Evangelization Barriers: a call for messy authentic Christianity

New Evangelization

The Pope has called for a New Evangelization or a re-evangelization, where we win back those fallen away Catholics. Cradle Catholics are not equipped for this type of evangelization and most parishes are not equipped either. The reason has to do with the walls we built around us, and our reluctance to leave our fortified parishes to embrace the other. Bishop Barron, in Getting out of the Sacristy  writes about how parish life needs to be revitalized to focus on missional oriented activities rather than existing parish structures. Gone are the days where we can expect people to show up. Rather than do the messy work of reaching the lost, we would rather protect our own through fostering divisive labels.

The Parable of The Lost sheep: How to Evangelize

Luke 15:1-7 gives us the parable of the lost sheep, and this parable gives us an important lesson on evangelization. In this parable, the shepherd is concerned about his lost sheep so he leaves the 99 sheep, which symbolizes the righteous Pharisees and goes to the lost sheep, the sinner. There is a lot to unpack here, but I think that when we use labels to describe one another, we put us in the righteous Pharisee camp.

Three labels commonly used

When I think about the Catholic church I think three labels come to mind, Traditional Catholic, Charismatic Catholic, liberal Catholic. Let us break each one down.

Traditional Catholic

The traditional Catholic prefers pre-Vatican II style worship and attends Latin Mass exclusively. At best these persons care deeply for the liturgy and reverence that it deserves. I think a desire to preserve the traditions of the Catholic church is a well-intentioned noble goal and a worthwhile pursuit. The more I learn about Catholicism, the more I went the incense, the chanting, and the beauty of more traditional churches. I think my desire comes from wanting liturgical excellence. The danger comes when we fence ourselves in and we say that the Mass is not valid and licit unless it conforms to pre-Vatican II standards. This is dangerous because the beautiful traditions of the church become a fence that prevents a person from going out into the world. Rather than engaging with other equally beautiful and valid traditions, traditional Catholics would rather label it as wrong. Also, Tradition Catholics dangerously over emphasize right practice over right belief.

Charismatic Catholics

Charismatic Catholics are completely the opposite. They emphasize obedience to the Holy Spirit and right relationship. They desire to foster an encounter with Jesus and the Holy Spirit. I would say that charismatic masses have an exuberant quality to them. They emphasize scripture reading and praying for one another. Praise and worship and community are the focus. At best Charismatics help revitalize the parish by placing the focus back where it belongs, which is Jesus. They can help unlock scripture and foster community. The danger becomes when private revelation contradicts church authority. Private revelation should never take the place of church obligations. Likewise, there is the danger of emotionalism in which a person is constantly seeking the mountaintop experiences. Thus Mass becomes mundane. Because of these dangers, it is very easy for one to make the charismatic community the sole bases of their spirituality.

Liberal Catholics

The last category is liberals. These Catholics care about social justice, so much so that the oftentimes pick and choose to ignore certain teachings in favor of inclusivity. The benefit is that it reminds the church to be compassionate and merciful. The danger is that ignoring church teachings gives way to complacency, where people are not compelled to live according to the truth.

Conclusion

The reality is that the parish needs people who go beyond the labels.  The church needs to be traditionally minded to help safeguard the parish from liturgical abuses and to help safeguard the traditions of the church. The parish needs to be Charismatic because the parish needs to be reminded that God is still working, is still performing miracles, and is still speaking outside the sacraments. The parish needs to be liberal because the church needs to balance mercy with justice and to always show compassion. Furthermore, we need to have all three types as our spirituality. Rather we should break down the labels and be authentically Catholic. To do that though requires us to be uncomfortable and messy. When we accept and love each other, we can embrace and love those who have walked away.

More than a birthday

When you are little birthdays are a big deal. You celebrate with balloons, gifts, toys, and friends and family. As you get older birthdays become less of an extravaganza. Yes, your family and friends still acknowledge it; you may still get a few gifts, and you may still have a party, but it exists on a much smaller scale. Sometimes, I think the Church has become like that. Last Sunday marked an end to the celebration of Easter. Instead, the Church acknowledges the feast of Pentecost. The Bible describes the events of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2. Most people refer to Pentecost as the birthday of the Church since three thousand people joined on this day.
According to Acts 2:41, “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand persons were added that day.” Imagine what people would say if your parish received an influx of three thousand people weekly. People would assume that such a parish fostered a vibrant community. Other parishes would want to replicate the results. However, the model already exists in the book of Acts.
The following events happened to cause growth: The apostles were in the upper room praying as one; A loud noise such as a rushing wind; apostles receiving the gift of tongues; the apostles using the gifts of tongues; Peter proclaiming the Good news of Jesus Christ.  Basically, the surrender to the Holy Spirit gave the apostles the power and confidence to proclaim the gospel. That’s great, but this happened over 2,000 years ago, how can this help us grow today.
One should not merely remember Pentecost, but live it. In Peter’s proclamation of the gospel, he recites from the prophet Joel. Acts 2:17 states

‘It will come to pass in the last days,’ God says,
‘that I will pour out a portion of my spirit upon all flesh.
Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your young men shall see visions,
your old men shall dream dreams.

