“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?
Because after all . . . it should.