Have you ever noticed that many parish mission statements sound the same? They're less like mission statements and more like vague lists of the things the parish does. When you take a deeper look at parishes, most of them look like their mission statements: an array of loosely related programs that seem to have many different goals and purposes. As the Church struggles to engage the culture and form new disciples, we often panic and add more programs. More events. We feel the urgency, but we don't know how to do any better. So we keep adding more.
But the solution is not to add more. In fact, the truth is, your parish probably has too many programs already.
The mission of the Church is evangelization, and therefore the mission of each of our parishes should also be evangelization. But we need to be very clear about what we mean by "mission" and "evangelization."
When we say the mission of the Church is evangelization, we aren't identifying one priority among many. Evangelization is not a program our parish decides whether or not to implement. It's not one of many goals or tasks that we have in our parish tool belt. It's everything. Literally everything. Starbucks sells coffee. The American Cancer Society fights cancer. Habitat for Humanity puts people into homes.
The Catholic Church evangelizes. Period.
It's one thing to agree with the mission, but it's another thing to live it out in our parishes. Without realizing it, one of the most common false missions we adopt is "engagement." We believe that as long as we're getting good attendance, lots of people are participating, people are raving about our events and programs... then we must be doing something right.
But engagement is not necessarily evangelization.
"For the Christian community is never closed in upon itself. The intimate life of this community - the life of listening to the Word and the apostles' teaching, charity lived in a fraternal way, the sharing of bread this intimate life only acquires its full meaning when it becomes a witness, when it evokes admiration and conversion, and when it becomes the preaching and proclamation of the Good News."
Pope Paul VI, from Evangelii Nuntiandi
Engagement works great for the people who are already showing up and are invested in the parish. But what about all the people in your community who don't know Jesus, who have never been presented the opportunity to give their lives to Christ in the Catholic Church? Lost souls who are struggling through life without the grace of the sacraments, the support of a faith community, or the strength of prayer.
Is engagement important? Absolutely! But is it the mission? Definitely not. Yet we often feel a sense of pride and success when one of our events was highly attended, even though not a single person there was new. That doesn't make these events bad, but it can lead us to fall into complacency regarding the ultimate mission of our parish.
We run into problems when engagement is our parish's mission. One indicator that your parish is following the wrong mission is if your parish staff are overwhelmed by the work that must be done and underwhelmed by the fruits the work bears. But even if you have excellent involvement in your parish programs, this does not indicate that your parish is putting evangelization first. In fact, your parish might be implementing programs and events at the expense of the mission.
"Our parishes are invaded by many initiatives, where often, however, the life of the people is not deeply affected."
Pope Francis, from Audience
Tim Glemkowski identifies four types of parishes in his book Made for Mission. The first two are "Dying Parish" and "Declining Parish," and we can understand what those are. But the third type he identifies is the most compelling and often alarming type of parish: the "Swelling Parish." These are parishes that have lots of programs, they see great attendance at events, and they may even have an increase in registered parishioners each year. But these data points have more to do with engagement than with evangelization.
"The danger here is that the growth in numbers can be mistaken for health or even 'success' in terms of the mission of the Church. Activity can be seen as vitality. These parishes must scratch beneath the surface to see if they are really accomplishing the Church’s mission of forming disciples."
Tim Glemkowski, from Made for Mission
Just because your parish's numbers look good doesn't mean that you're effectively fulfilling the mission. In fact, when engagement is the mission, we often find parishes with too many programs. As long as programs and events have good engagement, we keep adding more. Our parish staff and volunteers are entirely occupied with maintaining these programs, and they have no time or energy to devote to initiatives that truly serve the mission.
In reality, the point here probably has less to do with the sheer number of programs and more to do with the purpose and fruit of each of them. But we shouldn't let ourselves get too enthusiastic about the number of programs our parish offers or the number of people that attend our events. The fruit that we should get particularly excited about is effectively reaching out to the community in a way that brings in new people and leads them to form a personal relationship with Jesus Christ in the Catholic Church. This is the real "data point" that determines whether or not we are effective in the mission of evangelization.
"The effectiveness of the Church's organizations, movements, parishes and apostolic works must be measured in the light of this missionary imperative."
St. John Paul II, from Redemptoris Missio
Our purpose here is not to disparage your parish's programs, but to encourage your parish to take a deeper look at what mission it has placed at the forefront of its activity. Here are a few places you could start...
This is probably the easiest and quickest strategy your parish could implement. Your whole parish staff should sit down together and identify all the programs and events you currently have going on. Then one by one, assess the purpose and goal of each of them. If the mission of a particular ministry or program isn't evangelization, what could you do to "re-orient" it so that the mission is properly aligned?
A very common example is your parish's Baptism ministry. What sort of class or program does your parish have parents go through when they want to have their child baptized? In many cases the parents are not evangelized disciples who are practicing their faith. And yet they keep coming to us! This is one of the few opportunities we have to evangelize them, and we often settle for running them through a purely catechetical class. How could you take that class and re-orient it to also provide parents with an opportunity to personally encounter Christ? Or how could you use the class to draw them deeper into your community so they can build authentic relationships with some of your parishioners who are already intentional disciples?
Re-orienting your parish's current programs will help ensure that all its activity is aligned with the mission of evangelization.
Inevitably you'll discover programs in your parish that not only don't serve the mission, but they don't even have good engagement. A lot of times we keep these programs going because "that's what we've always done," or we hesitate to try something new because we're afraid it won't work. Other times we're concerned that we'll hurt the feelings of the person or people that have been running the program for years.
Retiring some programs must certainly be done with the utmost pastoral care, and your pastor must take this responsibility on himself to pull the plug, if that's what your staff has decided. One way to avoid hurting the people currently running a program that you need to cancel is to ask the person to run or participate in another ministry instead. Then they know that you still value them, but it's the program itself that you're calling into question.
This strategy certainly feels scarier or more difficult than the first one. But if we're serious about the missionary mandate our Lord gave us, we need to find a way to ensure we aren't spending our resources on things that aren't crucial to the mission.
Believe it or not, the "throw the baby out with the bathwater" method is becoming more common in Catholic parish renewal. Sometimes we recognize that our parish has gotten so far off-track that it's better to take a big step back to re-evaluate the entire life and mission of the parish.
"A radical conversion in thinking is required in order to become missionary, and this holds true both for individuals and entire communities."
St. John Paul II, from Redemptoris Missio
With this strategy, your parish would start by really understanding and committing to the mission of evangelization. Then you'd gather your team of intentional disciples and implement strategies and initiatives that faithfully serve the mission.
The good news is that there are some great organizations out there to help you with this. Here are just a couple you could check out:
More than ever, our parishes need to put evangelization first and foremost as their primary mission. We've been operating the same way for so long, we've neglected to take a deep look at what we're doing and why. This has caused most of our parishes to veer off-course from the mission. And as we see attendance and "engagement" decline, we add more and more programs in a desperate attempt to compensate.
But your parish doesn't need more programs. It needs the mission. Take the first steps in getting your parish back on-board with the mission of evangelization, and the Holy Spirit will bear great fruit in your community.