The parish model of Catholicism, as it currently functions, is dead. We need a new paradigm. As Pope Francis has repeatedly said, the Church needs to go out into the marketplace, because increasingly, most of the people out there will not come in. If we continue our inward focus on maintenance, the churches we maintain will become increasingly empty. “No religious affiliation” is the fastest-growing segment of U.S. society, in terms of faith issues.
The playing field has changed. As Stanley Hauerwas notes in Resident Aliens, it was possible, up until 1960 or so, to confuse being a Christian with being a good American citizen. He goes on to say that even then, the two were scarcely synonymous. The Constitution of the United States is great, so far as it goes. But it is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Few today believe that being a good U.S. citizen is the same as being a good Christian. Over the past few decades particularly, the federal government has become increasingly hostile to the practice of Christianity in the public square. Many circles see Christians, especially orthodox Catholics, as the last bigoted bastion against tolerance, inclusion, compassion, and progress. The media, particularly, tend to present the Church as at best irrelevant, and at worst, a really unattractive group to belong to.
Add to this a growing rejection of objective moral truths, deep suspicion of authority in general, and an overriding emphasis on the rights of a thousand special interests. “Because I/God/Father/the pastor said so” no longer works. Who are you, or who is the Church, to tell me how to behave? Or what to believe? My truth lies within me. I need to follow my heart. I need to be true to myself. How dare you judge me? Why should I believe something just because you tell me it’s so, or tell me God told you so? Whose God? Why would I want to belong to your group when there’s a thousand others who already accept how I behave and what I believe?
Fr. James Mallon’s book Divine Renovation is a sometimes painfully honest book about this crisis. Fr. James Mallon offers “belong, believe, behave” as the essential paradigm for a renewed Church – a Church of true disciples of Jesus. Many nondenominational churches are thriving precisely because they have already read the signs of the times and responded with admirable zeal and creativity. We Catholics need to learn from them, in great humility.
Mallon argues that the pre-1960s approach for many churches was “behave, believe, belong”. Act and look a certain way (behave). We’ll teach you the basics of the faith (believe). Then you’ll be a legitimate church member (belong).
In the current climate we have to reverse our approach. People need to belong, then believe, then behave. This strategy is hardly new – every organization from the Navy Seals to Greenpeace to the NRA to NOW employs it. For example, my son Michael and his fiancee, Grace, recently had Mary and me watch a documentary on the minimalist approach. It was well done and intriguing. We followed the journeys of two friends who had left their corporate jobs and the rat race. For one, the crisis was the death of his mother and his subsequent divorce. His all-consuming climb to the top had left those relationships neglected. The friends saw the problems with relentless consumerism and decided to minimalize. The question changed from “What do I want?” to “What do I need?” They discovered that, materially, they needed very little indeed. Their slogan: “Love people. Use things.”
The minimalist advocates seemed like a couple of good guys. As Michael pointed out, they’re halfway there. Like the rich young man, they have sold all they have and given it to the poor (Lk 18:18-30). All that remains is for them to follow Jesus. Still, they have made a courageous, freeing start. They’d be cool to hang out with. I’d love to pick their brains and share my own thoughts. They’ve got me thinking about my own excess material baggage. Maybe I’ll start clearing out some of that. Belong, believe, behave.
Jesus followed the belong, believe, behave paradigm, as Pope Francis has eloquently pointed out. He reached out to the outcast, not in pity but in sincere fellowship. He scandalized the Pharisees, major behave-believer-belongers, by hanging out with tax collectors, sinners, and prostitutes. He accepted, included, and loved those groups that were pariahs to the majority culture. He formed relationships with them. These were real relationships. It was not, “I’ll be friends with you in order to convert you”. It was, “I love you. Because I love you I want you to have the fullness of life that I offer. But I love you no matter what.”
Yes, Jesus didn’t stop there. After he healed the man born blind, the Pharisees cast the man out. Jesus called him to faith: “Do you believe in [Me]? (Jn 9:35)” After forgiving the woman caught in adultery, Jesus said, “Go, and do not sin again. (Jn 8:11b)” If I truly love somebody, I will eventually need to call my friend on his or her self- or other-destructive behavior. But it has to be in the context of a real friendship. You aren’t a notch on my belt, another person I’ve brought into the Church. You are someone I care about, whose autonomy and individuality I respect.
Our parish is just starting “Alpha”, an evangelization program that started in a London Anglican church. Its founder had been an atheist, until two dear friends’ conversions prodded him to look into Christianity himself. Alpha embodies the belong, believe, behave approach. The people (“guests”) may be of deep faith or of no faith. Generally, a believing friend will have invited him or her. Each of the 11 weekly sessions begins with a meal in which the guests get to know each other. Guests meet with the same group, week after week, about 8 to a table. The host at each table does not bring up faith matters during the meal, though the guests are free to. It’s about forming a community, because people need to belong.
After each meal, the DVD for that evening presents questions like, “What’s life all about? Is there a God? Who is Jesus? What is prayer?” People on the streets of London, the majority nonbelievers, give their spontaneous answers. Then the head of Alpha gives the Christian perspective. Following the DVD, the table answers questions based on the DVD. The facilitator doesn’t correct or instruct or proselytize. He or she simply thanks each person who shares for being honest regarding feelings and beliefs.
The topics of the video gradually address Christian belief in more depth. Those with no faith or new in the faith begin to experience the beauty of Christian community. “These people love me where I’m at. I feel like I belong. They believe that their relationship with Jesus is the key to the meaning and joy and peace I’m lacking. Is it possible that what they believe has something to it?” The progression then is to, “How these people live their lives – how they behave – is so different from what I’m used to. But there’s something beautiful about it. I need to consider it.”
Alpha provides a great model – there are others – of how to bring people into discipleship. It show how we Christians need to attract nonbelievers, or tepid believers, by the love we live out. We need first of all to welcome: you belong. As you experience how life-giving Christian community is, you begin to believe. And finally, how your brothers and sisters in community behave – because, with their faults, their behavior is rooted in truth, joy, hope, and meaning – you begin to do likewise.