Notice that it says, ” I will pour out a portion of my Spirit upon all flesh.” This means that the experience at Pentecost is ongoing. Every baptized and confirmed Catholic has the Spirit in them.
If you read the book of Acts, you realize that the early Christians were able to withstand trials and persecutions and still spread the Gospel with joy. The tenacious spirit of the early Christian’s carries over into today’s Christian rock and rap music.  The chorus from On the Frontlines by Light up the Darkness come to mind,

I’m standing on the front lines
With Jesus on my right side
I’m not defeated
I will stand tall
My armor is fitted
I will not fear
You held my hand
You led me here
You can defeat the enemy

The Holy Spirit gives the gift of fortitude. Fortitude describes the ability to conquer fear and face trials and persecution. I have experienced the power of the Holy Spirit first hand.
In 2010-2011, I suffered severe neck pain. I also started experiencing numbness in my fingertips.  By February of 2011, I had lost the ability to sit upright. At the time I also attended the University of Virginia fully time. However, two months before graduation, VCU medical hospital had admitted me to the neurological wing. I had a spinal cord injury. In the midst of losing everything, I desperately needed the ability to fight, to have hope. I turned to poppy Christian music, even though I wasn’t following Christ. I turned to this style of music because in it I found joy. Whether you love or hate CCM, You will not be angry while listening. This must have caught the attention of the nurse because he started sharing his interest in Christian music itself. At some point, it came out that I didn’t believe Jesus was the son of God. The nurse, like Peter in Acts, proclaimed the gospel to me. He told me to pray for wisdom. I prayed that night. While I didn’t hear a rushing wind, nor did I experience tongues of fire, I slowly became aware of an unshakable faith.
My mom asked me once if there would be anything that would make me renounce a belief in God. I can honestly say with complete certainty that nothing could get me to do so. I can say this not because I am a holy person or because my life is great, but because Pentecost is lived out in me daily.
In the United States, we have it pretty easy, we have the freedom to worship how we want and when we want. The persecution we face is an inward one. A general apathy. One that says that my life is pretty good, I don’t need God, church or religion. The other inward problem is to cave in the face of hardships. We deny God because we don’t see him in the fire with us. The church doesn’t need another birthday celebration, which is quietly celebrated with little fanfare and forgotten until next year. The Church needs Pentecost to be lived in the followers of Christ in order to renew the face of the earth.
 

Mark 1:12-15 a reflection

I was tasked by a priest to explain this gospel to a non-christian and my daily devotion challenged me to reflect on what this passage meant to me personally. I will attempt to do both in this post.
The first thing I would want to explain is the word gospel. This word means good news. So Jesus comes out of the desert and proclaims the good news of God. Ok, well what is the good news of God? Well according to this passage, the good news is that in the present moment the kingdom of God is at hand. The kingdom of God is the idea that God is going to restore his kingdom by ending oppression. In historical context, the Jews were God’s people and they had a kingdom that the had lost and were under Roman rule. Jesus is essential proclaiming that the kingdom of the Jews had will be restored. All the Jews had to do was repent and believe in this good news. What does it mean to repent? To repent means to turn around, or to stop disobeying. Outside of historical context, there is a spiritual significance. In verse 10 of Mark chapter 1, we read that through baptism Jesus received a spiritual anointing to do his ministry. In verse 12, we read that the same spirit sent Jesus to be tempted in the desert by the devil. This tempting process leads to verse 14-15 in which Jesus proclaims the good news of God’s kingdom. Hence, the kingdom of God only comes after the devil and temptation are overcome.
Personally, I find meaning in the knowledge that our savior also experienced being tempted in a desert wasteland.  I know that in my own life there have been periods of spiritual dryness, where nothing seemed to work out, where God felt distant and unloving. I also know that the same spirit that rested on the Lord during baptism is in me by virtue of my baptism. Hence if the same spirit can drag me to the desert then the same spirit can help me overcome temptation. If we allow the spirit in our lives, then we can help usher in the kingdom of God.
Right now I am in a desert and I am faced with the temptation of becoming angry, bitter, and unforgiving. I overcome these negative feelings by surrendering to the idea that the kingdom of God is at hand! God is in control and the victory over the devil is mine to claim.
Desert song lyrics by Hillsong
This is my prayer in the desert
When all that’s within me feels dry
This is my prayer and my hunger in me
My God is the God who provides

