Via Media

I once said that if I were to ever go back to graduate school, (which isn’t going to happen),  my PhD dissertation would be on post Vatican II transitions – perhaps focusing on one diocese or one cluster of parishes.  An alternative fantasy dissertation is evolving, though – a look at transitioning styles of mission, worship and doing church among evangelical Protestants (do remember that my MA was on women in 19th century Protestantism). Okay, big topic, but I continue to be fascinated.
I read and think about it out of an informal academic interest, but also because it gives my thinking about Catholicism something to bounce up against. Because, of course, the big question for Catholics is – and should be – how do we spread the Gospel in the 21st century? (Note the difference between this and what some say is the real big question for Catholics – how do we keep our institutions afloat? See the difference?)
As I’ve said before, we have much to learn from evangelicals (still), although it has to be measured, qualified learning. The reason for the caution is threefold: First, Catholicism has its own rich mode of evangelization, which may have faltered in some respects – as in at times and places being minimalistic and institution-focused, but still has had its own power to be bring people to Christ. Secondly, Catholicism is not evangelical Protestantism and does not envision “salvation” and what sustains the life of faith and what characterizes the disciple in exactly the same way. The temptation is strong, for example, to sometimes minimize the importance of the sacramental life, an aspect of Catholicism that is not an “extra” or something that overlays a “Mere Christianity” that is really all we need. The sacramental life of the Church is a gift from Christ, through which we meet Him and are nourished by Him.

Third, the very strength of evangelical Protestantism – its flexibility, rapid response and emphasis on every individual’s responsibility to evangelize – is its weakness, as well, something that any close observer of the scene can see very clearly these days.
In other words, the mode and methods used these days, that seem to “grow” communities in explosive ways, can have dramatically unintended consequences and long-term effects which range from mildly alienating to destructive of the truth and fullness of the Gospel.
In still other words, don’t jump on the bandwagon, because you’re never quite sure where the bandwagon is going.
And lest you think this is just academic pondering – it’s not. Every Catholic in pastoral leadership who takes that leadership seriously has grappled with this, and probably still is, in some form or another. A couple of years ago, I was invited to do a presentation on DVC before a semi-annual gathering of priests, deacons and professional lay ministers in a diocese. They ended up cancelling because they were changing the topic of the day – to the challenge presented by megachurches in their area.
Anyone who’s paying attention sees and feels the pressure and the challenge. Of course, being Catholic, it takes us a long time to get it. Exit polling can tell us time and time again that a major reason people leave the Church for one of these other groups is that they never really felt that what they experienced in the Catholic Church was pointing them to a personal relationship with Christ or equipping them to live that out in the daily grind of work and family – and we respond, time and time again with vague programs centered mostly on “getting people involved with the parish” but for no discernible reason but that the parish is probably a nice place to be and “Catholic identity” is nice.
(Of course there are many other reasons people leave. Family issues. Divorce/remarriage situations. Contraception. Hurt. Disillusionment. And do consider that many people who “leave” the Catholic Church for evangelical Protestantism are nominal, non-practicing Catholics, which makes sense since the major target audience for evanglicals are the unchurched. They were baptized, maybe received First Communion, and then that was it. I read somewhere once that the second-largest religious group in the US was non-practicing Catholics. Someone correct me on that, or clarify.)
I also want to head off at the pass any comments like, “Well, then, if they were more serious about their Catholic faith, they’d have gotten it and would understand how they can have a personal relationship with Christ through the Church, etc., etc., etc….They should study on their own, etc….”
Maybe. But in the real world, most people’s only encounter with “Church” is on Sunday for that 45 minutes to an hour. If folks are inadequately catechized, if they don’t have a full sense of the richness of Catholic spirituality, I maintain that it’s not all their fault.
I also think that a large part of the Catholic unease and discombobulation on the whole evangelization thing is all about the gradual collapse of Catholic culture, the shifting relationship between Church and culture over the past two centuries, and a real puzzlement about how to spread the Gospel in:
1) the great Supercenter Market of Religion that is the 21st century West
2) a world in which the former major players in Catholic evangelization – religious orders – barely exist.
3) a world in which the former life of many, many Catholics was formed and defined by a culture – a ghetto, if you want to see it negatively.
4) insert Obligatory Post-Vatican II Uncertainty, Loss of Energy, Obsession with Internal Matters Reference here.
As usual, I really didn’t start out intending to write all that. I actually only meant to point out some interesting things I’ve seen in the “be careful what you wish for” and “be careful of that bandwagon” category.
For example, let’s consider evangelization – the first question, it seems, of evangelizers is, “How do we get their attention?” or “How do we get them in the door?”
Sometimes this involves going out and sort of adapting to a subculture and tailoring the message to that subculture – anything from women to Skater culture to business people. Sometimes it involves attractional techniques.
All of that is a hot topic of conversation these days, and assumptions of what was absolutely necessary for evangelization five years ago are being constantly called into question today.
So, for example, we have Halo:

