Dear Good People of Saint Mary,
This fall I was able to attend the International Catholic Stewardship Conference in Dallas. There were many presentations about how to inspire parish communities to come to life spiritually and socially, to develop a healthy spirit of volunteerism, to start a fire for the spirit of peace and justice in our cities, to invite people to really get invested in the present and future of their church that sits at the heart of their lives.
It is a beautiful vision, the one where the Church is the heart of the community. But what about those who don’t hold the Church at the heart of their lives?
Or what do we do with the all-too-common experience of “I’ll go where they will give me what I want”? This is the modern-day megachurch model for many Christian communities, one that turns the faith / religion / church biz into a kind of consumerism where I will support and give as long as I feel my investment is providing sufficient returns to me. What we are seeing is the advent of churches whose sole purpose is to help me feel good about myself, to help me justify subjective opinion, to turn the gift of faith into whatever I want it to be, as long as it seems to work for me. We want a homily that challenges us just enough and makes us think some, but not too much. And it has to be politically correct. Do you see how the self is the center of this whole description? The so-called Gospel of Prosperity (which is so popular today) actually teaches that Jesus wants you to be rich, and powerful, and happy, and people are flocking to it.
Studies show that a lot of Catholics are turning to these churches, but they don’t last long there. The biggest problem is, when they decide to move on again, they generally don’t land in another church home. They become unchurched. On one level, I think this is so because they realize how difficult it is to replace the ancient truth with a new opinion. The truth is a hard act to follow.
So, back to this idea of consumerism. One of the speakers at the conference spoke about how unhealthy it is to always be validating parish ministry with progress reports. It doesn’t make sense to create ministry for ministry’s sake if there isn’t the heart behind it in the community to will it into being. Nor can a pastor just decide that a parish is going to be kind, compassionate, gentle, generous and pious. He can guide, and mentor, but not make it up, or force it to happen.
In the same way, he said, do away with all fundraising. Don’t conceal the integrity of peoples’ giving spirit by handing them a candy bar or a lottery ticket, or even an engraved plaque. I had never really thought about this before, because I’ve always known fundraisers and just regarded them as a “necessary evil.” No, he said, just let people give. If they don’t, then you just won’t have. This is honest.
When you invite people to dinner, invite those who could never return the favor, taught Jesus. Give, and don’t count the cost, and don’t expect any return. In these teachings he was describing himself, and then calls us to follow him.
But he isn’t talking about money here. In a way, it would be a whole lot easier if he were just talking about money. But when it comes to the life of faith, and we approach his altar, it isn’t with a wallet that he calls us up, but with our hearts and hands open, and our life’s accomplishments and failures, with our daily gladness and difficulties. He asks us to bring all that up and make our offering. He asks us to give ourselves back to him, since he gave it all to us in the first place. Generosity will over flow into the collection basket, too, but only as an effect of the relationship that sits at the heart of our lives, which we call “church.” Otherwise we are simulating an effect without realizing what caused it to be; what caused us to be, and to be here in this place and time, fully, actively and consciously his.
God bless you.