And this is my prayer in the fire
In weakness or trial or pain
There is a faith proved
Of more worth than gold
So refine me Lord through the flames
I will bring praise
I will bring praise
No weapon formed against me shall remain
I will rejoice
I will declare
God is my victory and He is here
And this is my prayer in my battle
When triumph is still on its way
I am a conqueror and co-heir with Christ
So firm on His promise I’ll stand

Dear Catholic church, a letter from a lonely young adult

Dear Catholic church,
I am a single 27-year-old female, who doesn’t know her place in the church. I am not sure where to go to for guidance, love or support. I am too old for the college crowd but too young for the 30-40 age group. Is there a place for me? Yes, you say enthusiastically, “come to theology on tap.” Yes because nothing fosters authentic relationships like beer and a motivational speech. Don’t get me wrong, I like theology on tap, but it doesn’t speak to me on a deeper level. It doesn’t help me connect with people, who will be lifelong friends. At most I get a drinking buddy for the night. It also doesn’t help me get plugged in elsewhere. If I’m lucky, I go back to a parish with a somewhat functioning young adult group; if unlucky, I go back to waving at people my age from across the pew.
Maybe one day I’ll work up the courage to talk to him or her, but why me. Yes, I know that we are called to be the change we want to see in the world, but I feel like it is unfair to expect me to foster my own community. I’m an introvert and can be socially awkward at times I know I’m not alone in this. I also know that I’m not alone at Mass; I see you and desire to talk to you, but I’m scared. Scared to break the unspoken rule that we all decided to uphold; the rule that says that we should never talk to anyone at Mass. That the ultimate goal is to get in and out as fast as we can. So out of respect for sacred silence, out of respect for the idea that mass is not a community club, I will stay silent. However; If I can’t meet people my age at mass, when can we meet?
Maybe I’ll meet people when I volunteer; that sounds like a good idea. The only problem is that most of the volunteers are older people, who have been in ministry for 10 to 15 years. They like doing it this way; they are comfortable. They don’t want a young thing like me coming in and messing it up or introducing technology they don’t understand. There’s no room for creativity or risk. Let’s just keep doing it the way we’ve always done it. We will complain that young people are unreliable because heaven forbids we were late to the meeting by five minutes. Maybe we had to take care of our kids or you know work. It would be nice if church meeting met after 7pm, but I guess that is too late for the older folk.
One thing young people have that older people don’t is awesome retreats and conferences. We get together once a year and have these crazy Catholic concerts with awesome praise and worship music, good speakers and good fellowship. The only problem is I want to be encouraged more than once a year. I want to have these amazing experiences in my local parish or diocese. I want to have it on a monthly bases. The crazy thing is that I know that such experiences exist.
I know that down in Atlanta GA they have monthly XLT for youth as well as young adults. I know in Dallas they have a ministry called 635 strictly for Young adults. I know that there are other wonderful opportunities in college towns. For instance, when I was at Yale, there was a ton of Catholic stuff to do and plenty of ways to meet people. However, I think it is unfair that my ability as a Catholic to meet other Catholics depends on my geographical location. If we truly are the universal church, then we should have a universal focus and a universal vision to help support young adults. Not just college students, but also those, who have graduated.
Sincerely
A lonely lost Catholic young adult

Help, I've fallen and I can't get up!