Hundreds of churches use Halo games to connect with young people, said Lane Palmer, the youth ministry specialist at the Dare 2 Share Ministry, a nonprofit organization in Arvada, Colo., that helps churches on youth issues.
“It’s very pervasive,” Mr. Palmer said, more widespread on the coasts, less so in the South, where the Southern Baptist denomination takes a more cautious approach. The organization recently sent e-mail messages to 50,000 young people about how to share their faith using Halo 3. Among the tips: use the game’s themes as the basis for a discussion about good and evil.
At Sweetwater Baptist Church in Lawrenceville, Ga., Austin Brown, 16, said, “We play Halo, take a break and have something to eat, and have a lesson,” explaining that the pastor tried to draw parallels “between God and the devil.”
Players of Halo 3 control the fate of Master Chief, a tough marine armed to the teeth who battles opponents with missiles, lasers, guns that fire spikes, energy blasters and other fantastical weapons. They can also play in teams, something the churches say allows communication and fellowship opportunities.
Complicating the debate over the appropriateness of the game as a church recruiting tool are the plot’s apocalyptic and religious overtones. The hero’s chief antagonists belong to the Covenant, a fervent religious group that welcomes the destruction of Earth as the path to their ascension.
Microsoft said Halo 3 was a “space epic” that was not intended to make specific religious references or be more broadly allegorical. Advocates of using the game as a church recruiting tool say the religious overtones are sufficiently cartoonish and largely overlooked by players.
Martial images in literature or movies popular with religious people are not new. The popular “Left Behind” series of books — it also spawned a video game — dealt with the conflict preceding the second coming of Christ. Playing Halo is “no different than going on a camping trip,” said Kedrick Kenerly, founder of Christian Gamers Online, an Internet site whose central themes are video games and religion. “It’s a way to fellowship.”
Mr. Kenerly said the idea that Halo is inappropriately violent too strictly interpreted the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” “I’m not walking up to someone with a pistol and shooting them,” he said. “I’m shooting pixels on a screen.”
Mr. Kenerly’s brother, Ken Kenerly, 43, is a pastor who recently started a church in Atlanta and previously started the Family Church in Albuquerque, N.M., where quarterly Halo nights were such a big social event that he had to rent additional big-screen TVs.
Ken Kenerly said he believed that the game could be useful in connecting to young people he once might have reached in more traditional ways, like playing sports. “There aren’t as many kids outdoors as indoors,” he said. “With gamers, how else can you get into their lives?”
John Robison, the current associate pastor at the 300-member Albuquerque church, said parents approached him and were concerned about the Halo games’ M rating. “We explain we’re using it as a tool to be relatable and relevant,” he said, “and most people get over it pretty quick.”
David Drexler, youth director at the 200-member nondenominational Country Bible Church in Ashby, Minn., said using Halo to recruit was “the most effective thing we’ve done.”
In rural Minnesota, Mr. Drexler said, the church needs something powerful to compete against the lure of less healthy behaviors. “We have to find something that these kids are interested in doing that doesn’t involve drugs or alcohol or premarital sex.” His congregation plans to double to eight its number of TVs, which would allow 32 players to compete at one time.

And this:

I met some former classmates of mine from seminary today at Starbucks. We had a great talk about working in a church, church planting and what we had been doing up to this point. One of the guys was interested in Oak Leaf’s Family Pastor Job, which I’ll update everyone later. So we chatted and I asked questions and we had a great conversation catching up.
At one point in the conversation the told a very disturbing and revealing story about a trend in the Southern Baptist World. Maybe it’s a mega-church thing, maybe it’s arrogance, maybe it’s political pressure, but a summary of the story is as follows.
Both of these guys work for a semi-famous church in the Atlanta area. Their supervisor called a meeting of all of his direct reports and gave them their quota/mission for the month. They needed to get 100 baptisms by the end of the month or there would be no financial rewards. In addition, they needed to use the following tactic to make it happen. They were to use Ipods and other gadgets to coax people into being baptized. The goal, as it was conveyed, was to get 100 people baptized by whatever means necessary.

And this from this Michigan church:
(Click on image for a larger version. Or go to the link)
The message series is called “I Love the 80’s,” with topics being “Trivial Pursuits,” “Back to the Future,” and so on.
This Georgia church is currently running a series called Pirates: Reclaiming your Lost Treasure. And the thing is, when I first saw that title, I thought, “Oh, okay. The treasure of faith or something. That could work.” But no. Here’s the description:
Tird of living paycheck to paycheck?  Tired of never having money in the bank?  Tired of worrying about your future?  If so, you are not alone.  Financial pressure is overwhelming in today’s culture.  Join Revolution Church now through Nov 4th as we continue our teaching series called “Pirates: Reclaiming your lost treasure.”  No matter how much debt you have, no matter how many bills you have to pay, no matter how much or little money you make, you can acheive financial freedom.  You simply have to learn to take back what Satan has stolen from you.  Join us as we learn how to take practical steps, spend smarter, make personalized goals, and learn how to reclaim what is rightfully yours – your money!
And you can read the pastor’s blog to check out the “set” for the series and his own thoughts:

This week we are launching a new series called Pirates: Reclaiming YOUR lost treasure.  It is about handling your personal finances in a way that will enable you to do what you feel called to do with your life.  It is going to be a fun series and it is going to be VERY eye opening for people who have never taken a look at what the Bible has to say about personal finances.
I can’t wait for you to see the creative elements we have planned.
The thing that I think is the coolest is all the people leaving church on Sunday who wanted to know if they could come to church dressed like pirates this Sunday!!!!  If you are crazy enough to do that, then I ain’t going to stop you.  Matter of fact, I think it is awesome!

