular and effective encounters with Jesus Christ. When we participate in and celebrate the sacraments, we receive an outpouring of God’s life that changes us, helping us to become holy and more like Christ. A disciple lives a conscious sacramental life, which means regular weekly (and sometimes daily) attendance at Mass, as well as frequent reception of the sacrament of Reconciliation. Simply put, a disciple does not stay away from the sacraments.
If it has been a while since you went to Mass or Confession, I want to encourage you to return. Discipleship is an experience of kingdom life, of communion and relationship with God. Our sin and brokenness can interfere with that relationship. In his goodness, God pours out more of his life for us in the sacraments so we can be restored again. When you fall in your journey with Christ, there is no condemnation. Instead, the Father invites us to receive his mercy again and again in the sacraments. With his grace, we are restored. He lifts us up and sets us on the path again—and we receive his power to deal with the temptations and obstacles we encounter.
Membership in the Church is not like membership in a club, non-profit, volunteer, or civic organization. The baptized are incorporated into Christ’s Body and share a bond that goes far deeper than even the natural bond that joins the human race together. The experience of life in the kingdom is not solitary but communal, characterized by mutuality and interdependence. As we have mentioned previously, communion with God by definition includes communion with all who are in relationship to him. Thus, the call to relationship with Christ as a disciple is a call into community or deep fellowship. Because of Christ, our lives no longer make any sense apart from each other. Therefore, as baptized brothers and sisters in the Lord, we must live out this deep fellowship in community, provide support for each other, and even go out and serve the world together. I like to say that Christians are like charcoal briquettes—we burn hotter, brighter, and longer when we remain connected with each other.
This kind of fellowship goes beyond just coffee and donuts after Mass, or participation in the occasional pancake breakfast. This kind of fellowship with each other is a sharing of our life in Christ together. One of the most powerful expressions of this kind of fellowship can be found in what are called Small Faith Communities or Christian Small Groups. These are small gatherings of Christians, usually in a home or at the parish, who get together to pray, learn, laugh, and support each other. I strongly encourage you to find one of these groups and join–or start one of your own!
Disciples must live out the radical self-offering of Jesus by offering our very selves for the sake of the world—especially for the poor and suffering. Not simply out of altruism, volunteer-ism, or on ethical and moral grounds, but foundationally because we know that Christ is present in each human person and God holds a special place in his heart for those who are poor and suffering. The call to service is found in one of the most recognizable passages in the New Testament, John 3:16—“For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but have eternal life.” God’s love for the world was so great that he GAVE. If we, then, profess to follow him and hold his life within us, then how can we not give for the sake of others? This kind of giving includes acts of charity and mercy, but it also encompasses applying gospel values to issues of injustice in the world today. Where are those issues in your local community or neighborhood? Where is Christ present to you in the poor and the unwanted? How can you bring the power of the kingdom to bear for the person in need whom you encounter?
Evangelizing (Sharing Christ with Others)
The heart of the Church’s mission is to share Christ with others, to make Christ present in word and deed so the kingdom of God manifests powerfully in the world. When we encounter Christ, we encounter the One for whom our hearts were made, and we discover who we are, our purpose, and our destiny. This is an experience the Lord wants all of his children to have, not a special few.
At some point, as kingdom life takes a hold of you, your life will begin to change—and people will notice. When they ask questions, when they want to know what has happened to you, tell them! You don’t need a theology degree or advanced training. If you are excited about what you believe and what that belief has done for your life, then talk about it. At its most basic, evangelization is helping others encounter the Jesus to whom we have given ourselves.
Disciples, therefore, spend their time intentionally sharing the love of the Father with others in word and deed!
That’s the beginning of one of the most well-known phrases from one of the most well-known European fairy tales. The Wicked Queen who utters this commanding question (“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”) jealously guards her beauty and renown–and goes to great lengths to protect herself from ever being seen as second best. One gets the sense from this kind of reaction that something beyond a sense of her own beauty drives the queen’s actions–its as if insecurity tears at her heart with dark claws. She sees herself in a particular way, and needs the magic mirror to somehow prove that self-understanding wrong.
Why am I even bringing this up?
Because our parishes are filled with Wicked Queens and Wicked Kings whose self understanding and self image is wounded and broken. Some of them have their own magic mirrors, talismans that help them keep their hyper-critical demons (psychological and otherwise) at bay: gossip, alcoholism and drug addiction, an unbalanced quest for personal wealth and business success, sexual conquest and addictions (including pornography and extra-marital affairs), cutting, eating disorders–to name only a few.
Most of these folks suffer in silence, deafened by the voice of the Accuser who speaks lies over their lives and convinces them that a holy and loving God could never love them. These men and women have moved beyond simply a sense of feeling guilty and come under the bondage of shame. Guilt says “I made a mistake,” but Shame says “I am a mistake.” There are a great number of our brothers and sisters who are convinced that there is something essential about themselves that makes them unlovable and beyond the reach of God’s salvation.
I would say that a redeemed self-image is the number one thing that people who come seeking prayer for healing need. And as men and women concerned with spreading the Gospel of Jesus, we must recognize that a profoundly wounded self image functions as “rocky soil,” it is a barrier that prevents the seed of the Gospel from taking root in people’s hearts. It is difficult to receive the mercy and love of your Eternal Father when you are absolutely convinced that there i something entwined into your very being that makes you unlovable.
I should know. I was a Wicked King once–but that is a fairy tale retelling for another time.
Where is Our Prince Charming?