You have seen those commercials before. They usually come during daytime television, where an old lady has fallen, usually in the bathroom. After that montage, an old man comes un the screen and says, “you need life alert.” Life alert is a necklace that one can wear with a button that can be pushed in case of emergency. At the end of the commercial, the old lady is smiling, and says, “thank you, Life Alert.” This product may save you from a physical fall, but what happens when you fall spiritually? I think initially it is easy to say well, go to confession. While I most definitely agree that confession is Life Alert for the soul, I think that to say confession is the answer too quickly dismisses the fear and shame that surrounds failure.
I know that in my own life I have battled with sins of omission or not doing the things I should. It reminds me of Romans 7:19, “19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” I have felt like Paul in that I want to pray and spend time with Jesus. More importantly, I want to make my mark in the world. Now I want to do these things to bring glory to God. Here’s the secret though, God doesn’t care about what we do so much as why we are doing it. It’s not that God wants us to sit on our butts and watch Netflicks. However, what God wants is our love. The question I’ve been asking myself is why does God deserve our love. Yes, he died for us on the cross, but how does this love manifest itself. Yes, God chose to die for me, but why?
I had radically encountered God’s love in the past, But the past month is the first time I question this love. I was miserable because of it. I didn’t understand why God loves us and why we praise him. I had told myself that God deserves praise because he gives us a purpose. However, after praising God I still have no clue what my mission in life is, furthermore, it seems that God works miracles in other’s lives, but not mine. It seemed pointless and I resigned to a “why bother” stance regarding my faith. I was going through the motions. I felt a sense of shame and guilt that kept me from doing more than the bare minimum. This was the “I’ve fallen” moment.
On 9/14, I attended a Steubenville Encounter Atlanta conference for Young adults (it was great and full review coming soon). What stood out to me was the concept of falling in love with Jesus. Joel Stepanek set the tone during his talk on The Breath of God. He read from Ezekiel chapter 37. He remarked that at some point we had experienced the breath of God or we wouldn’t be at the conference, but now we are dried bones. We have deprived ourselves of the breath of God because the world has made us feel apathetic. He talked about how when things are beyond our control, we either turn a blind eye or we attempt to make a difference. We cannot escape from the vicious cycle unless we have the Holy Spirit or breath of God in us. Through the various talks, I realized that I was, in essence, doubting God’s love and goodness.
That night, I went to reconciliation. After confessing, the priest tried to tell me that God loved me. He used beautiful metaphors, but on the inside, I wanted to scream, WHY, HOW DO YOU KNOW? Instead, I let the truth wash over me, knowing full well that it didn’t resonate or connect. After that, we had adoration, before adoration, the MC, Chris Stefanick, had us get into groups of 4. We were to announce in our group the lies that the devil says and to pronounce the truth about who God says I am. It is at this moment that everything clicked. What I do or say does not dictate who I am, God does. God loves me as his creation and he declares that “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” God would not have created me if I was not worthy of being created and for this alone I owe him praise.
Sometimes we can get blinded by the mission and forget the why behind it. I truly believe that I am in a session of rejoicing in the present, and not worrying about the future or filling my vocation. Rather let me be content to rest at the feet of Jesus and let him lead me in the dance of life.
 

What is wrong with religious​ education?

One of my passions is learning about what makes successful youth ministry.  Thus I really enjoyed my time attending the pathways retreat put on by the diocese of Richmond. This retreat was designed to help train Catechist to better serve young people. The ultimate goal, of course, is, “to empower young people to live as disciples of Jesus Christ in our world.” During my time at the retreat, the one thing that was clearly emphasized is that 1. Religious education is a lifelong process and 2. that young people learn better through direct action rather than verbal memorization.  Thus, it seems that if we are to reach the young person, we must engage them not as an instructor or teacher, but rather as a facilitator on a journey.  Given this goal, I have come to realize that there are certain pitfalls that Catholic Religious education has fallen into:

1. teaching the textbook

I currently am a 7th-grade catechist. My teacher manual is cumbersome and big. To its credit, it does suggest certain activities to do, but most of the lessons revolve around reading out of a textbook. Likewise, my teachers manual is so vast that it is practically impossible to do every activity suggested in the hour I have with them; not to mention the fact that I am also required to go over the Sunday reading with them. It can be quite overwhelming. During the pathways retreat, we were introduced to the concept of The hierarchy of truthsThis is the idea that not all truths taught by the Catholic church are equal and that some are more essential than others. The top three essential truths are 1. the four gospels, 2. The Mass, and the Creed. Hence if the kids leave with nothing else, but an appreciation for those three things, it will take them very far. I am not saying don’t teach what is covered in the textbook, but don’t be a slave to it.

2. sticking to lecture-style catechist

Most religious education still takes place in classrooms rather than open areas. This can make it hard to prepare the meeting space that lends itself to discussion and facilitation. It can be easy to slip into lecture mode. It especially doesn’t help if your textbook requires vocab words to be taught and a self-assessment to be taken. It is very hard to make words like deposit of faith or magisterium engaging. However, if you lecture the whole time you make CCD very boring and the information doesn’t stick. In fact, if you asked my students what the definition of Magisterium is, none of them will remember, but I guarantee that they will remember the skit we did.

3. not involving the parents or forming relationships

This is a big one. During the pathways retreat, I learned that, despite teenage rebellion, parents are the number one influence in the child’s life. Furthermore, teens are most likely to stay Catholic if they have formed relationships with people in the church. Therefore, it is crucial that the parents are on the same page and that the kids have a good relationship with you or a fellow catechist. This is definitely an area where I, as a catechist, could improve. Just recently I had the following exchange:

Mother of X: Hey, I just wanted to let you know that x has band practice and won’t make it to class on certain Tuesdays.

