Becoming an Inviting Church
This series presents directions to stimulate the thinking of pastoral leaders, helping them focus on the important ministry of inviting. Parishes may, to a greater or lesser extent, greet and welcome. But few parishes consciously invite and this at a time when participation in church is falling across all the religious spectrum.
Part 4 – Inviting Seekers
The term “seeker” has undergone a little transformation over the past several decades. It used to refer to people who were religiously restless, i.e., always looking to go from one Christian experience to another, from Baptist to Episcopal, then Episcopal to Catholic, and eventually migrating to one of the Orthodox Churches, or elsewhere.
Now the term aptly describes wide currents in American society – all those who have never attached to a church family or who, in growing numbers, have detached from a church family and not assumed a new one. “Detached” means more than “taking a leave.”
Seeker now means more than erratic church attendance; it refers to people who have no explicit religious identity. These people deserve a great deal of attention from us Catholics. I think Pope Francis has them in mind when he talks about us becoming an open, welcoming Church where people can come and talk, inquire, and get to know us. I note his image of the parish:
“The parish is not an outdated institution; precisely because it possesses great flexibility, it can assume quite different contours depending on the openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and the community. While certainly not the only institution which evangelizes, if it proves capable of self-renewal and constant adaptivity, it continues to be “the Church living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters”. This presumes that it really is in contact with the homes and the lives of its people, and does not become a useless structure out of touch with people or a self-absorbed cluster made up of a chosen few. . . . It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a centre of constant missionary outreach. We must admit, though, that the call to review and renew our parishes has not yet sufficed to bring them nearer to people, to make them environments of living communion and participation, and to make them completely mission-oriented. (Joy of the Gospel, 28)
- It’s time to recognize just how much we have to offer people today, and stop thinking of the Church as a cluttered attic of antiques. Precisely because of our huge and nuanced tradition, we have an array of gifts to offer modern people. Catholics uniquely combine one strong foot in the Scripture-Tradition heritage of the Church, and another strong foot into the intellectual and personal struggles of people. We have the unique gift of being religiously passionate and engaged in the modern world. Even before the Second Vatican Council we were able to involve ourselves in modern questions and issues; Vatican II has pushed us even further in this direction. Let’s not be afraid to hang out our shingle.
- Parishes have to get beyond the school year model of faith formation. Even though most parishes do not have Catholic schools, the parish year seems to begin in September and end in May. As a result, many of our catechetical processes—including the Inquiry phase of the RCIA—is held only once, usually in the fall. What happens to people who begin to express curiosity in January or March? Parishes need to develop a coherent practice of ongoing inquiry. This probably has to be an adjunct arm of the RCIA team because RCIA ministry, once the inquirers are gathered, has a pretty hefty agenda.
- We have to get far more innovative in inviting people to consider faith today. We have to stretch beyond the classroom, information-giving model. The “thirsty”—to use Pope Francis’ language—come in many forms. Catholic parishes have to think of many ways to engage these kinds of people. Some of it may be social—concerts, parish productions, sports events; some of it may be variations on inquiry, such as the Theology on Tap formula for reaching young adults, or larger questions offered to the neighborhood (“Does God Exist?” or “Does Religion Harm People?” or other provocative titles). What we are ultimately doing is helping people get into a position where they can begin to have “a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.” It’s the encounter that’s key; our invitations need to be geared to making this possible for seekers today.
- Somewhat untapped are seekers who might be drawn to Jesus Christ through social outreach ministry. Seekers may not be very keen on church things, but they might well enjoy helping in a soup kitchen, or sorting clothing for distribution to homeless people, or helping to push a social need in the political arena. People who see Catholics in service may well begin to ask, “Where does your motivation come from? How is it sustained?” This is an opening to dialogue.
- Parishes also need to respect and reverence the tentative nature of younger generations—many of whom are seekers—today. People may not be ready to eat the main course; they may have to nibble on a few appetizers, or sample a salad or two. Being comfortable with dialogue, with open-ended inquiry, with the searching that happens in peoples’ lives today, will help parishes gather seekers.
- All our efforts have to be done with humility, with a we-want-to-hear-your-story attitude, and not from a position of “here it is, take it.” This was a strong emphasis at the Synod for the New Evangelization, and Pope Francis has picked it up from there, and from the meeting of Latin American Bishops in Aparecida. Along with this “mutual sharing” attitude, parishes need to be strong on hospitality, on making people comfortable, or giving them a feeling of belonging.