The authors of this work are the Catholic pastor and lay associate of a highly successful parish in Timonium, Maryland where weekend attendance has tripled from 1,400 to 4,000 during their tenure. The story begins with the struggles and failures that the parish endured before discerning a new successful approach to ministry. The authors discovered that the central problem in their parish was not the number and type of activities, but ultimately the culture of the parishioners. In order to transform the parish they had to change the predominant culture of the parish. Eventually after much struggle the authors came to the conclusion that beingfaithful should also imply that we are being fruitful. They point out that many times in the wake of dull efforts and dismal failures, we hear people quote Blessed Mother Teresa: “God didn’t call me to be successful. He called me to be faithful.” Mother Teresa was talking about obedience and not promoting or modeling failure. “In fact, Mother Teresa stands among the most successful and innovative church leaders of the twentieth century” (p. 26).
The foundation of the new mission Fr. White proposes is simply the biblical mandate to make disciples (Matthew 28:19). Obviously this has implications for those already in the Church but even greater implications for those who are not. It is the essential mission of the Church to seek and save those who are lost. Yet when Fr. White examined his parish he began to realize how most of his parishioners were ‘demanding consumers’ with a very minimalist approach to faith. The values and environment created by the parishioners were all about making what he calls a comfortable ‘churchworld’ environment for ‘churchpeople’. In the ‘churchworld’ the lost are not welcome unless the come on our terms, to join us while our needs are met, even to dress like us, worship our way, observe the same rules we set up. Fr. White believes that this comfortable ‘churchworld’ environment is more than a mistake it is a corruption of the Church’s very identity.
It is no surprise that the next chapter dealing with changing the hearts of his parishioners is call the “War in Heaven.” Fr. White is completely honest about how difficult this change was and the type of opposition he received. It is very instructive to ask as you read who the villains in this story are.
In the next few chapters, the authors detail the various categories of changes that were made in their parish. These are clearly ideas about changes that worked at Nativity parish in Timonium, Maryland. The specific applications for his a parish may not be universally applicable everywhere. The first chapter in this category focuses on discipleship. They note that disciples love God, disciples love people, and disciples make disciples. In practical terms how do we get started? They suggest we begin by defining our mission field, describing the “lost” in our mission field, then designing a simple, specific invitation strategy. Finally they review a list of common parish activities which in their experience do not make disciples.
A key realization was that the number one opportunity to disciple the faithful and to reach out to the lost was on the weekend. “We just decided to stop doing a lot of things we has been doing and instead concentrate on the weekend.” One of the key problem areas in their parish was the music. Fr. White notes, “We had a music program; what we needed was a worship program” (p. 99). The authors are very clear that they “are not advocating any particular style of music” (p. 101), but for their situation after much trial and error they found that contemporary “praise and worship” music was attractive, engaging and it seemed to have “the power to get people singing.” They also note that they occasionally have fusion of old and new styles. Anticipating objections, there is a nuanced discussion of this choice. The authors feel very strongly about this, they note; “Literally, after air quality, music is the single greatest environmental factor for your community, because it determines how people feel in your Church.” (p. 105).
Other areas for growth included making the parish accessible and attractive. It may sound mundane but this includes parking, host teams of greeters, running an information center, and yes, even a Café team. One of the things that may make some Catholics nervous is the fact that Fr. White is willing to look at successful Protestant Churches and examine which cultural elements might effectively work in a Catholic environment. Since it is clearly not a defining theological issue, why should our Protestant friends have all the best coffee?
The next serious area they tackled as a parish is children’s ministries. Nativity parish has an amazing well developed array of age appropriate programs. Some of them are designed to accommodate parents of very young children during Mass, while others on engaging, catechizing and even evangelizing children during the homily. One must bear in mind that the focus includes reaching out to the lost. Outside of Mass, youth programs should be high profile, accessible, excellent and attractive.
The authors note a series of other important factors. The first is the homily. Fr. White discusses a number of pitfalls that he fell into before finding a path to better preaching. They authors also describe their difficult but ultimately successful struggle to implement small groups in their parish in order to build a sense of community and accountability. They share some helpful advice about small groups from their experience and highlight the connection between small groups and discipleship. The authors then describe the topic of stewardship. They suggest that by developing a culture of mission and discipleship, parishioners can become good stewards without turning the parish into a casino, caterer or carnival. The authors also discuss preparing the lay faithful to be equipped to use their own gifts both within the parish and in outreach to the community. They note, “Our goal is simply, every member a minster” (p. 195). The authors conclude their work with some teambuilding and leadership strategies to further stimulate discipleship and outreach.
Overall the authors are to be commended for sharing their experience in a very practical “you can do this” guide. While there are many people who would be quick to give their opinions on how to make parishes grow, the list is much shorter for those who have truly demonstrated leadership that works in actual parishes.
Post Script: 11/22/2013: While I think that the general categories that Nativity Parish thought about inorder to reach out the the lost are all important, I think it would be completely wrong to try to ‘clone’ the Timonium, Maryland experience. I think this book is helpful to get people thinking.