Parish evangelization is the process by which a Catholic church fulfills its mission of preaching the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ to all people who live within its boundaries. It's most effective when executed as a planned strategy that includes the opportunity for people to personally encounter Christ, and the forming and commissioning of intentional disciples.
Evangelization is not just the Church's mission, it's Her very identity. Therefore, each of our parishes exist to evangelize. From the beginning of the Church and the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Church has always existed to make disciples. The Apostles quickly split up and spread out to reach as many people as possible. St. Paul went on multiple missionary journeys to proclaim the gospel and build up the faithful.
In St. Paul's activity we see one of the earliest glimpses of "parishes." As he traveled from city to city, he would found local communities of believers. He would live with them, get a job, and participate as a full member of the community. But eventually he would leave to continue making disciples in other cities. Over time he would write letters back to the communities he founded. He would caution them against sinful patterns and exhort them in living the Christian life.
Taking St. Paul as our example, we can see the clear purpose of the earliest parish communities: making disciples. This is why St. Paul never stayed. Even though it was difficult for him to build close bonds with the people of these communities only to eventually leave them, his missionary drive would not allow him to stay. The Holy Spirit always called him away to continue seeking out the lost.
Much has changed since the time of the early Church. Unfortunately, one of the things that has changed has been our missionary zeal. Most of our parishes have lost touch with our purpose and our original passion: making disciples. Even though we have all but forgotten this original mission, it still remains the most important and significant defining feature of Catholic parishes. Whether we commit all our parish resources to evangelization or not determines if we are living up to very reason the Church exists.
Participating in a vibrant parish community deepens our faith and enriches our lives. But what's the point if all we're doing is edifying a core group of believers to the exclusion of the ninety-nine who have gone astray? This is why Pope Francis prompted our priests to "be shepherds with the 'odor of the sheep.'" Our parishes were founded with the purpose of being evangelization centers and mission outposts for the Church. Without parish evangelization, we have lost the very reason for our existence.
"Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the 'peripheries' in need of the light of the Gospel."
Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium
It's true that our parishes also serve as nourishment for the faithful through the sacraments, catechetical formation, and community. But without evangelization, the fate of our parishes is guaranteed collapse. It's not simply about getting the "numbers" we need to carry on the faith. More importantly, it's knowing what we're truly about. If we forget the reason we exist, then we will fail to exist. Worse yet, countless souls will be robbed of the opportunity to respond to the gospel.
If only there was a silver bullet or a guaranteed template we could apply to each of our parishes to ensure evangelization is happening, but that's not the case. Not only does parish evangelization come in a multitude of forms, but it's also more difficult than expected. The good news is that although it's difficult, it's also simple.
Let's say there are two parishes. At one of those parishes, at least 30% of the parishioners are involved in various parish events as participants, volunteers, etc. Their events are usually well attended, and their parking lot is often full. At the other parish, only 4% of parishioners are involved. They struggle to get people to attend their events. Which parish is better fulfilling its mission?
It's a trick question.
The answer is: we have no idea! Remember, the mission of our parishes is not simply to have high attendance at events. We shouldn't become comfortable and complacent just because the seats are filled. Although the Lord desires all people to be saved (cf. 1 Timothy 2:3-4), our mission is not primarily about the numbers.
Our mission is simple: evangelization. Go make disciples. Everything we do at the parish should be in service to the mission. All parish events should fit intentionally into our parish evangelization strategy. All our volunteers should know that their purpose in running ministries and events boils down to evangelization.
It may sound too simple, but being clear about the mission is the first and most important step. From the pastor to the staff, all the way down through every man, woman, and child, everyone should know that evangelization is our mission.
Once we know our purpose, the path to achieving our mission should become a little clearer. Instead of becoming parishes bloated with disconnected ministries and events, we need to develop a parish evangelization process we can strategically implement at all levels of parish life.
The first and most important element of this strategy -- whichever strategy you choose -- must provide people with an opportunity to personally encounter Jesus Christ. This personal relationship with Jesus is often disregarded as a "Protestant thing." But the Bible, Catechism, Church documents, Popes, and saints all attest to the necessity of a relationship with Christ. This encounter must come first before anything else can meaningfully contribute to the mission of evangelization. After all, evangelization is about inviting others into a relationship with Christ.
Another crucial part of this parish evangelization strategy must include a way to form and send disciples. Once a person encounters Christ, they mustn't keep it to themselves. To keep the treasures of our faith to ourselves leads us to become spiritually bloated, and we fail to share the gift that is meant to be freely given to others. Disciples must know from the moment they encounter the Lord that they have a responsibility to go and make other disciples. They will need training, encouragement, and a means to evangelize. Other programs and ministries in your evangelization strategy should help fulfill this need.
Our parishes have wandered a long way from where we should be. The kind of change we need is not simply a rearrangement of programs and events. The very culture of our parishes must change, and that kind of change takes time.
Your parish's evangelization strategy should include both short-term and long-term goals. What would it look like in the future if your parish was fully living out its mission? What smaller steps can your parish take to begin moving in that direction? What larger steps need to be taken more immediately?
Once this evangelization strategy is developed and the above questions have been answered, it's time to get to work! Day in and day out, remember the mission. Let everything we say and do be at the service of the mission. With patience, hearts will begin to change, one at a time. A new parish culture will begin to be realized, one that is singularly focused on the mission of evangelization.
The mission of our parishes should be the same mission as the Church: evangelization. And if evangelization is our mission, then everything we do should be about evangelization. That's not the case in most of our parishes today, so we have a lot of work ahead of us. But with a solid parish evangelization strategy, we can begin to change the culture of our parishes and see renewal in the Church!