on March 21, 2013
Before writing this review I had to read the book twice.
And this review is my opinion. I admit that. I may be and probably am completely wrong, but it is my perception of a ministry and a method based on a text. If I got to visit the parish the book is about, my opinion may be completely different. And this review doesn't cover half of my praises for the work that these two men have done and the concerns I have. It is just a few of them.
As a Director of Religious Education and someone who has been praying and working in my parish for 6 years there were times when I wanted to give the book 10 stars and was screaming "YES!" out loud, and other times when I wanted to give them -10 stars. After all, there are people at my parish who love me and others who want my head on a silver platter. I am sure their staff is used to this type of reaction. I am excited and invigorated by the work this Catholic parish has done to grow disciples and be evangelistic. The mere fact that they got any kind of reaction at all out of normally apathetic parishioners is impressive when they started the paradigm shift at their parish. Our changes have been slower than theirs, but we experience many of the same results, parishioners yelling at us and leaving the parish, withholding their title, new young families coming in, and so on.
There is so much to be commended and imitated - and oh yes - I will be taking some of their ideas. Much of what they have experienced in growing disciples, I have experienced at my own small parish. However, I have concerns with their approach as well.
It appears based on the book that they have seemingly made their Catholic identity an afterthought in their ministry because it is not seen as being "seeker friendly". This leaves me a lot of questions about when their parishioners are being fed the "meat" of the faith. There seems to be the creation of a "Catholic lite" atmosphere because seekers do not want "Catholic deep".
Modeling themselves on modern Protestant ministry and non-denominational mega-churches they have in some areas given up the language of the Church to appeal to as many people as possible. After reading the book the first time I set out to a popular Catholic youth forum and without giving any hint to my thoughts on the parish, asked Catholic youth to tell me if the church is, based on its website, Catholic or non-denominational. The majority responded that they had figured out it was Catholic, but only with great difficulty. Many thought they were Protestants. There was a very real level of discomfort among these discipled Catholics. One person even said they probably would have never converted if this was the parish they were exposed to.
So we know that while they remain faithful to the teachings of the Church, a deep Catholic identity can be seen as a liability. This is similar to my experience in mega-churches and their approach to identifying themselves as Protestant Christians. Social outreach and comfort are seen as primary driving evangelistic opportunities. Neither of those are necessarily bad ways to evangelize and I will look at incorporating some of their ideas. My concern: How do you wean the unchurched off of the milk into a mature spirituality, not just service? How does this play into the liturgy as well which they have "tweeked" for seekers.
I have been in a similar parish in my own diocese that had become "seeker friendly" and transformed the parish & liturgy, as much as they were able to along these modern lines. Greeters, information booths, coffee houses, hobnobbing with your pew neighbors during Mass, high tech A/V systems and a pastor who did his best to be "hip". It was immensely difficult to pray, and impossible to pray deeply (think about that and the long term consequences). There was a complete loss of the sense of the sacred. Yes, the Mass remains a sacred act, but the atmosphere proper to the Mass, sacred space, and sacred time, was gone. Since I have not been in the actual parish the authors describe, I don't know if it would be the same experience, I am just wondering.
The authors themselves admit, contradictory to other great works such as Denis McNamara's Catholic Church Architecture & the Spirit of the Liturgy, that they do not believe beauty plays an indispensable role in the liturgy or evangelization (see the chapter on Pretty Churches and Other Lies) - infusing modern technology and as one reviewer put it "rock & roll" does. Yet, beauty remains a transcendental and one of the three natural attributes (with truth and goodness) that attract people to the faith, so there we disagree. I believe a parish can be steeped deeply in our rich Catholic heritage and tradition and still draw in seekers. There does not have to be a discontinuity here. Our family was drawn to the beauty of the Church when we converted. Fr. Robert Barron explains this well in the Catholicism series.
There is a lot that is not answered in the book. One of my questions is what happens when the congregants and the formally dechurched start to get bored with the new trends? This goes along with who they are trying to reach - the "de"churched (a term that needs to be better defined). It happens all of the time in the modernized Protestant churches, including the one I came from. People get bored with the "style" and start to church hop. Most of those teens that were part of the busy youth ministry at my Baptist church have long since left the faith. There is no developed interior life and relationship with Jesus keeping them there. Perhaps, because this is unique experiment in infusing Protestant elements in a Catholic parish, the Sacraments will be enough to keep people there when the trendy is no longer trendy. Or perhaps their staff will be equipped enough to keep up with the trends and change fast enough to keep the attention of their consumers. That is a priority that they list for their staff. I wonder how the work that they are doing now correlates with trends to be seeker friendly in the 70s. How much this work is an updated version of that?
With their staff I do have concerns about the "hire from within" mentality and the quality of training those people get (are they sent to schools like Franciscan to get a formal eduction?)
Very little information is given in regards to catechesis. We do know that they use a much criticized and well known method of "lectionary based catechesis". There are many limits to this type of catechesis. They may have ways of making up for this that are not in the book. Our solution to getting kids to care has been Catechesis of the Good Shepherd for elementary school. Kids want to be there and they are developing a deep interior life starting with 3 years old. And yes, it draws in new families. Our parish has built similar environments with middle & HS, but with programs that deliver the entire content of the faith, as the bishops ask us to do. Those are some of my concerns.
Again, there is much to praise: They have built a culture of evangelization and outreach, the pastor is keenly aware of the effect of his homilies (again, he drops the Catholic language for Protestant terminology) and seeks to improve it, they have an awareness of the importance and role of stewardship and how to build faithful givers by building faithful disciples. Small groups have been hugely successful at our parish. Best practices in hiring is a great chapter - not so sure about leaning so heavily on Protestant leadership formation - however weeding out people who do not fit the mission and hiring disciples with strong character is right on. They are, in my experience, absolutely spot on about current music in most of our parishes. I am not sure that praise and worship is always the right answer. The reaction to changing music is usually either to return to the great traditions of the Church, or go with P&W.
All of that leads new questions (which are really old questions) about creating different parishes for different people, much like pastors experiment with creating different Masses for different people (the old people Mass, the children's Mass, the biker Mass, the queer Mass, the youth Mass, the traditionalist Mass, the young adult Mass, the liberal Mass, the clown Mass, the folk Mass, the BBQ chicken Mass (no, I am not kidding), the speed Mass, the Lifeteen Mass, the choral Mass, etc) and the value in doing that. I am biased and do not believe we should have different Masses for different groups of people.
So the book gets 5 stars and 1 star from me at the same time. With what they have accomplished, despite what my review might indicate, I lean more heavily on my inclination to give 5 stars than 1 star. I am impressed, but I have areas of a real concern surrounding catechesis, Catholic identity, and borrowing so heavily from Protestantism to the point of adopting their language along with their practices.
I believe this book deserves to be read, praised, critiqued, and talked about at every parish in the US by every pastor and his staff. What they have done isn't 100% new, but it's the first time we've gotten a chance to see it on paper. I am deeply impressed by their vulnerability in being so open and honest. I am itching to buy everyone on my pastoral council a copy, and yet those guys need to read Forming Intentional Disciples first.
Finally, I would love to see Fr. Ed Fride of Christ the King in Ann Arbor write the next book on parish life.