Some demons are harder to expel than others!
Jesus understood this and taught his disciples when they struggled to exorcize a mute spirit from a young boy. “This kind,” Jesus said, “cannot be driven out by anything except prayer and fasting.” (Mark 9:29)
Some demons are troublesome, and when they sink their venomed fangs into us, they do not want to leave. Such a demon is often present in diocesan and parish life, wielding its dark influence to deaden and block our desire and ability to experience new life, transformation, and renewal.
I call it the demon of programs.
Though the denizens of Satan’s fallen realm prefer to work in the shadows, masking and hiding their presence whenever they can, still the discerning eye can spot their furtive and elusive presence. There are signs that one’s parish or diocese has fallen under the power of this programmatic demon to a greater or lesser degree:
- A tendency to see the right program as the primary solution to problems or the primary driver of engagement
- A repeated habit of executing programs with little personal preparation or followup with participants that ends up minimizing (or missing completely) the personal interior journey of the individual and the absolute importance of personal response to grace.
- An absence of forethought in how the various programs offered by the parish could build upon one another to help lead a person on a spiritual journey toward Christ, into discipleship, and then into a lifestyle of missionary discipleship.
- An organizational bias in favor of hiring and promoting administrative and operational gifts and skillsets, coupled with an excessive tendency to value and reward programmatic execution over spiritual fruitfulness.
Get with the Program
Now is the time when many of you who are reading this begin to push back and think things like “But we need good administration” or “we’ll never get anything done if we are not organized.”
And I completely agree with you.
Of course, spiritual growth and programmatic excellence are not mutually exclusive, but let’s face it, the Catholic Church is huge, and to meet the demands of the breadth of our members, we have become adept at creating programs and processes that move large amounts of people from one place to another (e.g., in our Catholic School systems, sacramental preparation programs, and catechetical offerings especially). This is especially true of the Church in North America, which largely grew from the influx of immigrants coming to the continent. To handle the flow of our people, we built structures (physical and organizational), processes, and programs that focused on producing fully initiated Catholics who could integrate with the surrounding secular culture.
We’ve inherited that programmatic mentality today, and often our first instinct when faced with things like declining attendance, fewer resources, and lack of participation is to “tune up” our programs and find ways to increase their efficiency.
And this is where the program demon enters.
In a parish or diocesan culture dominated by the programmatic demon, the efforts of pastoral leaders, staff, and key volunteers revolves largely around the efforts and activities central to running events, processes, and programs with little (or a substantially reduced) focus on where participants might be in the spiritual journey toward discipleship before the event in question and where they might be after!
The truth is that programs, events, homilies, and the like don’t make disciples. They can be particular moments of grace and catalysts for conversion, and they might even, through the grace of God, help someone surrender their heart Christ and become believers in Jesus and His church. But by and large, growth into the lifestyle of Jesus and His kingdom, learning and living the life of discipleship requires a particular kind of connection to those who are already disciples.
In other words, programs don’t make disciples, people make disciples. Or as I like to say, disciples aren’t mass produced; they are artisanal products. They’re handcrafted. This was fundamentally the model of spiritual multiplication that Jesus used!
Calling Max Von Sydow
So how can we exorcize the program demon and be set free from the Paradigm of Programs that often dominates contemporary parish and diocesan life in the West? The answer is as clear as it is radical! We must raise up a generation of men and women with missionary mindsets and practical skills who can accompany others fruitfully on the spiritual journey. This will be necessary not only to help set our parishes free, but this same approach will be necessary if we are to live fruitfully the Church’s mission to the world!
This is precisely what M3 Ministries offers to parishes and dioceses. And in the course of the last several years, we have seen first-hand how the presence of these ‘parish-literate missionary band of evangelizers’ challenges the current culture and brings their missionary perspective not only into their worship of God and daily life, but also into the meetings and plans of the parish community.