Me: ok, you know there’s always edge nights on Sunday, X could go to that on the weeks he won’t be here, that way he won’t miss a thing.

Mother: Well, we are out of town on some weekends, but we will look into it. Although it shouldn’t be a problem since he isn’t preparing for anything in the church.

Now I don’t blame this mother in that the benefits of band practice seem more tangible than the benefits of CCD or youth ministry especially since there is no sacrament to check off.  However, I am not sure why she tells me about his absence. Maybe to avoid judgment or make her feel better, not sure.  What I do know is that in those few moments I should have offered to look at the schedule and to give PREP at home to him. This allows the mother to see what is being taught in class and hopefully the benefit of it, but more importantly, it gives the student the opportunity to still learn.

4. not emphasizing the Kerygma

well before we can emphasize the Kerygma, we must first know what it is. Kerygma is the proclaiming of the good news of Jesus Christ, which is that even though we are sinners, God sent his only son, Jesus Christ to save us from our sins, he was crucified and died but rose again conquered death. He ascended into heaven and now sits at the right hand of the father. He desires to deliver you from your sins. It is the basic gospel message. The problem is that it is all head knowledge and not heart knowledge. We need to accept and believe for ourselves and not just recite. Too much of catechesis takes it for granted that the students wholeheartedly believe this statement, which is simply not true.

5. Not letting go of the old way of doing things

The problem is not really points 1-4 in that most church youth ministers are aware and have easy fixes. Lifeteen and Edge programs being the front-runner. The problem is the unwillingness of the Church to admit that classroom-based CCD no longer works. Also, they fail to admit that teens leave the Church with a lot of head knowledge, but no heart knowledge of who Jesus Christ is. Ultimately they become students instead of relational disciples of Christ.
In conclusion, religious education has problems because it is not something that can be taught but must be something lived in order to be life-lasting. In order to be lived, it must be experienced relationally.

The mask we all wear

Does your inner monologue reflect your outward persona? In other words, do your thoughts reflect what you tell others, or do you project a certain image to others in your appearance and speech that does not reflect how you are actually thinking and feeling? Lately, I felt a bit of a disconnect between these two things. I feel that I need to disguise my thoughts from the real world; to wear a mask so to speak, The reason for this disconnect is simple, I am ashamed of my thoughts.
Lately, I have felt hopeless. I am not sure where this sense of hopelessness is coming from, but I can’t help but feel that nothing matters. In response, I have felt paralyzed. However, I feel like I can’t express these emotions or thoughts because people wouldn’t understand. They’ll tell me to get over it or be strong. Sometimes I fear that they’ll suggest that I feel this way because I lack ambition or drive. The solution is simple, just get out and stay busy. If I stay busy, I won’t have time for introspection. Yet thinking about my open schedule, in the end, makes me feel more hopeless and alas the vicious cycle continues. Thus, instead of opening up about my feelings, I just bottle them and either avoid talking or pretend to be busy. It’s a shame because I think I would be much happier if I could be myself instead of trying to be what I think the other person wants to hear.
I used to admire people, who were always happy. However, I’ve come to realize that happiness is a mask as well. Appearing happy can give the illusion of control. It keeps a person from being authentic. When asked how they are doing, the biggest lie people tell is that they are, “doing good.” The reality is that we are all struggling with something and we yearn to know that we are not alone. We yearn to be heard.
One of my favorite songs is Believe in Dreams by Flyleaf. One line, “For now Is it worth it to be sad If it’s harder to be glad To be alive,” stands out in particular. Sometimes it is hard to be glad, but it is also taxing to be sad and it is easy to be stuck in a vicious cycle. As the song reaches the chorus, it suggests that even though, “I wonder where do I belong
Is it here,” that I must continue to believe in my dreams and be able to express them to others how I feel.
In short, I think that we need to be more honest with. ourselves and with others as well as not be afraid to live our dreams. By believing in our dreams we can push through the sad hopelessness the pervades our modern society. By daring to be authentic we can strip off the mask that we wear and can encourage others to do the same.
 

