It’s time to do church differently: ‘God does not have grandchildren’

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“We can’t keep doing church like this. It is not working. We have to do it differently.” This statement was not from a bishop or priest or renown theologian. It came from the heart — the aching heart of a great Catholic mom who did it all right. She was carrying a deep grief and even guilt that was not hers to carry. She did it right. She had her kids baptized, first communion, and even got them to receive confirmation.

The family was regular Sunday Mass attendees and even went to faith formation. Yet her four grown “Catholic” kids are now not practicing or even interested in the church. They range from sometimes attending church, to joining the growing ranks of “nones” who have no church affiliation. They are not necessarily unbelievers, but just not affiliated with any institution or seeing any real need for church.

The “none land” of our country is the Northwest — the most unchurched part of the country with Seattle as its capital. There the city proudly proclaims in its tourist brochure that 60 percent of the residents say their religion is being “Seattleites.”

This loving mother thought if she did what her mom did the kids would grow up to be practicing Catholics. No, it is not that way anymore. The former way of doing church — we might call it the infant paradigm rather than the adult paradigm — isn’t working.

We used to believe a baptized child would seamlessly pick up the faith of the family and develop a Catholic identity through to adulthood. What was missing in this paradigm was a conversion to Christ.

The adult paradigm of evangelization must become the new way of doing church. It is necessary for the Catholic faith that all the baptized eventually make a personal choice to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in the midst of his church. In the words of Pope Benedict, “Faith is above all a personal intimate encounter with Jesus, and to experience his closeness, his friendship, his love; only in this way does one learn to know him ever more and to love and follow him ever more. May this happen to each of us.”

But even now the majority of U.S. Catholics are sacramentalized but not evangelized. They do not know that a personal attachment to Christ is normative — which means becoming a disciple of Jesus.

The polls show that a majority of adult Catholics are not even aware that they can have a personal relationship with God. We need to believe that God does not have grandchildren. This means cultural Catholicism is dead. We don’t live on the faith of our parents. Each of us needs to know we are children of God the Father. As Archbishop Jose Gomez said, “Jesus Christ did not come to suffer and die so that he could make cultural Catholics. He came to make disciples.” Similarly, a saint once said, “What profit is it to you, if Christ came once in the flesh, unless he also comes in your soul?”

We are in a huge cultural shift that demands that we do church differently or we will slowly become more and more irrelevant as we rearrange the deck chairs on a sinking parish. The absence of family at church is the biggest white elephant in every parish. It’s not spoken of, but many parishioners grieve this loss. And the most we do is put former Catholics and family members in the Prayer of the Faithful, begging the Lord to bring them home. It is not enough. We need to make disciples and seek the lost as Jesus commanded. The lost are not bad people. It is not “us against them.” They are seekers, doubters, pilgrims, broken, left out, hurting, abandoned, skeptics, young, old, turned off and wandering in a cultural chaos. They are family members, neighbors and often friends who have simply moved on from a life of faith. Some of them may have a few childhood memories of church that stir every so often but not enough to call them back.

Do you realize that 10 percent of Americans are ex-Catholics? I’ve heard that some charismatic churches are comprised of 60 percent former Catholics.

We can’t keep doing church this way. Even if your parish seems vibrant now, what will it look like in the future? If we just keep maintaining the status quo it will die. We have to move into the true nature of our church, into mission and creating disciples.

According to a 2007 poll (it would be even more drastic now), the age of parishioners attending Mass on Sundays is this: 65 and older make up 45 percent, 47-65 years old is 20 percent, ages 26-46 are 13 percent and ages 18 to 26 are just 10 percent of the parish. We are graying rapidly. We have a sharp decline in marriages generally. Sacramental marriages have dropped over 30 percent in the last 40 years and baptisms are also sharply declining.

Where does this leave us? Hopeless and helpless or humbled and hungry?

We need to make disciples. Discipleship is like oxygen in the life of the church. Christianity lives or dies with the making of disciples. That is why Jesus said, “to go and make disciples of all nations.” Unfortunately most of us don’t know what discipleship really means.

To the active, praying Catholic brothers and sisters who comprise the bread and butter of our parishes, this is not an indictment of you. Your faith is real and deep. So even if you don’t know what discipleship means, you are living it.

And as strange as this might sound, the reason most priests never stress the need for discipleship from the pulpit is that we were never taught in the seminary what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus. The only conclusion I can make is that it is time to do church differently. The harvest is ripe.

The writer has served as pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Magadan, Russia. He is currently stationed in Alaska.


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