If we want to be free of the program demon, we must equip men and women who:
• Possess a deep understanding of The Great Story of Salvation (the Kerygma)—including how the Gospel Message applies to them, and how their story and The Great Story intersect.
• Demonstrate a desire to share the Kerygma (the core Gospel Message) with others and walk alongside of them into relationship with Christ.
• Understand the spiritual journey toward discipleship (the pre-discipleship thresholds) and have experience listening as disciples for where someone might be in those thresholds.
• Possess integrated knowledge of the evangelization process and can think about parish life through the “lens” of that process.
• Can concretely invite someone to surrender their lives to Jesus.
• Demonstrate comfort with the power, presence, and person of the Holy Spirit, and intentionally “partner” with the Spirit to release the power of the Kingdom of God in both natural and supernatural ways.
Of course, parishioners don’t need to be formed in
all these areas to be effective witnesses to Jesus. New disciples and longer-term
followers of Christ whose lives have been re-energized and renewed by the Lord
can profoundly touch the lives of others in Jesus’ name—without the benefit of
such missionary formation. However, a parish or diocese rooted within a
Paradigm of People consciously chooses to raise up these kinds of missionary
leaders, not as a pre-requisite or requirement to serve in a missionary capacity,
but so that the missionary activity of the whole parish will bear greater fruit.
In other words, leaders in a people-focused paradigm don’t hold back their
people from missionary activity until they complete all of the “necessary”
formation, but rather seek to build up the missionary skills and identity of
every parishioner so they can become even more effective and fruitful in
sharing Jesus with others.
If you’d like more help moving from a Paradigm of Programs to one that focuses on People, 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 link below the image.
And just like the mute spirit in the Gospel of Mark, if you want to exorcize your community from the program demon . . . don’t forget prayer and fasting!
Today is the Solemnity of St. Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
We all know that Joseph is a powerful saint and a tremendous example to husbands and fathers everywhere.
[Full Disclosure: Joseph is my confirmation name, and I picked St. Joseph as my saint for confirmation because I felt badly for him. Between Jesus and Mary, Joseph often looked to me like he was “forgotten.” Out of pity, I asked him to be my companion–and he has shown himself to be a powerful advocate and friend throughout my life.]
As I was saying, we generally view St. Joseph through the lens of fatherhood and familial love, but today on his solemnity, the Church offers us an opportunity to see within his life a fundamental principle of the Gospel. If we embrace this opportunity, we will “right-side” St. Joseph. In other words, instead of taking an image of St. Joseph and burying it upside down so that we can sell a home [can we STOP doing that, please?], with the right openness, we can allow the image of Joseph to turn our own lives (and the lives of our parishes) upside down with the power of the Gospel.
What do I mean? Let’s take a little dive into today’s readings!
In Chapter 4 of his Letter to the Romans the apostle Paul takes some time to reflect on the fruitfulness of Abraham’s life. In it, Paul writes: “It was not through the law that the promise was made to Abraham and his descendants that he would inherit the world, but through the righteousness that comes from faith.” (Romans 4:13) Paul understands that the new life promised to Abram by God in the Old Testament did not manifest simply because Abram carried out God’s commands. In other words, Abram became Abraham, the father of many nations, not because of Abraham’s actions, but because of something called righteousness.
Righteousness really means “right relationship” with God–a real and intimate union and integrity with the One who created us. Because of the Fall, this union with God has been ruptured beyond our human ability to repair it. Any restoration of this relationship must come from God, and St. Paul identifies this divine restorative action upon us as righteousness. Because righteousness originates entirely with God, it cannot simply be produced by our actions and activities. This is why Paul acknowledges that Abraham’s righteousness “comes from faith.” At some point, Abram entrusted himself to the Lord, and that intentional decision to make the Lord the center of His life allowed him to receive the righteousness of God.