Believe in Dreams by Flyleaf

My visit to the Church of Nativity

On the weekend of September 9-10th, I made a trip to Timonium, Maryland. I was there to experience The Church of Nativity. This church is somewhat famous or infamous depending on who you talk for being the subject matter of the book, Rebuilt written by Father White (more on him later). The book outlines questionable methods used by the church to rebuild into the thriving parish it is today. I’ll admit that at one point in time I was a huge fan of this church. Thus when I found out that they’d be opening a new building on September 11th, I decided to make a special trip.
I was very excited to visit the church especially since I felt like I was an honorary member. I knew people, who attended due to joining an online small group ( a decision I had made because I wanted something to help me spiritually grow without any leadership role). Thus I was also excited to connect with them in person as well.
Having attended in person, I finally feel qualified to judge the experience. I do have mixed feelings on Nativity has a whole.
So the first thing I would like to say is that this church is beautiful and the online pictures do not do it justice. However, if you are a fan of traditional cathedral style architecture then you will hate it. When you come up to the church, you are greeted with a white stone sign with the churches name engraved in it. There is a curvy road, which leads up to the parking lot. In between the road are trees and flowers. The first part of the building you see is the glass coffee shop. Then you see the main doors and as you head out of the parking lot you see the old church, which has been converted into a children’s wing. Once inside, you see a white brick wall with a cross carved into it. To the right of the front doors is a bench. Next to the bench is a stand and video screen, which says next steps. After passing that you enter into the coffee shop.  I would later learn thåt to the left of the main entrance is guest services.
I arrived at 9:50am for 10:30am Mass. We were greeted by parking lot ministers. These volunteers were very good at their job. They told the person driving me that I could get dropped off and that they would have a spot open in 15 minutes. So I texted my small group leader, Sue, and had her meet me outside.
She met me outside and we proceeded into the building. Now here’s where things got interesting. Nativity’s claim to fame is their radically welcoming environment. However, walking into the building I didn’t notice any greeters. I am not sure why but I suspect several possibilities.  First, I was with someone I knew and seemed to know what I was doing and second, Mass was not over yet and thus the greeters were not out yet. Third, there may have been some confusion regarding where they were supposed to stand and greet since it was a new building with multiple entrances. Even though these are all possible excuses, it still feels odd. First of all, if the volunteers wait until Mass is over to do their job, then why are the parking ministers already directing traffic? Second of all, even if I am in a group and seem like I know the place, I still deserve to be treated the same as someone new. In fact Father White in the book, Rebuilt, mentions that the inspiration for the hospitality team stems from his visit to Saddleback Church, where he was greeted so warmly, he entered the building not once, but twice.  I also find it hard to believe that the greeters would not have been trained regarding the entrances and exits of the new building. It may seem that I am being overly harsh since most Catholic churches don’t make greeting a priority at all. However, when you write a book about it and do several T.V. interviews on how to have a welcoming environment, I expect a level of excellence that goes above and beyond the normal. I guess I have abnormally high standards due to my experience at nondenominational churches.
So after chilling with my small group while waiting for my other friend, Andrea to park the car, Sue convinced me to go ahead into the sanctuary and wait for Andrea so that I could have a good seat. By the way, Andrea says that she wasn’t greeted either. We headed into the sanctuary, which is located right behind the white brick wall. There were doors on either side of the wall. In front of the door, I see my first greeter/usher. They were passing out a pamphlet. I didn’t take one, but I could see that it had a map.  Once inside the doors to the left, I notice a silver dish with holy water. I bless myself, as is custom. Sue meets me and she says, “you found it, I was looking for it.” We head down the center aisle. The sanctuary sort of slopes down and is curved, but not completely circular. Above the main pews is a white balcony. There is a cut out in the front pew for someone in a wheelchair. I take that spot with my chair. To my left is the baptismal font. In front of me is the altar. It is wooden dark brown. On the base of the altar are carvings of religious figures. Behind the altar is a white jeweled box, which I am guessing is the tabernacle. Surrounding the tabernacle is candles and a wooden carving of Mary and Joseph. The altar is light with stage lights. To the far left and right of the altar platform or stage are two screens. Underneath the screen is a camera crane, which I guess it is used to record the Mass. I thought that it would be more distracting than it was. The lectern is to the right of the altar. The drum set was off to the side. The service started with a video. At first I thought it was an announcement video, but instead, it was a voice reciting scripture about the importance of church. Then the band came out. To my dismay, the band was on the first-row step, not necessarily in front of the altar, but to the left and right of it. I don’t quite understand the placement of the band. It is my major critique, especially since a brand new sanctuary can easily be designed to have a side space. If intentionally left out then it shows that the church prioritizes a view of the band rather than the altar. If unintentional, then it shows a lack of Catholic architectural understanding by the designer.  If the church wants to prioritize the band, then why spend money on a new altar design.
As much as the placement of the band frustrated me, I must say that the music quality is excellent. I still maintain that the Catholic Church would do well to invest in quality music. Andrea compared my old parish to this one’s music style by saying, “if a parish is going to use contemporary music and instruments then the need to invest and go all the way or the need to stick with traditional hymns; your parish tried to straddle the middle line and it didn’t work.” I think that modern instruments can work, but you have to always be mindful of tone. Nativity’s worship team does tone well in that a Eucharistic song is not upbeat, but slower and meditative. I also enjoy the modern twist on Latin chant; it actually sounds really good with an acoustic guitar. As far as style goes, I am not sure all modern contemporary praise and worship is the way to go. I wouldn’t mind hearing some older hymns occasionally.
The Mass itself was pretty standard. There were a few things that bothered me. First of all, I am not completely sold on the idea that the reader should be the same person or that they should be paid. On one hand, it gives it a sense of quality, but on the other hand, I feel like it loses the human element to it. For example, when she got up to read and the light shined on her face, I could shake the sense that I was watching the performance of the mass and not the mass. The lack of children or any noise for that matter made it super easy to concentrate, but also made it feel artificial. Second of all, the Eucharistic ministers felt irreverent at times. I am also a little unsure about when they received the consecrated Eucharist since they never received it from Father White.
I would be remiss if I omitted my thoughts on Father White. I feel like he is a great speaker and gives a great homily. However, I do get a general sense of aloofness from him. This began during the administration of the Eucharist. He administered the first few to parishioners but then decided to sit down and chat with the altar server. Second of all, he did not do the final blessing or process outward but rather retired to the sacristy. Lastly, when Sue asked if I could meet with him, Jackie, one of Father White’s helpers, said that he would try, but most likely not since he was tired and didn’t want to be mobbed by the crowd. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, I was able to get a blessing from him, but the gesture felt empty and cold considering he did not approach me in a friendly demeanor. I hope that maybe he was just having a bad day and tired. Andrea said it best, “this church is his baby, he conceived it, he birthed it, and now he needs to rock it.”
There are a few last details that I’d like to comment on. One positive thing is that I really did enjoy how the narthex and concourse were uncluttered and spacious. There weren’t a million different ministries trying to grab my attention as I walk out of the sanctuary. There weren’t multiple fundraisers going on. It was nice. On the negative, I am not sure I liked how the cafe was set up. If the cafe was a place for people to fellowship, I believe it defeated that purpose by having mass live-streamed. If the purpose is overflow space then food or drink should not be sold in that space. I personally liked the idea of it being a fellowship hall.
Overal I want to like Nativity, but in their pursuit of excellence, they may have unintentionally created a Mass that comes across as a production rather than something personal and human. If I lived closer, I would definitely go back if for nothing else than to experience good music and receive a good homily; however, I would hesitate to endorse it wholeheartedly due to a little bit of irreverence and impersonalness.
Should Mass be a production? If not, what should Mass be like? Can we pursue quality and still keep the humanness of Mass?
 