The heart of the Gospel message directly contradicts the lies which bind the wounded self image. God created us out of an abundance of love–not out of a deficiency (of company or interesting things to do, for example). Human beings were the only part of God’s creation that He brought into being for their own sake. Everything else was created to serve this new creature called Man. Or, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI put it so powerfully:
All is created from the Word and all is called to serve the Word. This means that all of Creation, in the end, is conceived of to create the place of encounter between God and His creature—a place where the history of love between God and His creature can develop
The history of salvation is not a small event on a poor planet, in the immensity of the universe. It is not a minimal thing which happens on a lost planet. It is the motive for everything, the motive of creation. Everything is created so that this story can exist—the encounter between God and His creature.
Reflect on that for a moment–and be amazed.
God created us as embodied spirits, and, therefore, every other facet of Creation, down to the last fermion, hadron, and bosun He brought into being so that you and I (and every human person) can experience His love and offer Him our own.
Each of us matters.
Scripture delivers even more insight. In Jeremiah chapter 1 verse 5, the Lord says, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. The hebrew word for such knowledge does not refer to simply knowing about someone. Rather, it signifies a deep, understanding that penetrates to the depths of a person. That’s why the word know in scripture was often used to refer to sexual union. In the Gospel of Luke, after the angel Gabriel delivers the Lord’s message that Mary would give birth to the messiah, she responds: “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” (Luke 1:34).
Therefore, when the Lord says that He knew us before we were formed in our mother’s wombs, we must see the absolute radical nature of this proclamation. God’s desire to be in relationship with us, His dynamic and boundless love, was so powerful, that He would not wait until we were conceived. The Father held each of us in His heart and contemplated us from Eternity. How great God’s joy must have been when at last we were conceived and could begin now to experience and reciprocate this love. How the Father must have danced and rejoiced at the first division of our cell, the first fluttering beat of our heart, the first spark of dendrite and neuron.
The Father’s love for us is so great, that when our First Parents’ disobedience ruptured their relationship with God and destroyed the divine life within humanity, He refused to let His children perish. Rather, he sent His Son, who left the glory of Heaven and subjected Himself to the power of death so that He, through obedience and humility, could destroy death forever. And now, he sends His Body, the Church, into the world searching for the lost so that the joy of His kingdom and the power of the Father’s Love would be experienced by all.
Each of us is so precious to the Lord that He endured suffering and death for us. The Cross, therefore, is both instrument of salvation and sign of our value to the Father.
Where Can I Find That Kind of Love?
It is, of course, important for everyone to both hear the gospel and come to know the Person of Jesus. However, for those whose self-image is wounded, both proclamation of the kerygma and personally encountering this love of God are essential. Often, before they can truly hear and respond to the Gospel message, this love must be incarnated for them. Such personal experience of the love of God through other Christians will act as a bridge of trust and we should intentionally build upon that to help these men and women respond to God’s grace and move through the pre-discipleship thresholds. For them, this personal encounter will gradually confront the woundedness of their self-image and help them see to the reality of who they are and how precious they are to God
For most parishioners, whose main contact with the Church is the parish, this will often take place within some element of parish life–and so we must be deliberate in our attempts to foster this kind of incarnation. The actions that I will list below are foundational, meaning that you can use them no matter what event or process you are undertaking (i.e., Alpha, Discovering Christ, Bible Studies, Parish Missions, Evangelizing Retreats, etc.):
Develop a welcoming team with members who have charisms of hospitality, pastoring, service, encouragement, and even evangelism. If the event does not take place in a church, make this group responsible for setting up and preparing the room for the event. Also, insure that they are the “front line” for greeting attendees and “send them forth” to mingle if there is time for fellowship. This doesn’t excuse the rest of us from extending the hospitality of Christ, but it does make sure that God’s welcoming presence is communicated supernaturally. People who feel isolated because of shame or a sense of being unworthy experience real healing when they are welcomed as Christ would welcome them.
Invite these folks to begin the Called & Gifted Discernment Process and set them on the discernment path. As they begin to discern specific charisms, surround them with Encouragers. Remember that their wounded self-image may make it more challenging for them to hear and receive positive feeback. Helping them encounter their giftedness is a positive step on the journey of healing their self-image.
Encourage them to acts of service for the poor and suffering, and then lead take some time afterwards to reflect on the experience. Highlight for them areas where you saw them acting as the hands and feet of Christ. You may need to help them recall the fruit of their specific actions.
If they are participating in events with small groups, make sure that you place them in a small group with someone who a leader/facilitator who is aware of their general struggle and who may have a charism of pastoring, encouragement, or hospitality.
As trust and friendship begin to develop, invite them to receive prayer and then connect them with prayer teams whose individuals possess intercessory prayer, encouragement, healing, prophecy, or discernment of spirits. If their wounded self-image comes from dysfunctional family relationships, traumatic events in childhood or adulthood, or tragedy, invite Jesus Christ into those places and see what He wants to do.
There are many ways to surround someone who has a wounded self-image with love and encouragement. The reality is that their healing and openness to the Gospel is likely to be part of a journey that takes time. If we are really serious about our desire to share the Good News, then we, as individuals and communities, have to commit to walking with these men and women for the length of their journey. As we do, however, we may just find some hidden mirrors of our own and, through the grace of God, release them in His mercy.
Inside every Wicked Queen is a holy Princess whose identity is rooted in the Eternal King. Inside every Wicked King is a Prince Charming made in the image and likeness of His Loving Father. We must become Holy Mirrors of God’s redemptive Presence.