Rescue a sinking church; think mission not membership


In my hometown, there is a lifesaving parish called St. William.

Every week, the single Sunday liturgy in the modest church building in an impoverished neighborhood is filled to capacity with a passionate mix of young and old; black, white, and brown; and religious and lay from dozens of zip codes.

St. William is a missional church.

Everything on Sunday—from the opening song to the 20 minutes of announcements inviting action—is about mission.

What the parish does in between Sundays is equally important.

With over a dozen active ministries and projects that have evolved into important and impactful nonprofits, St. William has changed the city of Louisville.

It is exactly what Pope Francis would hope for.

The parish Pope Francis is hoping for can happen.

If it doesn’t, we will have to satisfy ourselves with being members of an exclusive club or find somewhere else to go.

Sadly, data show that finding somewhere else to go is exactly what millions of Catholics, especially young people, are doing and will continue to do.

In 2019, after six years of leadership by Pope Francis and 50 years of beckoning by the Second Vatican Council, the American Catholic Church is at a crossroads.

Will it choose the path of Jesus, St. Francis, Dorothy Day, and now Pope Francis—the path of discipleship?

Or will it preoccupy itself with “house rules,” self-contained recipes for salvation, and clerical fetish?

In many ways, everything is at stake: the future of the church’s social mission, the future of the parish, and even the future of the planet.

Think of the church as a lifesaving station on a dangerous seacoast with frequent shipwrecks.

The building was originally just a hut and there was only one boat, but the completely devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea and went out day and night tirelessly searching for the lost.

Many were saved by this station, so it became famous.

Some of those saved and others in the surrounding areas then gave their time and money to support its work.

New boats were bought and crews were trained.

The little lifesaving station grew.

Time passed.

Some members of the lifesaving station became unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped.

They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea.

So they replaced the cots with beds, put in better furniture, and enlarged the building.

Soon the lifesaving station became a popular gathering place for its proud members; they redecorated it beautifully and used it as a kind of club.

Fewer members were now interested in going to sea on lifesaving missions, so they hired lifeboat crews to do this work.

The lifesaving motif still prevailed in the club decorations, however, and there was a liturgical lifeboat in the room where club initiations were held.

About this time, a large ship was wrecked off the coast and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet, half-drowned people.

They were dirty, wounded, sick, and some had differently colored skin.

The beautiful new club was left untidy and muddy.

So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where shipwreck victims could clean up before coming inside.

At the next meeting there was a split in the club membership.

Some leaders wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities, seeing them as an unpleasant hindrance to the normal social life of the club.

Some of the members insisted that lifesaving was their primary purpose.

But they were voted down and told that if they wanted to save the various people shipwrecked on those waters, they could start their own lifesaving station down the coast.

They did.

But as the years went by the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old.

It evolved into a club, and yet another lifesaving station was founded.

History continued to repeat itself, and if you visit that seacoast today, you find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore.

Shipwrecks are still frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown.

As with the life station, over time the church’s mission, initially so inspiring and life-changing, gradually atrophies into something much less than it had been in its origin.

The seemingly innocuous choices—perhaps reasonable, maybe well‑intentioned, but ultimately uninspired—of generation after generation can steer what had been a heroic project into a cozy but irrelevant organization.

In time, there is little left that resembles the courage and sacrifice of the original narrative. Continue reading

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