I can already hear you thinking “But Deacon Keith, by your own words it is the activity of Abraham that produced righteousness. He did something (turning his life over to God) and then was transformed.” That might be true if Paul didn’t follow up his statements on Abraham’s faith with more reflection: “For this reason, it depends on faith, so that it may be a gift, and the promise may be guaranteed to all his descendants, not to those who only adhere to the law but to those who follow the faith of Abraham . . . .” (Romans 4:16)
Both Scripture and Tradition are clear that Faith does not originate in the human will, but rather it is a gift from God. Therefore, even our desire and ability to make this act of entrustment to the Lord comes from God, from the Divine Life he offers us (which we call grace). The action of God’s grace upon us before any engagement of our own will is called Prevenient Grace in our Tradition. This grace gives us the desire and openness to say yes to the Lord, and this desire is transformed into the theological virtue of Faith at our baptism. In God’s goodness, we can continue to cooperate with that virtue of Faith throughout our lives, and this cooperation will bring us closer to union with God.
The Trap of Performance
Why is this such a big deal? Why am I even spending this much time on righteousness, grace, and activity? The truth is that many of our Catholic brothers and sisters, those we serve at the parish level, and those we know in our own lives, have fallen into the trap of “performance Catholicism.” In other words, they believe that Catholicism is primarily about following rules. As long as they do Catholic things, as long as they simply fulfill their obligations, they’ll be “safe.” This kind of faith becomes almost entirely transactional. I do “Catholic Thing A” so that I will get to heaven. I push this button by doing “Catholic Thing B,” and I pull this lever by doing “Catholic Thing C” and the gates of Heaven will open. But what Jesus Christ and my relationship with Him has to do with it is very, very unclear.
Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI had some powerful things to say about this kind of performance Catholicism:
We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. —Deus Caritas Est, 1
For Pope Benedict XVI, there is more to Christianity than just intellectual propositions, moral truths, and proscribed actions. Rather, the heart of Christianity is Jesus, who is the Father’s Love Incarnate. This Jesus invites us into relationship and no amount of “doing Catholic things” (even things like the Mass, devotions like the Rosary or the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, or activities like scripture study, etc.) without intentionally entrusting ourselves to Jesus and living out this relationship will, ultimately, save us. The activity that flows from that relationship, our “works” are the manifestation of that saving faith in our lives.
Calling All Patriarchs!
But what does all of this have to do with St. Joseph? Well, today’s gospel reading from Matthew takes on new dimensions in light of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Through this epistle, we can see the remarkable parallels between Abraham, our Father in Faith, and St. Joseph. Like Abraham, to whom the Lord spoke and through whom He promised new life would flow, St. Joseph also hears from the Lord in a dream. Joseph, being a good Jew is troubled by Mary’s pregnancy, and since they were betrothed but not yet married, he planned to set her aside quietly, so as not to place shame upon her. But the Lord counsels Joseph not to “be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.” (Matthew 1:20-21) The Lord’s promise to Abraham is new life, the generation of a people, and the Lord’s promise to St. Joseph is that through the Holy Spirit, Mary will bear the one who will offer new life to the world–and it is through Joseph, that this messiah will receive a name (1:21).
Like Abraham, it isn’t simply the following of God’s commands that allows Joseph to bear this fruit, but the intentional decision to follow the Lord and place his trust in God as the central relationship in his life. Through grace, Abraham became our Father in Faith, and in a very real sense, through grace St. Joseph becomes the Father of our Faith in Jesus Christ. If we look to his image in scripture today, the invitation over our life becomes clear: God is speaking to each of us personally and calls us to make an intentional decision to surrender our hearts to him. This is the Gospel of Righteousness . . .that salvation comes not through our own goodness or efforts, but through our relationship with the one who left heaven in search of us and merited for us the new life of God’s Kingdom. We don’t earn it, and all we need to do is receive it and allow it to take more and more possession of our hearts.
