Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Connect & Communicate!

Connect and Communicate! That's how you evangelize. Connect and Communicate!  It's that simple.  I really think that people make spreading the Gospel too complicated sometimes. It's not rocket science. It's the recognition of Truth, and that's done by connecting and communicating.

However, these simple terms - connect and communicate - are loaded with meaning. 

"Connections" are absolutely necessary for a thriving parish today.  We have to connect more. We must connect more personally and connect parishioners with other parishioners more effectively. This is especially important for new parishioners who know practically no one when they arrive. People just don't know each other the way they used to.  The world has changed from the days when we "ran into each other" on a daily basis.  More than ever, parishioners need to be comfortable with one another for a vibrant parish community to form. Now connections are much more intentional.  To a degree unheard of in the past, we choose when, where, how, and with whom, we connect. Parish evangelization must recognize this change in connectivity.

As with all change, there are pros and cons.

The biggest negative is that we have eliminated personal unplanned connections too much. With the exception of the "virtual" world, serendipitous meetings are almost gone from our lives.  We don't know the poor in our own community; we generically pray for the unemployed but often can't name them; and, as often as not, we don't even know our neighbors' names.  Cars, on-line shopping, computers, and new modes of communication virtually allow us to avoid real, living people if we choose (schools and workplaces being the big daily holdouts, yet even these are sometimes moving in the direction of less personal contact). Ironically, the secular world has turned more monkish in that contact with people is intentional, scheduled and circumscribed. We like a very high degree of control over our personal connections today. It's too "random," as some younger folks might say, to sit next to people you "don't even know!"

Sadly, intergenerational personal connectivity has practically disappeared. We "hang out" less than our parent's generation and when we do "hang out," it's invariably with our own age group. We voluntarily segregate by age - young with young, middles with middles; old with old. We make appointments to visit others outside our age group - even grandparents! Gone are the days when they lived in the same house with us.  Non-family intergenerational meetings are even more rare. This is a real problem for the Church, for parishes, and for established parish organizations. Couple this generational uneasiness with profound philosophical shifts in society about authority, family life, careers, and relativism and it's no wonder that it is so difficult to get people to church.

However, the positives of this connectivity change are huge too.  There are now varied and myriad ways to connect.  New media - the web, email, Twitter, Facebook, Mp3, blogs, and smartphones - lend themselves well to proclaiming Christ to a new generation. The Church must use all of these and, in fact, strive to stay well ahead of the curve. We need more people comfortable with cutting-edge thinking pushing us forward technologically. This a new parish ministry and a vital one at that! No parish should be without it today. In fact, platforms, software and apps most all be developed and utilized with the Gospel in mind.

Already it is an amazing fact to note that never in the history of humankind has so much been written and read about Christ and His Church!  God is "googled" every day. The Bible is instantly available. The Catechism is at our fingertips. The Pope's writings are but a click away. The Bishop blogs. Our parish already has a huge "footprint" on the web. Pastoral work is constantly being done by email.  New projects are possible now that could never have been coordinated even ten years ago.  Huge numbers of people can be organized via a simple text message.  It is truly amazing.

But here's the rub: are we really "communicating?"  People are so good today at sending and receiving information, yet so bad at being together as one.  This is true on many levels - people spend less time together; they are to a great degree, independent relativists on moral issues; they do not gather at Mass, Protestant services, or civic events in the numbers they once did; even we practicing Catholics fail to reverently perceive the fundamental unity of Christ in the Eucharist. If I can be permitted to speak loosely - diversity is in; unity is out. (Paradoxically, only in the Catholic Church can they be truly balanced.)

Community in the traditional sense, an absolutely essential component of Catholic life, is fairly low on the list of needs for many people today. "Virtual and circumscribed" community is sufficient to a growing number of people. The upshot is that we actually have to convince people that it is good to be with, and worship with, people they do not yet know. Formerly, just being "Catholic" was a starting community bond. Not so today. I think that this distinction between "traditional" community and "virtual" community is too often overlooked. Most people do want "community" when asked directly, but many are thinking in their terms, not the traditional Catholic understanding of a parish community.

I think a lot of energy is wasted on wishful thinking. People don't just start going back to church on their own anymore (if they ever did). They will pop in for events like a baptism, wedding or funeral, but the "carry-over" for the Church on these is minimal.  Most people will simply remain satisfied with their own definition of community unless we invite them personally. That's the new challenge to the Church! We must make communal prayer and parish life accessible to those who are used to setting their own communal parameters. We must follow up on the life moments as a matter of course when we do get folks in church.  And we must do so personally. That's the break through action.  Personal invitation is proleptic evangelization. It IS connection and communication. It achieves as it invites.

No one should be nostalgic for the good ol' days of Catholicism. God put us here and now to deal with the world as it is, not as we would have it. We are to be missionaries to our world, not to a world that once was. Every generation of Christians had its challenges. It's simply our turn. The Gospel must be preached.  The world needs to hear the perennial Truth of Jesus Christ! That's the challenge facing the Church.  Do not be afraid!  God has more faith in us than we do in Him.

I will close by pointing out research on the values of young people. I do this because effective evanglizers today must realize that young people (under 30) simply think differently about spiritual and ethical values. What follows certainly dovetails with my personal experience as a teacher of 17 year old males and with my work with young people in Pre-Cana and RCIA. We must use this research to bring them to Jesus who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. 

I am quoting from Professor Charles Taylor's magnum opus A Secular Age (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2007). He writes on page 824: "Jean-Louis Schlegel makes the point that the values which constantly emerge from studies of young people today are: 'human rights, tolerance, respect for the convictions of others, freedoms, friendship, love, solidarity, fraternity, justice, respect for nature, humanitiarian intervention' (Espirit, no. 233, June 1997, p. 29. Sylvette Denefle concurs for her sample of French unbelievers: Sociologie de la Secularisation (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1997), chapter 6. Tolerance is for them the key virtue (pp. 166 ff.)."  [nb: I am translating Schlegel's quote here from the original French.]

These are great values! As Catholics we have more to add though. We have to add the value of worshipping God together as one human family united in love forever! Only Christ and His Church add depth to our increasingly "flat" world.

Yes, our work is cut out for us.  But do not be afraid.