[The following is the third part of a five-part posting examining some of the challenges of making Catholic Social Teaching a constituent part of parish life in the United States. These reflections are a product of and limited by my own social location as a white, middle-aged, middle-class male layman working in an upper middle class suburban parish. To read part one, click here. To read part two, click here.]
[Jesus] told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” (Matt. 13:3-9)
PART THREE: Parishes in Service to God’s Dream for the Cosmos
In the 1990s, a new pastoral/theological movement called Missional Theology began to take shape, primarily in Protestant denominations. The concept of mission has long been part of pastoral theology, but mostly it has focused on evangelical outreach to un-churched regions around the world or it has focused on recruiting the un-churched in the communities surrounding existing churches. But missional theology seeks to re-orientate the entire church culture in the U.S. (One of the seminal books in this field of study is Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, edited by Darrell Guder.)
In his book, The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church, Reggie McNeal points out that current church culture in this country is on life support. It is living off the work, money, and energy of previous generations that are aging and not being replaced. Unfortunately, this church culture has become confused with biblical Christianity. Some of the faulty assumptions of church culture identified by McNeal include:
- If you build the perfect church (the way we think about church), they will come.
- Growing your church will automatically make a difference in the community.
- The church needs more workers (for church work).
- Church involvement results in discipleship.
As McNeal states, “You can build the perfect church—and they still won’t come. People are not looking for a great church. They don’t wake up every day wondering what church they can make successful.” Many of the un-churched think that church is for church people, not for them. From the outside looking in, it is easy to conclude that the work of congregations is to recruit and form people in order to make them more acceptable to members of the congregation. The invitation to become Christian has become largely an invitation to convert to the Church. McNeal calls this “churchianity” as opposed to Christianity.
Missional theology seeks to re-define church culture by freeing the Church from “churchianity” and its servitude to free market culture. It starts from this profound yet simple declaration: Parishes are called into existence by God to serve God’s purpose. Therefore, the primary purpose of the parish is to serve God’s needs, not parishioners’ needs. We are not a Church that has a mission; we are a mission that has a Church.
This mission is not just the universal mission of the Church to preach the Gospel and baptize all in the name of the triune God. Each parish also has its own unique mission, and the primary work of the parish is to discern that mission and order the life of the parish in service to that mission. (This mission is not the same as a mission statement. Most parish mission statements are meant for market promotion: this is how we plan to do church better.)
In missional theology, the questions parishes need to address are:
- What is God doing in our world and how are we called to cooperate in God’s work?
- What is God calling us to do/be in this place at this time to witness to God’s dream for the cosmos?
In biblical terms, this is called “reading the signs of the times.” As the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World states, “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men and women of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. … To carry out such a task, the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in light of the Gospel. … We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics.”
The challenge is this: how does a parish “read the signs of the times” and determine its unique calling? How can we work the soil of parish culture to receive the seed of Catholic social teaching and produce a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown? In my next two posts, I will try to address these challenges.