Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter is the story of a Catholic parish in Timonium, Maryland called Church of the Nativity, told by the pastor, Michael White, and parish staff member Tom Corcoran. Their purpose is straightforward:
We seek to thoughtfully address all of you who are concerned that things in many parishes do not seem to be going well these days. A single, simple fact illustrates the problem: One in three people raised in the Catholic Church has walked away from it, making “former Catholic” the third largest religious designation in the country (Thomas J. Reese, “The Hidden Exodus: Catholics Becoming Protestants,” National Catholic Reporter, April 28, 2011).
By using their own observations, experiences (both good and bad), and integrating it with sound theology and a wide range of the latest research, Rebuilt provides a much-needed catalyst for conversation among ministers about the state of parish life and what needs to be done about it. Their willingness and courage, not only to think outside the box, but to put innovative methods (innovative for the Catholic Church, at least) into practice, is truly exciting and makes me a little
less skeptical more hopeful about the future of parish life in America.
One of the main starting points of the book is the idea that the we must first know our audience and its culture in order to understand how to approach proclaiming the Gospel. (Or, stealing a page out of Don Buggert’s notes, we must understand what the American lenses, or American worldview, is (are?). Everything that Church of the Nativity sets out to do is based on this core principle.
What’s interesting is that this concept of understanding the world in which the Gospel is presented, in and of itself, is not new for the Catholic Church. One of the first things that biblical scholars do when approaching Scripture is study a passage or book’s historical context (for more on that, click here).
The principle of understanding a culture and adapting the Gospel message accordingly when evangelizing mission territories is certainly not new. Ad Gentes, the Decree on the Mission Activity of the Church, speaks of the role of the lay faithful (who reside in the mission territory) as they work alongside religious men and women (i.e., priests and nuns) to spread the Gospel:
But they must give expression to this newness of life in the social and cultural framework of their own homeland, according to their own national traditions. They must be acquainted with this culture; they must heal it and preserve it; they must develop it in accordance with modern conditions, and finally perfect it in Christ, so that the Faith of Christ and the life of the Church are no longer foreign to the society in which they live, but begin to permeate and to transform it (AD 21, emphasis mine).
Redemptoris Missio, the encyclical written by John Paul II on the 25th anniversary of Ad Gentes, speaks of the need to adapt the way we communicate in order to effective present the Gospel:
After preaching in a number of places, St. Paul arrived in Athens, where he went to the Areopagus and proclaimed the Gospel in language appropriate to and understandable in those surroundings (cf. Acts 17:22-31)….the very evangelization of modern culture depends to a great extent on the influence of the media, it is not enough to use the media simply to spread the Christian message and the Church’s authentic teaching…there exist new ways of communicating, with new languages, new techniques and a new psychology. Pope Paul VI said that “the split between the Gospel and culture is undoubtedly the tragedy of our time,” (Evangelii Nuntiando 20) and the field of communications fully confirms this judgment (RM 37, emphasis mine).
In discussing the role of those who instruct the faithful, the Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of necessary adaptations:
Those who are called to the ministry of preaching must suit their words to the maturity and understanding of their hearers, as they hand on the teaching of the mysteries of faith and the rules of moral conduct (Roman Catechism, quoted in CCC 24, emphasis mine).
All this being said, Church of the Nativity has taken this idea of knowing its audience and its culture to another level by specifically addressing the consumer culture that permeates our everyday lives, and how, over time and without realizing it, many Catholics have come to view the Church through the lens of a consumer. In other words, for many Catholics, the Church is perceived as one of many producers who exist to fulfill a felt need (the term “sacrament dispenser” comes to mind), and the biggest demand is to just “get it over with” (see Rebuilt p. 41).
Nativity actually spent years of falling into the trap of assuming that the reason parishioners were leaving was because their product line (i.e., their programming) wasn’t good enough, and surely, if they offered new and improved programs, parishioners/customers would stay. After finally recognizing this unhealthy and ultimately destructive pattern of producer/consumer retail religion, they began investing their time and effort into studying thriving church communities.
What resulted is a deeper look at the true mission of the Church, and what I would like to think is a form of healing/transformation of consumer culture (a form of inculturation, perhaps?), which involves doing away with the parts of consumer culture that are contrary to the Gospel (i.e., commodifying the sacraments) and baptizing the parts which are consistent with the Gospel (i.e., using marketing strategies like knowing your target audience).
To read more about what they learned, and some practical ways that they applied it, tune in next time for Part 2 of my book review/commentary.
In the meantime, does this description of the current state of parish life match up with your experience? I know that the authors’ anecdotes were all too familiar….