In 1 Samuel
17, we read the story of David—young, inexperienced and seemingly
ill-equipped—standing before a huge giant, Goliath. Beginning the process of
changing the culture of your parish can also feel like taking on a giant. There
are two possible attitudes when facing a giant. One is to say, ‘It’s too big.
There’s nothing I can do.’ The other is to say, ‘It’s so big I can’t miss!’ The
five-systems framework outlined here is a great way to make an effective start
on the ‘giant’ of growing a more missionary and fruitful parish.
body is made up of a number of different systems: the skeletal system, the
circulatory system and so on. When one of the systems in our body fails to
function correctly, it affects the health of the whole body. We become sick, and
our entire body feels it. This is also true of parishes.
Healthy things grow and produce fruit. Acts
2:42–47 describes an ‘ideal’ Christian community, a ‘body’ that is healthy
and growing. From this passage we can identify five interdependent systems: worship, evangelisation, discipleship,
fellowship and service. In a healthy parish, each of these systems
functions well. A malfunctioning system makes the whole parish ‘sick’,
inhibiting its ongoing fruitfulness.
A health check for your parish
Your parish leadership team might consider performing a ‘health
check’ on your parish, identifying systems that are not working optimally so
that you can plan to bring the ‘body’, your parish, to better health.
‘… as they spent
much time together in the temple, they broke bread’ (Acts 2:46)
Is your celebration of the Eucharist a moving and transformative
experience that brings people into an intimate encounter with Jesus and with
the community around them? As Catholics, our main act of worship is the
Sunday Eucharist. Parishes can greatly improve the quality of their worship by
paying attention to:
- hospitality. Don’t assume that ‘everyone here
is a practising Catholic’. As people arrive, ensure a warm welcome, with clear
signage, an uncluttered foyer, smiling faces, a clean bathroom and nappy-change
facilities. Make sure everyone has what they need to participate: words for
hymns and responses, explanations of key liturgical moments, clear instructions
on receiving Communion, access to a children’s liturgy. Consider asking a ‘mystery
shopper’, preferably a non-Catholic, to attend your Sunday Mass and give you
feedback on their experience of being welcomed (or not)
- hymns. Provide the best music your parish
can afford, aiming for encounter, not performance. Offer music in a style, key
and volume that invites the congregation to open their mouths and sing. It also
greatly aids prayerful worship when at least one hymn is addressed directly to
God, as a prayer
- homilies. In Evangelii Gaudium (§135),
Pope Francis quips that both the laity and ‘their ordained ministers suffer
because of homilies: the laity from having to listen to them, and the clergy
from having to preach them.’ Sadly this is too often true. The homily is there to feed and nurture the
‘flock’ and benefits from careful attention to style and kerygmatic content.
‘And day by day the Lord added to their number those who
were being saved.’ (Acts 2:47)
Does your parish have an intentional process that explicitly
proclaims the kerygma and brings adults into a personal relationship with
Jesus? Healthy things grow and produce ‘babies’. A clear sign of a healthy
parish is that new adult Christians are being ‘born’. Opinions differ about what
evangelisation is. It is frequently confused with discipleship. Your team needs
a shared understanding of what evangelisation is—and isn’t—before you do a
‘health check’ of this system:
- Evangelisation always includes an explicit
proclamation of the kerygma. In Evangelii Gaudium (§163),
Pope Francis describes the content of kerygma as ‘Jesus Christ loves
you, he gave his life to save you and now he is living by your side every day
to enlighten, strengthen and free you.’
- It is primarily directed at those outside the church.
- Effective evangelisation is invitational, involving
a radically welcoming, non-judgemental and listening stance.
- Evangelisation is the system that is most
frequently unhealthy in a Catholic parish and is often the best place to start
when working towards better parish health.
