Thursday is usually my day off, but last week I went with about eight other staff members from St. Anne down to St. Mary Immaculate in Plainfield, about 35 miles south of us in the diocese of Joliet, for a daylong workshop/presentation by Brian Cook and Fr. Michael White, the authors of the popular Rebuilt and Tools for Rebuilding books on parish revitalization. Our pastor suggested it as a conversation starter and bought copies for everyone, and I read it on the flight to Providence in March. I was both impressed with the vision articulated in the book and wary of some of its conclusions, but came away from it thinking that they were onto something worth investigating. This workshop seemed like a chance to hear more about their experience and possibly find others who feel that the same tired strategies of parish life need to be retooled.
Clearly, others feel some of the same things. There were six hundred people from a dozen dioceses in three states crammed into the gym at the parish. But the staff at SMI and the diocese of Joliet modeled hospitality and efficiency from the doors of the place to the lunch tables, and everyone was very impressed with how smoothly the day proceeded. We were met at the doors of the large gathering space in the parish by school children and others who opened doors for us and smilingly wished us a good morning, and registration and lunch lines were well-organized, a feat that those of us who have hosted this sort of thing know is not a given, even with good planning!
For those who haven't read it, Rebuilt is an easy read, with a self-deprecatingly humorous, breezy narrative form that begins by looking backward at a specific parish's experience of what wasn't working, and then enumerating the difficult, sometimes painful steps and missteps that the pastoral team took to begin to steer the ship in a different direction. (I haven't read the sequel, because I'm not sure that the particulars would apply to us.) At its heart, Rebuilt is convinced that parish life in the United States is enabling consumer culture, rather than making disciples of the gospel. Big parishes have big staffs of people who try to serve the needs of the thousands who attend the parish on weekends for worship and other times for formation and community, but they seem to be unsuccessful at creating a community of people who are willing to undertake the missionary mandate of the gospel. Rather than being schools of service, parishes are more like service stations. More and more of our efforts are focused inwardly on serving our members, when the gospel mandate is "go out", and that mandate is given to the whole church, not just to the staff or priests.
The authors of Rebuilt, in the book and in the seminar, ask parishes to ask what they finally hit upon as the key questions about ministry: why does a parish exist? They answer, rightly, of course, that the parish exists to do what the church exists to do, that is, to "make disciples," people who love God, love neighbor, and make other disciples. In order to do this, they urge others churches to take a lesson from Protestant mega-churches, that is, to change their focus from serving members to enabling members to be servants, to change their focus to non-church people, to prioritize the weekend experience, and to challenge their congregations to move.
What resonated with me in that crowded gym last week was how everyone who spoke or reacted to the authors wanted a program that would be successful when transplanted to their parish, when it seemed to me that what the authors were presenting was a vision, based on their experience in one parish, with one staff, with a particularly demographic, in one part of the country. The resonance, I think, was similar to what many of us encountered giving institutes on behalf of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate (of happy memory). People often came looking for a program they could adopt in their parish with step-by-step instructions for success, when what we offered was a vision of initiation in parishes based on the rite. We could offer some strategies that worked in a variety of parish situations, but there is no, and can be no, one-size-fits-all program for evangelical and catechetical success.
I think that the "program" in both cases is the gospel. But understanding what the gospel is, what it means, and what it calls people to is anything but monolithic in this day and age. Rebuilt sees, in a sense, the damage that has been done to the Church in America because its American. It even names the problem fairly accurately as one of enabling consumer culture and entitlement. What it doesn't do, and what no one really wants to talk about, is what to do about that. What, in other words, is the choice that the gospel offers, and what are the consequences of that for daily life? And where is the model of that kind of living?
Those of you who have read my Lenten booklet Change Our Hearts, or any of the books or authors who have influenced it, know that my johnny-one-note speech about this is that at the heart of the gospels there is a choice between empires: the empire of this world (whether it is Rome or the USA or China, or any other political and economic system) and the empire of God. "Turn away from sin and believe in the gospel" is a way of articulating that choice. Jesus offers a worldview that is essentially different from the prevailing powers': God is for everyone, everyone is related to Abba in the same way, members of the divine household, and to be like God, to take the highest place, is to bend down and serve other people. This is a vision that completely restructures civilization. It is the choice that we are corporately afraid to talk about. We settle for far less, for shadows of real "good," and make "good for me" and "good for us" into absolute truth (God).
