community that lives on an island. The islanders have been explicitly told that
they are to go to the people across the water to tell them about their way of
life. However, the water is cold and it’s frequently stormy, and at other times
the weather is too hot. The journey across the water seems dangerous, and the
people on the other side have ideas and lifestyles that make the islanders feel
uncomfortable. Therefore, instead of using boats or a bridge to cross the water,
the islanders build high walls around their island and shelter behind them for
protection. They develop a system of impenetrable rituals and obscure language
which prevent others from accessing their community. The islanders will only
allow others to join their community if they find their own way past the walls
and if they learn their language and rituals first.
In his new
book Beyond the Parish, Fr James Mallon uses this simple allegory to
describe an ‘isolationist’ church—one afraid to move out beyond its walls to
take the risks necessary to engage with the world. Too often we see holiness as
something that necessitates a retreat from the ‘tainted’ secular world into
some sort of ‘Catholic bubble’. We think of the ‘holy’ person as different, intense,
morally perfect, maybe even slightly odd or strange. Holiness is not seen as
something the average Christian would aspire to, or desire. It is for ‘other’,
alternative scenario is that our islanders place their beliefs, traditions and rituals
at the service of their mission to the mainland. They build a bridge from the
island and they assiduously assume the culture and behavior they observe there, in order to attract
new members to their island community. They see compromise as integral to their
The church experiences
much pressure, both from within and from without, to interact with modern
culture in an ‘accommodationist’ manner. Such a view maintains that in order to
be relevant, to successfully ‘go out’ and be a credible voice in today’s world,
the church needs to accept the values predominant in modern culture. That we
need to ‘get with it’ or we will be irrelevant. That we will not attract people
to our communities unless we embrace prevalent views on sexuality, abortion,
euthanasia, gender fluidity and the like.
experience in Australia, however, is that denominational groups that have
embraced accommodation are declining at even faster rates than the Catholic
Church. As Fr James notes, ‘Accommodation does not lead to fruitfulness.’ St
Paul warns us in Romans 12:2: ‘do not conform yourselves to this age but be
transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will
of God, what is good, pleasing and perfect.’
meetings and dialogues held to prepare for the Plenary Council, many responses
received are on either extreme of the pendulum between the ‘accommodationist’ and
‘isolationist’ stances. Our church appears to be divided.
extreme, we have a significant number of Catholics who see our very survival as
being predicated on the radical acceptance and integration of current cultural
norms in order to achieve relevance in a world that rejects so much of what we
believe. Love towards our neighbour is seen as acceptance and even adoption of their
other, we have those who long for a 1950s style of church, which saw devout
Catholic enclaves in the midst of our cities, characterised by self-sufficient
communities where the faithful could live, attend school, socialise, marry and
be buried together. It sees the church as an inwardly focused club, with a
suspicion and even paranoia towards secular society and any type of engagement
struggle to reconcile either of these images of the church with the images of
the kingdom that Jesus described. Jesus upset everyone—those who thought that the
kingdom was only for the ‘pure’ ones and also those who thought ‘everyone’
belonged by virtue of their country of birth, regardless of personal faith or
then, that our islanders build a bridge to the mainland, and then ‘send’ missionaries
out over the bridge to the mainland to meet the people there and get to know
them. They live among them and show them the beauty of their island lifestyle and how
it is lived. The people they are meeting there speak French, so the islanders
learn French in order to engage with them effectively. The missionaries do well
and the community flourishes both on the island and the mainland.
to the pendulum extremes of ‘isolationist’ and ‘accommodationist’ views, ‘engagement’
seems to best describe the way that Jesus communicated the truth of the kingdom
during his earthly life. Jesus did not live in isolation; he lived and worked
among the people of his time. He ate with tax collectors and sinners, yet never
himself sinned. Jesus consistently and lovingly communicated an unrelenting
message of love, repentance and radical forgiveness.
our islanders, however, over many years the predominant mainland language
changed to Chinese. The islanders love French, though. French is how they do
mission. They decide that they don’t want to change their language, and
therefore their message becomes increasingly incomprehensible to the mainland
community they are trying to reach. Their missionary effectiveness and their
community experiences decline. What the islanders fail to comprehend is that to
effectively engage with the mainlanders, they need to be prepared to change their
method of communication (not the message itself). What worked well when
they started (French) is not effective now, and they need to learn Chinese.
Balancing holiness and mission
When contrasting mission and holiness, David
Gundersen comments that we can be confused between our goal (God’s mission)
and our missional methods (cultural engagement, pursuing relevance). He asks, ‘Why must the pendulum swing between holy and separatist, or missional and
worldly? As soon as we start thinking that the way to be missional is to be a
little less holy, or that it is possible to be holy without being missional, we
have missed the biblical boat entirely.’
God’s ultimate mission, and hence the mission of the church,
is not just to connect with culture but to transform it; not to pursue
relevance in the eyes of humanity but to open their eyes to see eternal
relevance. In Jesus, we clearly see God’s holy and missional character. Jesus
shows us that transformation produces ethical conduct that is increasingly
holy, and that holiness is not a deterrent to mission but is the actual vehicle
for mission. They depend on each other. Don’t let the Pharisees define what
it means to be holy. Let Jesus.
balance requires that we be deeply embedded in the community of faith where we
are nurtured, formed and sent. Within the community, we pursue an increasingly
close relationship with the God who sends us. A parish that intentionally grows
holy disciples will be a parish that consistently sends missionary disciples—because
holiness impels us to mission.
As Fr James notes, ‘we worship a missionary God
who sent a missionary Jesus who sends a missionary Church.’ We have a holy mission. May the Lord grant us a
1. Don’t talk ‘churchese’. If you’re trying to connect with people who don’t go to church, don’t use language they don’t understand. They won’t be impressed; they’ll just dismiss you.
2. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not. Be honest, be authentic, be real. Be prepared to talk about your struggles. Be prepared to talk about your relationship with Jesus.
3. Be known for what you’re for, not what you’re against. Don’t rant against the world either verbally or on social media. Would you rather listen to someone who hates you or someone who loves you?
4. Be humble. Resist the temptation to act ‘holy’ or to offer answers to questions no one has asked.
5. Serve alongside others in the community. Sharing what you have with others and taking the ‘low’ place of service can make a big difference.
6. Pray. A lot.