 

Let's try to think creatively

The title of this blog post is a reference to the viral youtube sensation, Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared. If you haven’t seen it, the basic set up is that three child like puppets are stars in a children’s program, where they interact with animated objects, who teach the children a lesson. However, the lesson usually takes a turn towards the dark as the puppets are taught not to question anything. In the first episode, a notepad attempts to teach the puppets how to be creative. The notepad says things like green is not a creative color. When the puppets attempt to create on their own, bad things start happening. It ends with the notepad instructing the puppets to never be creative again. While the meaning of this series is up for the viewer to decide, most people agree that at its most basic, Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared is a satire about children’s television programs and the mob mentality it creates. The video criticizes the idea that 1. There is a correct way of thinking when it comes to creativity and 2. The idea that children should not think creatively for if they did, dangerous consequences would result. Creative thinking cannot be taught and it does not fit one style. Yet I feel that the Catholic Church is failing to cultivate an atmosphere necessary for creativity to survive. With the exception of a few parishes, the Catholic Church needs to hire a market manager.
 
This problem became very clear to me when I began working as an outreach intern for New Creation Catholic community. Even though they are not a parish, I believe they have the same problems as most Catholic parishes. First of all, they did not have a functioning website. The information was outdated and never updated. To quote Father White, “an outdated website signals ‘out of business'” Why then do so many Catholic parishes not care about the way their website is designed, or the information put on it? Case in point, http://staugustineparish.net is the website of the parish I grew up in. First of all, it is not visually pleasing. Second of all, it is not very organized or interactive. For example, while it does do a decent job at displaying information, most of the information ends with ‘contact so and so.’ Well, what happens if I’m new and don’t know who that is or what if I want to know more about what your community looks like? There are no pictures and nothing to attract me.
 
