Parishioners Don't Belong at the Parish

A cynic like myself might be tempted to ascribe the current emphasis on evangelization in the Church to an increased attentiveness to declining monetary offerings and emptying pews. The many parish consolidations happening throughout the United States lend a certain credence to such a perspective: “Until we get through these rough waters and the pews begin to fill up again, we had better batten down the hatches and do our best to weather this storm!” On a more hopeful note, however, and more in keeping with the Gospel imperative to “go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15), even I can see in these efforts an earnest desire to share something worth believing in, at a time when late modernity has wrecked everything and left a kind of existential vacuum.

Given the urgency of the situation—both in the material sense, where parish communities risk losing a part of their historical identity due to inadequate funding and decreasing membership, and in the spiritual one, where individuals, for lack of exposure to something better, turn toward worldviews doomed to leave them disappointed—we should not be surprised at the abundance of evangelization programs that have sprung up. These efforts are good and necessary, but they often suggest that the goal will be accomplished in short order, failing to acknowledge that we need to take the long view. More than anything, to evangelize is to sow seeds, and we ourselves may or may not see them bear fruit over our lifetime. In an understandable desire for fast results, it seems that the human heart has changed little since the time of the Exodus, when, just weeks after being delivered from the hands of the Egyptians, the Israelites cried out in complaint, “If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt!” (Ex 16:3). Rather than go through the slow and laborious process of planting and rebuilding, we want the quick fix.

More to the point, though, for those of us who work at parishes, what “fix” do we actually have in mind? What is our goal, or what ought it to be? My sardonic remark about financial hardship may reflect the sentiments of some, but I suspect that most, concerned with the souls of individuals, envision a full church on Sunday, or perhaps large community events featuring plenty of beer and brats (at least, here in Wisconsin they would). Again, these are good things and certainly a part of evangelization, but do we really just want people coming to events? If the primary goal is to draw our parishioners into the closest possible orbit around the parish, I fear that our understanding of the lay vocation has gone astray. Whereas we might be tempted to “get people back in the pews,” or to figure out which event will garner the most attention, or to fret about having insufficient liturgical ministers, what if we were instead to focus on cultivating the lay apostolate in the manner envisioned by Apostolicam actuositatem, §7?

The laity must take up the renewal of the temporal order as their own special obligation. Led by the light of the Gospel and the mind of the Church and motivated by Christian charity, they must act directly and in a definite way in the temporal sphere. As citizens they must cooperate with other citizens with their own particular skill and on their own responsibility. Everywhere and in all things they must seek the justice of God’s kingdom.

We are called to nothing less than the renewal of the temporal order, which requires that we be present everywhere throughout it. If you will allow me to stick with the space analogy, this vision of the lay vocation suggests that the parish ought to treat the laity more like meteoroids, drawing them in close for a brief period to receive spiritual guidance and the sacraments, which “communicate and nourish that charity which is the soul of the entire apostolate” (AA, §3), before flinging them back out into the temporal sphere, loaded with grace and redolent of the fragrance of Christ (cf. 2 Cor 2:14-15). To accomplish this transformation, we need everyone, because all members of the Mystical Body have their own particular gifts and “are called to engage in the apostolate as individuals in the varying circumstances of their life” (AA, §18), working together toward the common end of renewing and perfecting the temporal order.

In order for this vision to become reality, giving one-on-one attention to the lay faithful will be vital, because it is through this process that each of them will learn to discern and respond to God’s particular invitation. Such an approach to ministry, however, is time-intensive and bears fruit only slowly, precisely because it prioritizes formation of the individual, emphasizing growth in the spiritual habits and concrete skills that will allow him or her to sanctify the world. To be frank, this approach to ministry will seem radical to many, since the Church largely lacks an imagination for lay agency. Moreover, it will require a sea change for lay ecclesial ministers working in parishes and chanceries, because it moves the locus of ecclesial activity to the most fundamental element: the individual person. Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, though, it is worth considering the primacy of God that stands at the heart of the whole enterprise.

Disposed to Receive

Despite some of my implications to the contrary, I believe that Church professionals generally have good intentions, which are evident in their desire to minister to parishioners through catechetical talks, small groups and Bible studies, community events, etc. But perhaps their quickness to act is part of the problem. From what I have seen, the tendency for pastors, staff, and Pastoral councils is to come up with a plan and then to execute it without any recourse to God. We forget that it was not we who chose him, but he who chose us and appointed us to go and bear fruit (cf. Jn 15:16). In trying to assess the “needs” of the parish, how much do we rely on ourselves and our ideas, rather than first turning toward the Lord?

