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Church: Customers or Coworkers in Mission

Dear Folks,
The Feast of the Ascension is a time to talk about mission. It is sort of the apostles’
graduation ceremony. To be Christian is to be on mission, and it is time to ask a very
serious question.
Consider, if you will, two models of Church: Catholics as customers vs Catholics as coworkers in mission.
Catholics who function according to the customer model will think about church like any
other consumer good, and it becomes about getting one’s preferences over all (Coke or
Pepsi? Or maybe Dr. Pepper?). Improving the church becomes about how services can be
provided as conveniently as possible. Volunteering in the church will be seen as
extraordinary, not normal. Adult faith formation is seen as “for those who like that sort of
thing” rather than a normal part of being a disciple. I believe it was Richard Neuhaus who
said that many Catholics thought their only duty was to show up to be served. Things like
faith formation and Christian service will be seen as extras to be sacrificed for the sake of
“basic functions: keeping the buildings open and the Mass schedule. Such people may be
more likely to quit if they don’t get things the way they think they should be.
Catholics who see themselves as co-workers in mission are going to be focused on how the
Church can better draw people to Jesus. They will ask more questions like how can we
better draw outsiders to Jesus? How can we be leaven, salt, and light in the larger
community? How can we inspire others to see the goodness, beauty, and truth about the
Catholic faith? What reasons do the surrounding community have to be grateful we are
here? Instead of asking “how much am I obligated to do?” the question is “How can I, with
my circumstances, do as much as possible?” Some, given their situation, can only do a
teeny bit, but if we do it with love, it is huge in God’s eyes. Learning more about the faith
becomes urgent, so that we can better witness to it. There is an urgency to growing in
holiness, so that God’s light will shine more brightly through us. There is an attentiveness
to how we represent the faith community to others; we are God’s ambassadors. Such people
will be more resilient when hard times come, when we lose things we are accustomed to,
when being church grows difficult. Such people will not watch helplessly when things go
bad but will build something better.
Parents’ first mission is passing on the faith to their children, and if we believe the Gospel
is true, then we believe that the faith is the most important gift they can give their children.
Many parents have suffered the heartbreak of watching their grown-up children stop the
practice of the faith. If they did the best they knew how to do at the time, they have nothing
to be ashamed of. As they grieve for their disappointment, we turn our attention to how
things can be made better. The task at hand is to become a church that better draws people
to the faith. The data makes it clear that what was done in the past does not give them what
they need. It will take all of us together to make that happen.
So, this leads to the question: what is our model? How do we see ourselves? And, most
importantly, how would Jesus want us to approach being Church?
Blessings,
Fr. Jim

Love: Easy to say; hard to do

Dear Folks,
“This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.” Leviticus 19:18 commands
that we love our neighbors as ourselves, so what is new here? What is new is the standard
to love as Jesus loves. Great. How do we do that?

Many years ago, Joseph Fletcher wrote a book called “Situation Ethics”. In it he claimed
the only rule of morality we should have is to love others. Then he would pose situations
and say that the rules say this but what is the loving thing to do? I soon realized that he
thought it was obvious what the loving thing to do was, and that every honest, decent
person would come to the same conclusions. A moment’s reflection will tell us that is not
true. We have terrible disagreements on how to seek the good of others. First, we don’t
agree on what is good. Is getting what I want the greatest good? An addict most wants to
feed his addiction, but enabling the addiction is not the loving thing to do. As sinners, we
are all something like addicts, and our sinful state distorts our vision of goodness (This is
called concupiscence). Jesus came and showed us a greater good, one that often involves
letting go of things we strongly desire, for the sake of something greater. The other issue,
even when we agree on what is good, what will get us to that good most effectively. Can
we better fight poverty with more government programs or more free enterprise solutions (I
have opinions, but I won’t bore you with them now)? Sometimes we think the
disagreement is about ends when it is about means.

What does it mean to love as Jesus loves? Some people project their own prejudices and
desires. I remember an animal rights group who put up a sign that said that Jesus was a
vegetarian. When they were challenged how they knew this, they said that Jesus was a
good person, so of course He would be a vegan. Of course, we know that He was not a
vegetarian. In Luke 24:43, it very explicitly says that He ate a piece of fish. We also know
about His multiplying loaves and fishes, and miraculously enabling huge catches of
fish. Furthermore, He observed Jewish practices throughout His earthly life, which would
include eating Passover lamb. What is clearly happening is people are either not reading
the Gospels, or reading and missing a lot, and then presuming that Jesus would see things
the way they do.

Demanded complete loyalty and unlimited sacrifice (Matthew 10:37-39). Jesus threatens
with hell. A Lot. I found Matt 5:22; 29-30; 7:13; 19; 23; 10:28; 33; 39; 11:23; 12:32; 37;
13:30; 42; 49-50; 16:25; 18:3; 21:43-44; 22:13-14; 24:48-51 in Matthew alone (I did not
count the times in Mark, Luke, or John). By the way, that doesn’t mean we should be quick
to threaten people with hell. What works for one audience will not work with another. Part
of loving service is taking the effort to get to know people well enough to understand how
to connect with them.

Jesus’ teaching on marriage was fierce in Matt 19:1-15. His teaching is based on natural
law, the way we were created. We notice that He doesn’t talk about love (we are to love
everyone), but on the fact that “From the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and
female.’” The consequences were so serious that He scared the disciples who said, “If that
is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” Jesus said marriage was not for
everyone, “but only to those to whom that is granted.” Marriage is a heroic act if one takes
it seriously, and it takes a great deal of courage. To teach that nowadays would get you
called “unloving” or even “hateful” in some circles.

Jesus loves all people; He does not love all behaviors. Jesus taught things that were hard. If
we think we have it all figured out, we are probably wrong. It takes a lifetime of
discipleship to learn how to love as Jesus loves. Then we have to do it. We need a lot of
grace. Let’s pray hard.

Blessings,
Fr. Jim