This post, misleadingly, has nothing whatsoever to do with gardening. It’s about finding fellowship and cultivating community. It’s about taking a leap of faith.
Before I came back to the Catholic Church, my husband and I spent a lot of time in evangelical churches. One thing that characterized them (and to which both of us were overpoweringly drawn) was a vibrant infrastructure for building community. In addition to weekly extended coffee hours following services, there were countless small groups to choose from. For the most part, these groups were divvied up by demographic: age group, life stage, gender, similar interests. You found which one suited you best and you “plugged in.” It was so easy. And by and large, they worked. Built-in fellowship meant you felt wanted and necessary, and you got excited about coming to church. You got excited about coming to see these people every week. You got excited about growing with them in the Lord.
There was only one snag… Sometimes, we looked forward more to coffee hour and small group time than we did to the service.
To be honest, although we loved the Lord, we weren’t meeting Him in the liturgy—because there was no liturgy. Sure, we felt the Spirit moving while we sang praise & worship songs (perhaps the reason that this brief opening segment of the typical American evangelical service is the only portion designated “worship”?), and of course, Jesus was present in the Scripture that we read…if we happened to be attending a church that actually read a passage of Scripture during the service. Some didn’t read from Scripture so much as that they “drew upon it,” tossing around “proof texts” like ping-pong balls to make the point of the moment. And, of course, there was the pastor’s sermon, always peppered with Bible verses. We always liked that bit. After all, we basically chose our church based on the quality of the pastor’s sermons. It was, after all, the cornerstone of the entire service.
What else was there? Where did we really meet Jesus in those churches? We met Jesus in one another. In the relationships that were practically oozing love for God. In the people who invoked His name as easily as you call upon your mother or your best friend. In the conversations where iron sharpened iron and honed doctrine and grappled with St. Paul’s convoluted verbiage. As it was for the churches we attended, so Christian fellowship became for us the cornerstone of our communal faith.
When I returned to the Catholic Church with my family in my wake, we woke up to a most disorienting reality. For Catholics, fellowship was not the cornerstone of communal faith—the liturgy and the Sacraments filled that role. Fellowship was secondary. Most distressing, fellowship was not readily evident, not easily accessible, and not vibrant.
“How are you supposed to grow?” my husband asked.
Well, cerebrally, we knew the answer to that question. Read Scripture, pray, attend Mass, receive the Sacraments, practice the corporal and spiritual acts of mercy, live the beatitudes, celebrate the liturgical year. But, in reality, I knew what he meant, and my heart felt heavy. Not to mention my stomach. How were we going to grow in the absence of that vital feature that had been the core of our faith for so many years?
Slowly. With difficulty. Haltingly.
We managed. But we weren’t thriving. The Catholic Church may hold the apostolic Keys, but it can be a little slow on the uptake when it comes to cultural trends. The fact is, we live in an increasingly isolated society. For many Americans, gone are the days when you attended Mass every Sunday with your entire intergenerational family. Gone are the midday dinners and extended brunches following service where friends and family offered grace and their thoughts on Father’s homily. Gone are the present and active godparents who truly lived up to their promises to walk in faith with their godchildren and their godchildren’s parents. American Catholics are starving for vibrant, active, participatory, doctrinally loyal, Scriptural, loving, ministry-minded, grace-filled community. We are famished for fellowship.
We know this, but what do we do about it? How do we find fellowship in the face of huge congregations where no one can be blamed for not recognizing us, for not knowing whether we are new to the area or if we’ve attended the parish for decades? How do we build faith-filled relationships with the strangers we worship beside each week? How do we reach out in faith to find Christian community worth cultivating?
As with anything, we begin with prayer. My husband and I realized the void in our faith lives, and for a year straight, we prayed—and prayed hard—that God would bring us into relationship with some loving, faith-filled friends. Sometimes it seemed like He wasn’t listening at all, but the truth is that God wants us to have a strong community in which to nurture our faith lives. In the end, our prayers were answered with an emphatic, “Yes!” Yours will be, too. Unless, of course, you are destined for an equally emphatic call from the Lord to go become a hermit or a cloistered nun.
The next thing you need to do is speak to your parish staff. Sometimes, Catholic churches do have active fellowship communities, but they might not be widely publicized. This may be a dead-end search, but it’s better to give it a try than go on a wild goose chase for something that was there all along.
Get involved in your parish. Join a ministry or a book club or a Sunday school class. Attend the parish picnic. If there’s a coffee hour after Mass, go. Sign your kids up for faith formation, and get to know the other parents. Volunteer to help out with food drives and Christmas projects. These are all examples of things you really should be doing anyway, for your sake and the sake of your parish and those your parish serves. But, it’s also a surefire way to make friends.
You might consider hosting a coffee hour at your parish after Sunday Mass if this isn’t already done. Speak to your pastor or his associate (or whoever’s in charge of these things at your church) about budgeting for some doughnuts (you can cut them in half, if your church is low on funds; you might ask for donations, as well), coffee, juice, and paper products. Be sure to post a sign-up sheet at the event for others to leave their names and contact information if they’d like to help. You may have just started a ministry—and those who climb on board just might wind up being your new best friends!
Once you’ve met some lovely people, take a little time to cultivate those friendships and learn about your friends. Get a feel for your new friends’ faith walks. Are they converts or cradle Catholics? Have the recently had a conversion experience? Are they visibly on fire for the Lord, or are they walking quietly and steadily beside Him? How quickly do they want to grow in their faith? What are their vocations? Where do they feel most called to serve? Also, feel out their qualities as friends. Are they reliable? What are their interests? Would you enjoy sharing regular meals or activities with them? Are their expectations and desires for friendships similar to your own? Would you feel comfortable praying with them? Do you trust them?
Once you’ve asked yourself some of these questions, you should have a pretty good feel for whether or not these are individuals or families with whom you would like to form a lasting, life-giving community. Before you go leaping ahead, though, be sure to take a time of prayerful discernment again. Remember, this is a big step, not something you want to have to repeat again any time soon. Find out if these are the people that God is truly calling you to stand beside through thick and thin to journey nearer to Him.
Finally, it’s time to offer an invitation to go deeper in fellowship. You might suggest meeting a couple times a month for a meal, some Scripture or theological study, and prayer. Turn to your priest or a spiritual advisor if you need help in focusing or nurturing your small group. Above all, share life! Don’t just make it about “church stuff” or relegate your relationship to your regular meeting times. Attend each other’s children’s soccer games and school plays. Celebrate birthdays and holidays. Drop in with a meal when you know they could use one. Jesus is everywhere, so as you grow in the Lord together, extend the reaches of these precious friendships into the many corners of your lives.
It may be an untilled row you hoe, an untread path you trod, but this is how it’s done. This is how you nurture yourself and others in faith. This is how you grow—community and faith—organically.