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!
“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?
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.
It’s finally time to launch your parish’s evangelization program!
After what seems like endless months of planning, modifying, communicating, and prepping, launch time is here. You’ve read all the right books and been to all the right conferences, and you worked hard at picking the best possible program. The name tags are made, the pencils sharpened, and the small groups assigned. Now, all you have to do is keep the momentum going and parish transformation will blossom like flowers in springtime.
If you are like so many other parishes, your program may launch to great success and then seemingly disappear without much lasting fruit, ending up assigned to the dustbin of history as another reinforcement for the “we tried that before, and it didn’t work” culture so prevalent in parochial life. The truth is that cultural change is challenging and takes far more than a spiffy new program to occur.
Here are 5 reasons why your parish’s latest evangelization program won’t bear much fruit:
Maybe your parish is exceptionally active, and you have so many things going on that your latest evangelization program is just one more activity in the Greek-Diner-sized menu of competing events. Or perhaps you are under-resourced as a parish, and it took everything that you had to just get this latest program off the ground. Either way, chances are that your new evangelization initiative is not linked in a strategic way with any other parts of your parish’s pastoral strategy. It’s an outlier, and once people go through it, you don’t have any process, program, or event that builds upon what your parishioners experienced in any formative developmental way.
In other words . . .what’s next for the alumni of your evangelization program? What path do you have for them to take the next step toward (or in) relationship with Christ? Here’s a fundamental question I ask every parish that M3 Ministries works with: What is the specific pathway that your parish has available to help those who are unchurched encounter Christ, come to a decision to follow Jesus, mature as disciples, and receive formation to share Christ with others? In order to really bear fruit, every parish must have a clear plan accompanying people on the journey toward missionary discipleship. One program–even the most amazing one–is not sufficient.
It’s a Cattle Call
Catholics have developed a remarkable ability to create institutions, programs, and processes to move large amounts of people through specific experiences–Catholic Schools, RCIA, Religious Education of children, sacramental preparation–you name it, and we can catapult thousands of people through every major hurdle and come out the other side. The problem is that we never take the time to discover where each of our people are in their own spiritual journey before we load the catapult. As a result, we offer every single person the same experience as if they were all in the same place spiritually, and we very rarely help them discern if they are in the right place developmentally for a particular program to bear sustained fruit in their life. And we wonder why our programs seem to have little lasting impact.
It is only recently, with the publication of Sherry Weddell’s landmark book, Forming Intentional Disciples, which introduced the concept of key pre-discipleship thresholds to the Catholic world, that we have a language and conceptual framework for seeing more specifically where people actually are. The work of other apostolates, like FOCUS and their Discipleship Roadmap, have expanded this understanding to the post-discipleship journey. The reality is that people in different thresholds and places on the journey require different things, and offering people something for which they are not developmentally able to receive can cause them to “go backwards” or stall in their journey toward missionary discipleship. In other words, how will baptismal prep at your parish be different for someone in the Threshold of Trust versus someone who is in Seeking?
We rarely do any followup or debriefing with those who come through our evangelization programs. Often, our parishioners have positive experiences and may even move through some thresholds, but we never walk with them after and help them unpack that experience. We either end the program abruptly when it is done, or quickly move on to the next program. When we offer experiences and programs that make an impact and then don’t nurture that change within people, we guarantee that the fire kindled within them will eventually die. It is imperative that we take the time and walk with people post-program. It is as important as providing the program itself in the first place. Personally, I like to ask men and women who complete a process or program: “How did this experience influence, change, or deepen your relationship with Jesus?” and “What can I do for you to help you grow further in this area?”
Sometimes we embrace mediocrity in the Church, believing that good content and great intentions mean that we can get by with ho-hum execution. The good news is that most evangelization programs today are high-quality and possess phenomenal multimedia resources baked into them. But I’m not just talking about video quality or handout design. Good execution means paying attention to every facet of the program experience–from ease of sign up, to meeting hospitality, environment lay out, small group facilitator discernment and formation, communication with participants, and just about anything else you can think of. In the 21st century, we are competing with countless other activities and experiences for the attention and time of people. This isn’t about making our programs more entertaining, but rather providing the best possible experience for our parishioners and guests. Why invest money, time, and resources into a program that you are just going to run on autopilot?
Evangelization programs should have as their goal the making of disciples. Running a program without explicit understanding and agreement of this reality on the part of leadership leads to less fruit. When evangelization programs are run to try and keep people engaged or get new people “involved,” they often do not bear lasting fruit. Furthermore, we know that only a disciple can make a disciple. Unfocused evangelization programs often lack the presence of disciple facilitators who understand the disciple-making process. Without disciples facilitating the program and intentionally accompanying participants, the program will not have as much of a long-term impact as it could. This intentional accompaniment includes a willingness to invite others “in the present moment” to drop their nets and follow Jesus if the situation warrants that kind of invitation.
The good news is that our evangelization programs do not have to fail. By taking these five factors in to account during the planning and execution of your parish’s program, you will help that program yield sustainable long-term impact.