Of course, I’m thinking…do these people realize that pirates were, like…murderous, thieving criminals?
Never mind.

The argument is that these types of message, or sermon series do actually contain solid material when you get down to it, and the packaging is just that – to get people in the door and get them excited, and so on. That’s the argument.
By the way, a great many of these message series are pre-packaged and for sale. If you google “I Love the 80’s”, you’ll get a couple of other churches doing that series in the past few years. The basic concept is to take what’s current in pop culture or in the popular mind and use it as a hook – like this series from an Indiana church called Grace Anatomy.  This same church is famous for this technique as you can see from the archives, in which message series have been structured around “Making Mayberry Moments,” “Creating Cosby Character” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Navigating Life’s Adventure.”
Some are a bit more serious in presentation, but still are clearly hooked in the present. This, from a fairly traditional-looking church – Second Baptist in Houston – struck me as quite bizarre, based as it is on 10-business-centered books.
The thing that always strikes me about these efforts is how narrow they end up being, raising all kinds of questions about “church.” What if you’re 80 and are not into Pirates or business books or, you know, the other 80’s? What if, for whatever reason, financial issues are not high on your list? Why would you even go?
It seems to me that sometimes what’s happening is that these efforts to reach out, to be inclusive, to welcome everyone, end up being, like so much in our culture, pure niche efforts, appealling to only a portion of the population.
Just a side thought, before I wrap this up:
I read a lot of these pastors’ blogs and such, and my amazement at the centrality of personality in these evangelical efforts continues to grow by the day. I think I wrote about My Naked Pastor – the guy in Florida who is putting a camera on himself and his activities basically 24/7 (with some breaks, I assume). The purpose, I guess was to make sure everyone knows that pastors are human and give them some way to identify, etc. In a way, an extraodinary number of these leaders are, even if they don’t go this far, emulating the naked pastor. It’s their creativity, their leadership, their personalities, their preaching that are at the center of the energy – continuing in the tradition of American evangelicalism from the 19th century on, of course – and I continually puzzle how this dependence on the personality of pastors fits in with the whole insistence that Christianity is all about Jesus/the Bible n’ me, and so get out of the way, nasty church structures.
(I’m also intrigued by the gender issues here, and this is something I have no insight in. The charismatic/pentecostal movement is filled with female preachers. As is the Word Faith movement. But these emergent/missional churches are all, to my knowledge led by males, and female leadership seems to be absent. When you read enough of these blogs and websites, you come out with a very coolguysingoateesanduntuckedshirtsbeingallmanly kind of vibe. Any insight on that would be appreciated. Is there a principle involved? Is it just the way it’s happening right now?)
The answer to this cannot be “Sniff. They don’t have the True Faith. Can’t last anyway. How amusing.”
For, as these pastors will tell you, their churches are filled with former Catholics. One pastor’s blog I read – and I can’t remember which one – I think he’s the pastor of a church in Aurora, IL – said outright that they were going to start a Saturday night service because so many of their new members came from Catholic backgrounds and they were used to that.
Nor, can it be slavish imitation. Besides the basic reasons that I”ve outlined above (plus others you can think of), there are real questions growing about whether any of this really “works” in the long run. Yes, there’s all kinds of assurances that under the pop culture and pastor-love, there’s solid stuff. People’s lives are changing, their real needs are being met.  There are, we’re told, basically two levels of involvement in these churches – those who come and dip in the services, and then the “members” who must take classes and make a deeper commitment.
But even with that, folks are worried. All of the questions that I’ve read about these techniques come from Protestant sources – they are discussing this in hot and heavy and sometimes vitrolic ways. There is absolutely no agreement that this mode of operating is actually consistent with authentic Gospel preaching (as they would put it) or produces really committed disciples.
So my point is to once again throw out the challenge, for it is a challenge.
People need Christ. People of all ages, interests and walks of life need Christ and are searching for meaning – the meaning that we know can only be found in Christ.
As Catholics, as followers of Jesus, as part of his Body, it is our responsibility to bring that Body, Jesus Christ himself, into the world. So much of who we are seems to go counter to what current thinking on evangelization tells us that seekers are seeking. All are welcome to a Catholic Mass – but only up to a point, right? What does that mean? How can we communicate the fullness of this: that Jesus is here, he wants you to be here too, your needs, wants and questions are answered here, it is here in Him, you will find salvation, and we want you to come now – within the far more complicated structure of Catholicism?
(Hint – this is where, among many other things, the Corporal Works of Mercy come in)
I have some ideas, but I also have other things to do…

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