The more I continue to speak with evangelizers from across North America, the more something becomes apparent—mainly, a widespread and latent frustration with the renewal-focused approaches parishes have taken over the last several years. This is because, for the most part, efforts at renewal have consumed much energy, time, and even financial resources in bringing about change, only to come up very short on their goals.
Almost every parish that has failed in its attempt to revitalize the community— or at least those that have been brought to my attention—falls neatly within the parameters of what I would expect to fail. And quite frankly, you would too if you understood a little bit about the parish cheeseburger.
The “parish cheeseburger” is the term I use to describe the four necessary components of parish renewal; pieces that when used together form a strong and healthy parish environment. When all four components are present and active in parish life, renewal occurs. If even one of the components is missing or is given too much emphasis, renewal becomes difficult and parish evangelization teams often struggle to understand why.
Together, let’s go over each cheeseburger component so that you can return to your parish this Sunday with something to share.
The “parish cheeseburger” is the term I use to describe the four necessary components of parish renewal; pieces that when used together form a strong and healthy parish environment.
I am no longer surprised to hear about parish amnesia. Questions like, “why do we pray,” “what do we believe,” “why do we gather,” are appearing more and more frequently on the lips of those who worship each Sunday. These questions arise for a few reasons to be sure, but the most prominent one is that the individual believer has never had a personal experience of our Lord Jesus Christ. When a person has that transformative moment and perceives God’s real presence in our midst, many of these questions naturally fall away.
As important as it is in the life of faith, catechesis cannot replace this experience; it can only build on it. This is why in the years surrounding the release of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the charismatic renewal became so prominent. In my view, the presence of the catechism (a tool intended to help us explore and unpack our Faith) made it all too obvious that (in many places at least) a personal encounter with God was missing.
However, over time this experience became the emphasis of renewal with little regard for what came next, and what was more problematic perhaps was the explicit guiding principle for many communities that nothing else was needed.
But that is simply not true. We need to encounter our Lord Jesus Christ and our faith should be a personal one, that much should be obvious. But once we meet Him, it should be just as obvious that we now need to cultivate that experience in some way.
If the emphasis on experiences was all the rage some years ago, recent years have seen the parish and renewal team highlight programs. And there are good reasons for this.
Programs are the attempt to facilitate the religious experience, to make it easier to encounter the Lord. They are essentially the answer to the question, “If everyone could hear this music, listen to this speaker, or learn this important lesson, wouldn’t that make it easier to live a life of faith?”
And the answer is, “Of course it would.”
The problem comes in when parish communities begin to preach programs more than they preach Jesus Christ and the experience that comes with meeting Him. And you’ve seen this; I have no doubt that you have.
Anyone who has even casually kept an ear to the Church knows that there was a great and forceful push not that long ago to continually create and update programs. Of course, this is not a bad thing in itself; it is in fact very good. What we produce as the Body of Christ should at least be as good as what the world produces for mundane things. But I won’t tire of saying it: no program is going to save your parish. Jesus will. Programs can help.
If you take a look around the world today, you will once again notice a curious shift in parish focus. For the first time in a long while, voices are calling for greater attention to be put on parish models rather than on parish programs.
The difference is an important one.
While programs meet the needs of individual groups within a parish setting (For example, we might have a program for baptismal preparation and a program for the youth.), a parish model is the structure put in place to coordinate them all. What this means is that a program can be added or removed based on its ability to work within the whole evangelization plan.
We can now ask questions like, “Okay, if we use that program for baptismal prep, how would it naturally flow into our program for first holy communion?” Or “Alright, if we adopt that program for outreach then what do we have for those who already experience and know Christ? What continuity can we provide?”
What I like about this approach to parish renewal is that it necessarily and naturally pulls individual programs down from the pedestals that we have artificially erected for them. It allows us to say, “If it’s not working for us, let’s try something else,” rather than what we say far too often, “If this program didn’t work, I fear nothing will.”