In asking this question, I run the risk of over-spiritualizing Church work, which is not my intention. At a certain point, we do need to act. What I am proposing, then, is not that we do nothing, but rather that we try an approach that begins and ends with God, for “God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:13). We have to start by praying earnestly, not just in some vague or generic way. From there, we have to pay attention, looking for opportunities that the Lord sends us in response to our prayers. The third step is action, and more often than not, we need fortitude (so pray for it!). Finally, we can evaluate the fruits of our work and start the process again.

Let me try to put some flesh on the bones of this idea. About an hour before the beginning of the Easter Vigil this year, I was sitting before the Blessed Sacrament, essentially telling Jesus that I needed his help in discerning the next steps for evangelization at our parish. “Lord, please help me to meet the people that you want me to meet, and, if you would, please help me to know how best to minister to them.” From the sea of competing thoughts in my mind at that moment, one emerged: I should host an event at the parish focused on helping people to discern their unique apostolate. Everything crystallized—the timing, the method, the content—and I resolved to get after it. Fast-forward a few weeks to the event, and the turnout is less than impressive, with maybe sixteen people showing up. For the people there, it seemed to be fruitful, but from my perspective, the outcome did not justify the time invested. Had I been mistaken, thinking that the Lord had inspired this idea, when, in fact, it was nothing more than my own desire to do something productive?

In this moment of perceived failure, however, the Lord had actually responded to my prayer in two distinct ways. First, I had prayed that he would help me to “meet people,” and here was just such an opportunity! In the following days, I reached out individually to everyone who had come to schedule a follow-up conversation. Secondly, this experience precipitated a staff meeting that had been long in coming, where we pressed into the topic of evangelization and whether our ministry was bearing fruit. So, with one question in mind—namely, do we need to revamp our approach?—we, as a staff, can turn back to God and start the process over again. It seemed that God really had answered the prayer I made before the Easter Vigil—just not in the way I had expected. Rather than expecting an answer on my terms, I had to be disposed to receive whatever he would send me and then respond in turn.

This fundamental disposition to receive from God stands at the heart of all Christian discipleship. In the preface to his collected works on the liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI speaks unequivocally: “Beginning with the liturgy tells us: ‘God first.’ When the focus on God is not decisive, everything else loses its orientation.”[1] Though his insight pertains specifically to our celebration of the sacred liturgy, where God comes to us in a particular way, it is equally applicable to the whole Christian life. In like manner, St. Francis de Sales advocates a “total surrender” to God, writing, “The indifferent heart is as a ball of wax in the hands of its God, receiving with equal readiness all the impressions of the Divine pleasure; it is a heart without choice, equally disposed for everything, having no other object of its will than the will of its God.”[2] Those of us who work as lay ecclesial ministers must ask ourselves how well we image this ball of wax, how disposed we truly are to receive the will of God in our work to build up his Church. For my part, I have all too often taken up the latest trend or tool in ministry, thinking that surely this will be the one to solve all our difficulties. In so doing, however, have I not simply repeated the sin of Adam and Eve, choosing myself and my plan over and against that of God (cf. CCC, §398)? After all, apart from him, I can do nothing (cf. Jn 15:5)!

Prioritizing the Individual

Although we have to begin with God, there always comes a point when we must act, and the more time that I spend taking this “receptive” approach to ministry, the more convinced I am that it ultimately leads us not to events or parish programming, but to individual parishioners. Many others have said it before, but the approach that Jesus himself took to ministry was person-to-person, and he went out in pursuit of those farthest from God (or who, in any case, felt themselves to be so). To be a “missionary disciple”—the hottest bit of evangelization jargon as of late—is to go out and build relationships with others, one-on-one. If we want our parishioners to do that, though, we have to model it for them. In the same way that I would never expect to teach my son patience and self-control by screaming in his face, “CALM DOWN! TAKE A DEEP BREATH!”, neither should I expect to teach people how to take a personalist approach to evangelization if I myself do not.

The oft-cited line of Pope Paul VI comes to mind, that “modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”[3] Although catechesis is a necessary ingredient of Christian formation, we first must establish witnesses to the faith, which requires that we lay ecclesial ministers set an example, not so that we might be the ones on whom all evangelization hinges, but precisely for the sake of building up the laity toward this end.