‘They devoted themselves … to fellowship … All who
believed were together and had all things in common.’ (Acts 2:42, 44)
Is your parish a meaningful community where people are
known and loved and are supported in their call to holiness? Healthy
parishes are like a family and have a strong, welcoming community life. Many
parishes are socially active, with sports clubs, dancing, barbecues, concerts
and the like. But this is not necessarily fellowship. Fellowship may include
socialising but cannot be reduced to it. It occurs in a community formed around
the Gospel, and its purpose is to love and support each other on the Christian
journey to holiness. Ask yourself: Is everyone in your parish known by name,
loved and cared for? Does fellowship only extend to certain kinds of people? Are
people with disabilities or different ethnicities or different socioeconomic
situations somehow implicitly excluded?
‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and
fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.’ (Acts 2:42)
Is your parish a place where enthusiastic followers of
Jesus are supported in a lifelong process of growing in their loving and
serving of God? Discipleship is about nurturing people who already love
Jesus and who want more. Discipleship includes catechesis but cannot be reduced
to it. People can take courses but not live transformed lives; they can know
about God but not know God. Research tells us that the majority of
baptised Catholics are not disciples; they have been sacramentalised but not
evangelised. Parishes that nurture discipleship expect that conversion is a
lifelong journey of ever-deepening relationship with Jesus. The parish can
assist disciples by supporting their growth in faith, knowledge and prayer
through a range of experiences of catechesis, Scripture study and so on.
‘All who believed were together and had all things in common, they
would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all,
as any had need.’ (Acts 2:44–45)
Does your parish have a missionary culture that calls its
members to service both within the parish and outwards to those who do not yet belong?
- Does your parish support people to discern their
God-given giftedness, and then call them to service in areas into which they
are being called? Or does your parish look to fill ‘gaps’ with anyone who is
prepared to do the job?
- Are most of your parish ministries and services
focussed internally (for example, lectors, special ministers, children’s
liturgy, altar serving and other rostered opportunities to serve)? Or does your
parish have a substantial focus on service and care beyond the people who
belong to the parish?
- Is the main role of the parish priest and staff
to ‘serve’ those coming to the parish in need of help and support? Or is the
main focus to grow and equip disciples who go out into the world to evangelise
Using the five systems as a framework for your
Analysing the overall health of your parish through a
thorough and honest evaluation of each of these systems is a great starting
point for developing a parish-renewal strategy.
- Get clear
consensus on system definitions. What
people mean by ‘discipleship’, ‘evangelisation’, ‘catechesis’ and ‘discipleship’
varies widely, and your team needs to be clear and united on the distinctions.
groups have many faces. Parishes can have small groups for evangelisation
(to come and see), discipleship (to grow), ministry (to serve) and fellowship
(to welcome and support). Carefully consider which system each parish group
broken bones first. As you evaluate your parish health, you will discover
one or more ‘broken’ or unhealthy systems, and your strategy should focus on these
first. If you have a broken bone, it needs to heal before you can begin
training to run a marathon.
- Make your
strategy sustainable. In the first year, start with one system, beginning
work on your ‘broken bone’ (usually evangelisation). Prioritise
hospitality, invitation and witness (all central to effective evangelisation). Don’t spread yourself too thin and risk
is the essential element. The missionary effectiveness of the parish begins
with the leadership of the parish priest, but missionary leadership cannot be
done alone. Effective strategic action requires a team and unanimity of vision
within that team.
communicate, communicate. Talk about your vision constantly. When everyone
knows about it, communicate again … and again. Vision ‘leaks’. Test every
decision and pastoral action through the lens of your missionary vision: will
this grow missionary disciples who love, follow and serve Jesus?
- Have fun.
Used as a
diagnostic and planning tool, the five systems from Acts 2:42–47 can help you to grow a healthier and
more fruitful parish. This might seem like a giant goal, but with the Holy
Spirit—and with time, effort, effective leadership and strong teamwork—you can’t
The Archdiocesan Animation Team is available to discuss
strategies with you and/or your team and to facilitate sessions (remotely) on
many topics and issues. Just ask!
Contact Lorraine on 0402 217 123 or at email@example.com.
Next week: ‘Balancing holiness and mission’