It seems to me that until we get around to talking about this, talking about how the gospel is different from what we're living now, and not business-as-usual, we are just re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, and no program is going to save us. The authors make a case that ministers need to work out of a "broken heart for the lost," and I would say that the "lost" are those who have been fooled into thinking that the security provided by money and guns and corporate control is God's will for them. The "lost" are those who have bought into American civil religion, or cooperate with it, just as the lost in the first century were those who bought into the Roman civil religion, and its god-emperors, and who kept the peace by cooperating with it in order to preserve their social status. But I don't hear Rebuilt talking about that, just about "prioritizing the weekend experience" with better (hipper) music and hospitality. The parish at the center of Rebuilt has a single presbyter, so there's no disparity in the preaching, no variance in the celebration of liturgical norms, no ethnic or language barrier to deal with. With the right pastor, which they seem to have, this seems like an ideal situation. But pastors move, and then what? Even if the new pastor appreciates the vision, he may not have the same skill set to carry off the vision that the current fellow has.
This is not to say we should do nothing simply because nothing we do will last. Rebuilt hits a lot of the right notes for me, and came very close, in the seminar at least, to articulating the essential issue in an exegesis of Matthew 16:13-20. Fr. White spoke a little bit about the context into which this story is placed, the city of Caesarea Philippi, a resort built by Herod the Great on the site of Paneas, and renamed in honor of Caesar Augustus. Paneas was a city that dated at least from the time of the Seleucids, and was named for the god Pan, one of the gods of fertility. Underground springs flowed out from caves there, and were associated with the winter passage of the fertility gods to the underworld, hence, they were the "gates of Hades." Caesarea was a resort town for the rich and for the Roman governors, and had the reputation of being a "sin city," the Las Vegas of first century Palestine. So Jesus's promise to build the church, the ekklesia, on the rock of Peter, opened into a promise that the "gates of Hades," symbolized by the city at whose gates the conversation was reportedly taking place, would not overcome it. The church of which Matthew has Jesus speak was not a building but an ekklesia, a gathering, a community of people "called out." It was here that I wanted to hear the speaker make the turn and say Jesus was forming an alternative to the Roman empire of people called to serve one another in the name of abba. Right at the very gates of Roman civil religion and Jewish (Herodian and high priestly) collaboration, Jesus was naming his movement ekklesia, and then I hoped that alternative might be spelled out, and we would finally hear a reason for Rebuilt, and a fork in the path of history that we might again, finally, have a path to choose. But I didn't hear that. It may have been implied, but it wasn't clear to me, and I was listening for it.
Just the simple suggestion that capitalism and consumerism are not part of God's divine plan for the world initiated a Catholic capitalist counter-strike on Pope Francis, and ended the honeymoon in some American Catholic circles with the new pope. I suppose therein lies the key. If you want to know whether or not your "vision" or "program" for the church follows in the footsteps of Jesus, say it out loud, and see whether it sets in motion the wheels of commerce or the mechanics of crucifixion. Rebuilt is knocking on the door of the new evangelization by its critique of consumerism and advocacy for the message of the gospel. Whether it will make a difference in the church will depend a lot upon whether or not it will be able to articulate and start a movement, as Jesus did, that offers a choice between empires. Everything depends on that. For the "lost," and that is pretty much all of us, well, we already know that where we are is bad news. We need to hear the good news, and it's more than just serving donuts and changing our songs.
But I want to affirm the instincts of Fr. White and Mr. Corcoran and their counterparts in recognizing the problem in running large parishes and how we can perpetuate our mistakes, turning what ought to be centers of mission and evangelization into country clubs and elite schools. The 1960s novel Morte d'Urban told the story of a religious community that was dying and ultimately only had enough staff to run its own seminaries. The church exists for the mission. Its essence is to go outside of itself. When we find ourselves just staying afloat and trying to serve people who are our own members, we're in danger of losing our identity. Those people who are gathering on Sunday, those disciples, ought to be the evangelizers. They—we—need to know the difference that being a Christian makes, the difference in this world, the difference between the reign of the God of love and the reign of every other power that is competing for our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and what that has to do with my neighbor. If they can start that discussion, and bring people in by the hundreds to hear that there is a choice to be made between empires that will lead to eternal life, life here and now that is of bottomless value, they may yet launch a dangerous movement that could not only rebuild the church, but renew the face of the earth.
But pay attention to the Francis effect, and listen for the rattle of the machines of marginalization and cross-building to hum to life. It's scary. But "the gates of Hades" will not prevail. That's the promise.