Several years ago, my pastor -- who was also my boss -- brought back to our staff meeting some insight that he had from a diocesan priest conference. He is wise and filled with the Holy Spirit, so I paid a great deal of attention. He said that Fr. Mike Schmitz was the keynote speaker and he discussed how we as a parish might not be including “everyone” in our parish programming. Since I was in charge of Adult Education and Evangelization, I did some soul searching.
What I found was that parish evangelization is truly a cycle. And while our parish was doing a good job in the Encounter stage and a decent job in the Community stage, we were lacking in others. So I started out looking at what we did have. We had the Light of the World Retreat, which is usually held twice a year. It’s where parishioners encounter Jesus and say “yes” to him over a weekend parish retreat experience. From there, small groups are formed. This, while it is a “messier” phase, is also beautiful. People of all ages -- men and women -- come together to share on a weekly basis. This seemed good, but what else were we missing?
We had book clubs with the priest, evenings of reflection on all kinds of topics - the Four Last Things, Saints, Encyclicals, and on and on. You name it, we had discussed it. But when I looked at the entire parish evangelization process, where did these things fall? Most fell into the Formation stage. A few fell into the Discipleship stage. Almost nothing fell into the Ministry stage, and literally nothing fell into Pre-Evangelization. So we asked ourselves, “What do we have at our parish that is a low barrier entry-point if you wanted to come and check out ‘who is Jesus’ in our mid-sized suburban town in the midwest?”
That began a quest, and we began with more Ministry opportunities. We discovered working service at a mobile food truck, a food pantry or visiting a nursing home are beautiful ways to see Jesus in a parish. We made sure we were intentional each and every time the parish sponsored any of these service opportunities. We talked about how we are literally going to be the “hands and feet of Jesus” today as we help our neighbors stretch their food budget or whatever the ministry was that day. This made a profound impact on not only the adults but also the teens who came to help as well.
Next, we looked at Pre-Evangelization opportunities. Pre-evangelization is where a person needs to be prepared before they’re able to receive the Gospel. The secular world has predisposed us to reject God as incompatible with scientific progress and rational thought. This often makes pre-evangelization necessary before any other evangelization steps can be taken. Many times, pre-evangelization takes the form of social events or various community activities.
In order to check ourselves in the Pre-Evangelization stage, we asked the question: “If our parish was no longer here, would the community notice?” The answer wasn’t exactly comfortable. We began looking at ways we could reach out to the community. We started a Love Your Neighbor Block Party and invited the community. We put signs everywhere and hung invites on people’s front doors. We asked parishioners to invite their neighbors. And they came, maybe not a lot at first, but over time they came. It was an easy way to check out who the Catholic Church was in town without jumping in with both feet.
We even took a look at topics for our Adult Education evenings. Did we have a good smattering of topics? Did we have things that the newest seeker would be interested in, as well as the mature Catholic? Did we have themes focused on Catholic Social Teaching or prayer, as well as Encyclicals and St. Thomas Aquinas? Once we balanced out these themes, I knew we were in the sweet spot when a long-time parishioner told me that she can’t get to everything, as hard as she tries. I laughed to myself and thought, “You aren’t supposed to be at everything, we have designed different events for different people, of course, you can’t get to everything!”
The hard part is that sometimes we have events that we as parish staff would like to participate in and we forget that at one time we needed a way to sneak in the back door and just watch for a bit. While Mass can be very evangelizing for those of us who love the Church, it may not do anything for a seeker. And that is where a balanced evangelization process at the parish level is an immensely helpful tool.
This appeared daunting at the beginning. It took time to weed out “perfectly good” programs since there were too many in one area of the cycle and not enough in others. However, checking what parish activities and programs the parish has versus what we need, saves time and energy in the long run when developing an effective parish evangelization strategy. Since in 1975, Pope Paul VI declared that “the church exists to evangelize,” so evangelization must also be the essential mission of not only our Church but our parishes as well. And that makes it all worthwhile.
Want to bring balance to your parish's mission strategy? Start by exploring the evangelization process.