As good as this approach is, putting too much emphasis on parish models can also lead to a collapse. Though models are designed to be flexible with programming, they are not always very forgiving when irregular situations arise—situations that exist in almost every parish on the planet. For example, the choir might be stuck in the mindset that they only sing five songs because that’s the way it has always been done. The ushers give the impression that they are better human beings than the rest of the community or the heads of ministries are sensitive to change. These and other issues like them are not necessarily problems that can be fixed with a better model. Instead, I would suggest that another ingredient is missing, something that your parish cheeseburger cannot do without.
In the end, what we want is a cheeseburger, not a bun or a slice of cheese (as delicious as cheese is).
If a community is fervently praying and calling upon the Holy Spirit, then they can experience the Lord. If the community is willing to do a little research and spend a little bit of money, then they can purchase reliable programs that can make that experience of God easier to facilitate. If they invest in a parish model, then over time the right programs will flourish and the wrong programs will be naturally weeded out for failing to fit the needs of this particular community. But even if you’ve got the experience, great programs, and the right model, you would still need some contingency plans for what are really inevitable and often poorly timed hiccups to a flourishing parish-life—you need strategies.
Look at it this way. Programs and models form the health regimen of parish life, whereas strategies are the medicine. The first two require time, planning, and a coordinated effort to become effective at aiding the spread of the Gospel in a community.
Strategies do not.
Strategies come into play when a specific problem or need arises in the life of the community; a need that, if not addressed, might derail parish growth or renewal. They help the evangelization or leadership team answer questions like, “What can we do now to effect change while we continue to grow into the community that we have been called to become?” Strategies do not replace the parish model, the programs, and certainly not the encounter with Christ, but they help us to overcome immediate concerns—concerns which cannot be left until a later date when a program or a strong parish model can easily address it.
This is the missing component of parish-life renewal, the one that parish teams have not yet arrived at but that is essential if we are ever to reap the benefits of the first three parts of the parish cheeseburger. By understanding the strategies available to us, we can maintain our forward momentum. We can deal effectively with the surprises that people and parish life are bound to bring.
The Whole Package: The Parish Cheeseburger
Let us return then to the struggling parish, the one that tried to lift itself out of the ashes only to painfully fall back on its side, and let us ask the question, “What happened?”
I believe that in almost every case, one quick glance at the parish cheeseburger reveals what went wrong.
Sometimes the emphasis on a particular component of the parish hamburger locks the renewal team into a way of thinking and behaving that—though effective for a time, no doubt— in the end leaves people flat.
Sometimes parishes make it only about the encounter with Christ and don’t incorporate what can and should be done once the encounter happens.
Sometimes we get excited about how programs can help, and over time the program becomes our life-line. And when the program fails—for whatever reason—we feel like we are starting all over again.
Sometimes, though more rarely, we take the time to develop a parish model, one that can truly pull all of the programs together, but in this too we become rigid, unwilling, or simply unable to deal with the items that need immediate attention because, “Well, our parish model doesn’t account for that.”
And sometimes we are so happy with the little wins—too happy in fact—that we fail to notice that we’re not actually doing much. We put false hope in the vials of medicine that we’ve collected, believing that they will sustain us and all will be okay as long as we just keep on adding little bottles to our bathroom cabinet for rainy days. Our approach to strategies can be a problem too, and it is good to be aware of it.
In the end, what we want is a cheeseburger, not a bun or a slice of cheese (as delicious as cheese is). We need to insist that a healthy parish is one where the experience of Christ, the programs that help us to meet Him, the model that pulls it all together, and the strategies that deal with the anomalies, all find their rightful place in our home away from home.
Parish renewal efforts do not have to fail or start from scratch.
Be realistic about what your parish has already done up to this point and start a conversation with the pastor and his team.
Say, “I’d like the parish cheeseburger, please and thank you!”
That will get their attention.