Our journey through this earthly pilgrimage is not simply a solitary one, we are called and saved as a people (1Cor 12:27). As those committed to the transformation of our parishes how can we help change the very culture of our parishes so that they become places where our brothers and sisters regularly have the opportunity to be changed by the power of the Gospel? St. Paul is pretty clear later on in Romans when he proclaims that “faith comes through hearing.” (10:17) Therefore, a critical question we must ask ourselves as leaders and committed disciples of Jesus is “Where in our parish life together is the gospel message (The Great Story of Salvation) being proclaimed in such a way that people have the opportunity to respond to it?”
One way to answer this question is to do the following:
- Gather together as parish leaders, ministry coordinators, or concerned disciples and make a list of all the parish ministries, activities, and offerings.
- Then identify those specific ministries, activities, and offerings that explicitly proclaim the gospel message and invite participants to respond. It is important here to be very honest and clear. Make this determination not based on what the ministry should do or is supposed to do, but answer based on what is actually happening within that area.
- When that is complete, go through those areas that are not currently proclaiming the Gospel and discuss what changes could be made to 3 or 4 of those areas in the next 6 months to make them proclaim the gospel message.
- After those areas have been modified, return to your list and take a look at 3 or 4 more areas that aren’t proclaiming the Gospel and work on them.
The reality is that we can never proclaim the Gospel message too many times. Often, it takes people 7 or 8 exposures to The Great Story of Salvation before people start to seriously wrestle with it. As we begin to shape our parish life together around proclamation of the Gospel, we will see the culture of our parish start to shift and change.
So today, let us “Right-Side” St. Joseph, and ask him to pray for us so that, like him, we might intentionally entrust our hearts to God and cooperate with the righteousness that is ours in Jesus Christ!
As the Church, in Her various dioceses and parishes has become more comfortable with the language of evangelization, more and more ink (and pixels) have been “spilled” talking about missionary discipleship. Pope Francis speaks about it frequently, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recently created a resource entitled Living as Missionary Disciples! It seems like only a few years ago Sherry Weddell wrote her groundbreaking book, Forming Intentional Disciples, that helped shift the conversation around evangelization–particularly in the United States–and now we are wrestling with missionary discipleship.
The problem is that for many pastoral leaders, key volunteers, and Catholics in general missionary discipleship is a mystery. Because of the crisis of discipleship within our communities, our personal experiences of missionary discipleship are limited. Often leaders lack even an imaginative category for such an expression of discipleship. Therefore, It is hard to begin with the end in mind when that “end” is essentially a theory or, even worse, an unknown developmental stage. Even when we as parish and diocesan leaders understand that the developmental goal is missionary discipleship (which itself is rarer than you would think), how can we lay a solid foundation for the development of missionary disciples in our programs and processes of formation when we ourselves are unsure what we are building toward?
In order to help parishes have a clearer understanding of missionary discipleship, M3 Ministries has created a very basic overview of the characteristics of a missionary disciple. It is a useful resource to begin conversations about missionary discipleship at all levels of the parish, and we want to offer it to anyone who wants it. If you are interested in downloading a copy of this resource, simply click on the image below.
The Dangers of Functionality
If you would like to use this resource in order to foster conversation in your organization, ministry, parish, or diocese be prepared to navigate a pretty substantial obstacle: Because of our lack of familiarity with missionary discipleship, we tend to reduce this multi-dimensional developmental stage of the spiritual journey only to its functions. In other words, we may have individuals in our parishes and dioceses who do or lead activities that fall under some of the characteristics of a missionary disciple, and therefore we (or they) may assume that they are missionary disciples. Missionary Discipleship, however, is more than simply a list of activities or functions. It is a fundamentally relational response to Christ that encompasses the whole of one’s life. A catechist who teaches his students about Christ within an RE program but never talks about Jesus in any other facet of his life may not have actually be a disciple who has, through the grace of God, taken a missionary approach to life.
Understanding this key reality will help you utilize this resource more effectively. May it truly be a help to the work of parish renewal and transformation!