You might argue that we can just as effectively accomplish this goal through small faith-sharing groups, and I agree that they can play a vital role. But consider an analogy from the field of medicine. My wife is a Family Practitioner who also provides obstetric care to many pregnant women. As part of her practice, she encourages them to join pregnancy focus groups, where these mothers-to-be can bond over a shared experience and support one another in a variety of ways. Yet, although these groups are of great value, they cannot replace individual visits with my wife as their primary care provider.

Only within these one-on-one encounters can she address the particularities of each pregnancy and prescribe the appropriate medicine for each woman. Likewise, environments where people can share their faith in a group and pray together are vital. Our own faith often grows in response to hearing about how someone else has experienced God in his or her life, and when there is sufficient trust in these groups, we can even work through difficult questions or doubts about Church teachings. Even in the closest of groups, however, there is a limit to how specific we can get, and surely there is a reason why so many of the faithful have sought out spiritual directors across the centuries. Just as medicine is best administered in the context of private appointments, so can one-on-one conversations about the spiritual life allow for counsel tailored to the particular needs of the individual.

Given the increasing popularity of spiritual direction these days, it bears mentioning that not every Church worker will feel comfortable with the label of “spiritual director.” Others have explored this form of ministry at length, instead dubbing it “spiritual accompaniment” or something similar,[4] but the truth is that any mature Christian seeking to pray daily and partake of the sacraments regularly can engage in a fruitful conversation about the spiritual life. Rather than relying on programs meant to cast a net so wide that it might fail to bring in anyone, what if we were instead to cultivate individual relationships, praying regularly for parishioners by name, offering small sacrifices on their behalf, all for the sake of helping to draw them into closer union with God and build them up according to their unique calling to serve his Kingdom?

The Laity Belong in the World

As you may have surmised, the title of this article is meant to be provocative. Most parishes are simply focused on reversing the trend of disaffiliation and getting people back into the pews, and understandably so. Skeptic that I am, I doubt whether we can compete all that effectively with everything else vying for the attention of our parishioners. Families spend most of their time jumping from one activity to another, and given the demands of work, sports, and myriad other obligations, do we really think that they will want to come to a talk at the parish on a Tuesday night? Nor can we forget about the ever-present distraction of cell phones, social media, and streaming services, all of which they can access from the comfort of their own homes.

More importantly, though, we should ask ourselves whether increased attendance is the right goal in the first place. With such short vision, we run the risk of being unprepared for what to do if our efforts succeed. Suppose that people start coming back to the Church in droves. What then? The laity are not meant to live their lives at the parish, and if they do, they will not be able to renew the temporal order. Their vocation is, by definition, mundane, quotidian, and we should not seek to pull them away from it. To the extent that we do, it should only be for the sake of building them up before sending them back to live out their faith within their particular sphere of influence, to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (cf. Mt 5:13-16). Put differently, “The apostolate in the social milieu, that is, the effort to infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws, and structures of the community in which one lives, is so much the duty and responsibility of the laity that it can never be performed properly by others.”

The laity have to be out there, because otherwise no one will do the work that God has given them to do. Furthermore, the idea of getting people “back” into the pews does not even account for those who have never been in the pews, and so, “true apostles are not content with this activity alone but endeavor to announce Christ to their neighbors by means of the spoken word as well. For there are many persons who can hear the Gospel and recognize Christ only through the laity who live near them” (AA, §13).

Given this reality, it is incumbent upon us—especially lay ecclesial ministers—to go out and connect with our parishioners whenever and wherever it is convenient for them, so that they can go and do likewise. If there is a risk to professionalizing evangelization (and there is), the flipside is that it gives us a chance to live out a “supercharged” apostolate, devoting, in some cases, dozens of hours a week to establishing new relationships with parishioners. From there, assuming that we ourselves are praying and living a sacramental life, that we are relying first and foremost on God and his initiative, we will be able to seize the opportunities that he provides for us to help form his People according to their individual needs.

Rather than trying to bring them to us, we should strive to meet them where they already are, both in the metaphorical sense of where they are with God, but also in the literal sense of where they are in the world. In this way, we will serve as models of the missionary discipleship that seems to be the goal of every diocese right now. Rather than sitting back and waiting for them to come to us, now is the time to go out in search of those sheep nearest to us, and then teach them to go in search of those still farther away.

