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Bishop's Weekly message


Church: a place to go or an encounter with Christ?

We may be using the wrong tactics to re-fill the pews

BY BISHOP EDWARD B. SCHARFENBERGER


'People like to shop for their religious experience these days, just like every other item they seek to call their own. To “sell” the Gospel so that Christ becomes one’s own true friend may take time and patience — but nothing is more likely to do it than forming a personal relationship with the seeker.'

It's easy to disagree on theological fine points, but it's hard to argue with experience. In attempting to evangelize both active and inactive Catholics, no one set a better example than Christ the Good Shepherd, who would look for the one sheep when He had 99.

No lesson is more persuasive than good example -- especially when it comes with a personal touch.

In conventional terms, evangelization is often thought of in terms of programs or strategies for bringing people back to church. If only those empty pews, so disheartening to parish leaders and more regular attendees, could be filled again!

In that view, the goal becomes, "What can we do to entice people to come back?" But there is another way to look at it. If contemporary research is correct, many of those once-regular occupants may not be that far away. We bump into them every day. What, then, do we do? Before we start planning to evangelize (or "re-evangelize") them, we might ask ourselves whether our own faith could use a reigniting.

The pilot light on the stove might be on, but are all the burners turned up and cooking?

How easy -- or not -- is it to find another person or family with whom I can share a personal faith story in times of both struggle and consolation? Is church more than just a place to go and sit? Is it also an encounter, a walk or journey where I experience my faith life growing?

What is needed, then, is conversation as a way to help awaken the faith from one's own experience. Active Catholics need it as much as those we might think of as not so engaged.

The current socio-cultural context is not so much one of hostility or even indifference to the faith as the American style, followed especially by today's young people, of "making up your own life:" forming identity from many networks, not only one's family.

In generations past, what was learned in school and church was reinforced in the home. Today, with many more sources of information and interaction through the mass media, work, entertainment and social media like Facebook and Instagram, church identity comes much later. Even the catchiest appeals, such as "come home for Christmas," may bring more of a look of bewilderment from those who would not make a natural connection between a church and a home.

Rather than adapt a condemning or critical approach like, "You're a lapsed Catholic," a genuine effort to engage people in working through their personal identity issues might well be more effective. Nothing can be more convincing than hearing another person talk about how faith changed his or her life -- especially a life that might have been headed in a different direction.

Personal conversion stories have been popular throughout history, from St. Paul through Ss. Augustine, Francis, Ignatius of Loyola and Edith Stein.

Parish leaders seeking to develop evangelization can begin by identifying and encouraging those who are drawn to the work of evangelizing. Some preparation is needed, of course, but it must include more than theological content.

Also important is the development of good communication skills and a willingness to share personal faith struggles, including the experience of falling and rising again with the help of God's grace.

Though, typically, our parishes rarely see more than 25 percent of parishioners on a regular basis, the other 75 percent would be very surprised to learn that they are not "good" Catholics. The identity is still there, but the bond is not as strong as it once was, if measured by Mass attendance alone.

Inviting people personally might be the key. Parishes, after all, do not exist for their own sakes. They exist to help their members reach beyond their parish to bring the Gospel to the world.

In this light, a parish may be seen as less of a church that people "go to" than a training ground from which the faithful are sent. It follows that the best use of parish resources might be in creating strong relationships among those who are "regular" churchgoers.

Evangelize the evangelizers, so they may be empowered to be evangelical lightning rods in the community. Once again, the example of Christ, who began with only 12, might pay off in the long run much more than bewailing empty pews.

People like to shop for their religious experience these days, just like every other item they seek to call their own. To "sell" the Gospel so that Christ becomes one's own true friend may take time and patience -- but nothing is more likely to do it than forming a personal relationship with the seeker, which engenders openness, trust and vulnerability, a true spiritual friendship.

Remember Emmaus. Christ extended Himself to two friends arguing on a road leading away from Jerusalem -- and He took the time to be with them where they stayed. There is where they came to recognize Him.

(Follow the Bishop at www.facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd and on Twitter @AlbBishopEd.)


(August 10, 2017)