Compare that web page to this one: http://st-ann.org/home. At the top, I am greeted with mass times, reconciliation, and giving, which is all the information I need as a newcomer. Below that is a slide show with pictures and a read more buttons. This technique is visually engaging. Below the slide show are boxes with pictures and categories. The new here category makes me feel welcome. Below that is a weekly calendar and under that are pictures of parish life and social buttons. The calendar helps me see what is going on and the pictures help me get a feel for the community. While the design is not perfect, it is much better.
 
One way The Catholic Church of St. Ann is able to communicate efficiently is that they’ve hired a Communications/Multimedia Director. This person handles all communication for the parish, which includes the website, the bulletin, social networks, and media. In most parishes, this job is delegated to the Parish Secretary. This person is usually an older woman, who is more familiar with bookkeeping than web design. Yet I am sure there are creative people sitting in the pews, who would love to help design a website or an engaging bulletin.
 
In fact, there is a group called Catholic Creatives, which consists of a collaboration of “Catholic designers, filmmakers, photographers, creative thinkers, artists, entrepreneurs, and others working to bring the gospel to the world in fresh, beautiful ways.” One objection is that parishes have limited resources to work with and that it is expensive to create a beautiful project. I use to think similarly until I started designing for New Creation. I discovered plenty of drag and drop interfaces for websites and if you know a little bit of code, WordPress.org is a free option. Likewise, canva.com is a great place to design anything, but they do have templates for beautiful church bulletins.
 
The church needs more organizations like Catholic Creatives and parishes need to put more time and effort into creative marketing. It might be dangerous, even disastrous at times, but it is much better than to not think creatively.

Finding God in the darkness

An explanation for why there was no post on Monday.

Psalm 139 verse 11-12 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,  and the light around me become night, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

Have you ever experienced complete spiritual darkness? A time, where your world is falling apart and you have no hope? You may even ask, “where is God?” I, unfortunately, know this feeling too well and experienced it again recently. Last week I spent four days in the hospital because I had three blood clots in my leg. One might say that those four days were the darkness, and if it were my first time lying in a hospital bed I might agree; however, the hospital was a sweet relief to the agony of the days prior. The lonely nights spent shivering with a low-grade fever and in excruciating pain staring at the wall wondering if I was going to die. When you are confronted with the reality of death, two very different emotions come to the surface: fear and relief. Fear because I was afraid for who I’d leave behind, my family, my friends, and even people I hadn’t talked to in years. Fear because of the nagging question, “Am I ready?’ Jesus tells us so many times in the gospels to be ready, but how can you be sure? I remember thinking about the small sins that I had committed and had not gone to confession for such as cursing out the HP customer service people. I think the Friday night before. going to the hospital, I prayed that Jesus would have mercy on me, not because I feared punishment, but because I desperately wanted to be with him in heaven. Hence,  the feeling of relief that comes from knowing that death brings an end to pain, suffering, and tears. The idea that I’d finally see Jesus face to face. Yet despite this desire, I furiously did not believe that my life was meant to end; I believed that God still wanted me to do more for his kingdom. It is in this moment that I encountered God and that the darkness became light. My prayer became less about my needs, wants, and fears. Instead, it became about God, “I trust that You, God, have a plan for me and though I may not understand it, it will work out for good because You are good.”
CS Lewis said, “pain is God’s microphone.” I believe this to be true. Through pain, God can speak. In my pain, God wanted my unwavering radical trust, not just in him, but in the teachings of His Church. Let me be very clear, God is not the author of our pain; He does not create it. Rather pain is the result of our fallen world. For the Earth, itself groans in anticipation of redemption (Romans 8:22-24). However, what the devil intends for evil, God can use for good and pain is one of those things. The ordeal has me utterly convinced of the Catholic truth regarding contraception.
You see, from the time I had started my Period until now, I had been on all sorts of types of Birth Control. I had justified it based on the idea that I was not sexually active. Taking of Birth Control for any other reason other than contraceptive purposes is not a sin. I was using it to regulate my period. However, the blood clots in my leg were a direct consequence of taking Birth Control coupled with a sedentary lifestyle. This led me to ask  a question, “is the risk of blood clots and death comparable to the benefits received from controlling a natural process using artificial means?” The answer I believe is no. My mom said it best with regards to her menopause medicine, “there is a 5% chance of breast cancer, why would I take that chance just to regulate a natural process.” However, as finite beings, we understand physical tangible consequences, but fail to understand spiritual consequences. Yet if we rephrase the question, “is the risk of separation from God comparable to the benefits received from controlling a natural process using artificial means?” The logical answer should still be no; however, for me to fully understand and embrace that truth, I needed God to allow darkness to cover me and then make it light.