The first step, of course, is to meet people, and that is not always as easy as it sounds. An increased emphasis on hospitality toward Massgoers and new parishioners is a good start. Using the parish database of newly registered or currently active parishioners is another way to find names and connect by phone or email. On a more face-to-face level, we can use any kind of community event (e.g., Oktoberfest, Coffee & Donuts, etc.), as an opportunity to “work the crowd” and meet as many people as possible, following up with them later for a one-on-one conversation. From here, we can easily move into more personal ministry, sharing our own faith story and, to whatever extent the other person desires it, offering spiritual accompaniment and formation. Gradually, we will be able to equip these people with what they need to live apostolically in the world, to live out more authentically the mission of the laity.

I should clarify that our goal is not to form our parishioners as “lone wolves,” even as we help them to discern their unique apostolate. In the course of building this network of relationships, we lay ecclesial ministers will be able to act as connective tissue within the Body of Christ, helping to introduce people to one another so that they can, from there, form friendships and grow in community. If it seems too much like playing “matchmaker,” we should acknowledge that, in the wake of the pandemic and at a time when we are generally more isolated, this work is necessary for building up the Body once more.

If all goes well, as parishioners are built up in mission, taught to discern and respond to God’s unique invitation for them, they will also find greater communion with the Church, both in real relationships with other people at the parish, and in their willingness to go out and sanctify relationships with their neighbors, colleagues, and whomever else the Lord sends them. In the words of the Church,

[The faithful] should remember, nevertheless, that man is naturally social and that it has pleased God to unite those who believe in Christ into the people of God (cf. 1 Pt 2:5-10) and into one body (cf. 1 Cor 12:12). The group apostolate of Christian believers then happily corresponds to a human and Christian need and at the same time signifies the communion and unity of the Church in Christ, who said, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20). For this reason the faithful should participate in the apostolate by way of united effort. They should be apostles both in their family communities and in their parishes and dioceses, which themselves express the community nature of the apostolate, as well as in the informal groups which they decide to form among themselves (AA, §18).

Just as with the Trinity, communion leads to mission, which leads back to communion. Those of us who work as lay ecclesial ministers occupy a unique position, where we can help individuals discern their particular apostolate, even as we also help build community within the broader parish and diocese.

In It for the Long Haul

It took decades—even centuries, in a certain sense—for the Church to get to where she is right now, and, when it comes to disaffiliation, I doubt that we have yet bottomed out. We therefore have no reason to expect that her recovery will happen at a faster rate. In the same way that it takes months and years of improved dietary habits and consistent exercise for an unhealthy body to grow healthy once more, so will it take many years for the Body of Christ to recover. We can take hope, however, in the fact that it does not rest on our shoulders alone. Though we must be ready to act on the promptings of the Holy Spirit, we, like St. Paul, can be confident “that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6).

So, if the idea of flipping parish ministry on its head by prioritizing individuals over groups seems daunting, bear in mind that the Lord will work all these things out according to his good pleasure. In the meantime, the best we can do is to root ourselves ever more deeply in him and his love, and to respond to the needs of those individuals that he puts before us on any given day.

To that point, here is a final thought. A friend of mine, a Dominican friar, recently told me a story about his visit to a university that had just built a new library. Noticing that it was surrounded by nothing but grass, my friend asked a maintenance worker, “Where are all the sidewalks?” Those of us who work for the Church would do well to consider the answer he received: “Once we see where the students walk, then we will build them.” In other words, rather than placing the sidewalks according to their plan and expecting the students to conform, the people in charge of the project decided to follow their lead. Can we approach the work of evangelization in the same way, paying attention to where the people are already walking instead of offering them a predetermined path?

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Collected Works: Theology of the Liturgy (Ignatius, 2014), xv.

[2] St. Francis de Sale, Treatise on the Love of God (Wilder, 2011), 375.

[3] Pope Paul VI, Evangelii nuntiandi, §41.

[4] For some excellent scholarly work on the development of spiritual direction across the centuries, see A Science of the Saints: Studies in Spiritual Direction, Edited by Robert E. Alvis (Liturgical, 2020).

Featured Image: Hendrick ter Brugghen, The Calling of St. Matthew, 1621; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Matt Regner

Matt Regner has a Master's in Theology from the University of Notre Dame and works as the Director of Liturgy and Evangelization at a Dominican parish.

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