Monday, February 21, 2011

Growing, Organically

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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.

12 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for this!

    Our church is doing what it calls "3 minute liturgical catechesis" after the Mass, a study in what the new changes in the Roman Missal will be. Last Sunday we talked about community and making people feel welcome at mass. I was pretty shocked to hear the priest encourage people to say hi and ask after their families before the mass! I don't know how I feel about that because I kinda like the quiet time to pray before mass, bur granted, my husband and I usually sneak in right before the opening hymn. But people really did seem more chatty at coffee and doughnuts afterwards.

    I digress. I really agree, Catholic churches tend to have so much less fellowship than Protestant churches. We underestimate its importance. I think we should be working to develop a culture of participation. My husband and I are young, childless newlyweds. Not the demographic usually involved on church committees! But we decided that if we believe this stuff will be important to us in the future, it should be important to us now.

    I wish our church offered more for 20 somethings, especially those without families. Theology on Tap or bible studies or SOMETHING. But maybe we'll just stat with coffee and doughnuts and offering rides to our friends to mass.

    I'm so happy their are other Catholics who recognize the need for fellowship!

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  2. I have yet to attend my first Catholic Mass on my journey and this post has touched me.

    One of the deciding factors was me to convert to Catholicism was whether or not I would feel that fellowship that is so talked about in our communities and especially in the blogging world. I want to feel part of a community and I will hope that the Church I do attend will have this feeling.

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  3. One Fall Day - Don't just hope--pray for it! I promise, it will not fall on deaf ears. By the way, I just read your story, and I wanted to say how very brave I think you are to step out in faith like this and to let you know that you are in my prayers.
    God bless,
    Bethany

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  4. Thanks for this post, Bethany. I appreciate the careful consideration you put into looking at finding--and making--community. It's something I have thought a lot about as well.

    A few years ago, I was helping with RCIA, but I wanted to contribute more to our parish, so I checked out the various groups that existed. None of them seemed like a good fit for me, so after thinking about what my talents and interests were, I started a Catholic book club (with the cooperation of our pastor). The club just celebrated its second anniversary this month and is going strong. I have learned so much, made good friends, and really stretched myself as a result! One of these friendships is very slowly starting to go deeper.

    I think your advice is very wise: pray, then get involved!

    I also run a blog for the book club: http://bookgetaway.wordpress.com
    if anyone would like to see how we operate.

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  5. Very intersting and very good post, Bethany. I remember feeling the social void you discussed when I used to attend Mass with my Catholic friend in high school. I went with them for weeks at a time, yet did more than shake hands with anyone else in the congregation during the passing of the peace. On the other hand, the evangelical church that I attended in college was great at programs, but a little light on Scripture sometimes.

    Now my husband and I attend a Baptist church (I was born and raised Baptist) where the pastor is working hard to cultivate an interest in teaching, the reading of the Scripture, and in communion. We've started to work bits of the traditional liturgy into our service (such as a communal confession before communion and the reciting of the Creeds - something few Protestant churches do!) and I love it, because it reminds me that the church is much larger than my church, my city, my denomination. The emphasis is very much on the preaching in our service, which I enjoy, but the Sacraments are taking a more significant role. I could do with more liturgy still, but we'll see. In the meantime, I thank God that He calls churches to worship Him in many ways, including the traditional.

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  6. Sorry - just typed up a comment and hit submit, but I think it timed out. Please feel free to delete if this is a duplicate.

    I grew up in Protestant churches. My husband is Catholic. He grew up in a family that only sporadically attended Mass, but made his own decision as an adult to attend regularly and grow in his knowledge of the faith. He's an amazing man of God and an amazing partner in life.

    I never felt like fellowship was the point at the Protestant churches I attended growing up, but have definitely visited some "country cluby" churches and know what you mean. After visiting my husband's church when we were dating I tried to explain what my experience in the churches I grew up in resembled. The closest parallel I could come up with was a monastery - not in the sense of isolation, but in the sense of a deliberate community that worships, prays, works, eats, serves, relaxes, grieves, and studies together. We moved this summer, but before that we attended a deeply reverent Catholic church with one of the most beautiful English liturgies in the U.S. However, like you and your husband I was completely at sea with the lack of fellowship and, in fact, downright coldness - in two years of Mass and Bible study nobody so much as turned around to say hello, instead studiously avoiding eye contact. Since all my friends and acquaintances (outside of my husband) were secular coworkers I deeply missed the encouragement and guidance found in Christian communities, particularly from older wiser married women. In a parish that frequently made fun of (or even vituperated) protestants from the pulpit, I was very unwilling to put myself forward.

    Both denominations have much to learn from one another. As you said, many Catholic churches have a long way to go in encouraging Christian community. While our current Protestant church has a very reverent and beautiful service, I wish there was more preparation and less chit-chat going on before the service. The key, as you pointed out, is prayerfully jumping in and getting to work rather than waiting around on someone else to create the opportunities you'd like. Right now I'm very grateful for the wise and experienced support of our new church community while my husband is deployed to Afghanistan. Oddly enough, it's deployment that's giving him his first taste of warm Christian community outside the home since he spends 24/7 with a small group of U.S. soldiers - he gives the readings at the Catholic mass, helps the protestant chaplain by providing hymns/music with his laptop, eats and stops for coffee with other Christians and the chaplain when he flies in, and gets together with a mixed protestant-catholic group of soldiers for regular Bible studies and occasional fun like movie nights. Much needed encouragement in a not-very-welcoming environment :-). He's loving it!

    Great post!

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  7. Boy, do I feel you on this one! This was one of the major drawbacks to me of becoming Catholic - not feeling any community. Cradle Catholics would say things about feeling so united, worldwide, by their liturgy, and I'd just look at them blankly - didn't they know that community meant fellowship with the people sitting in the pews next to them?

    So I also prayed for quite a while (~2 years now) before I really found women to fellowship with. As we hope to move in the next year or so, I'm praying ahead that God will provide us with a community wherever we end up, and that He be fostering it now.

    Also, I know it's not feasible for many, but I have found that attending daily mass is a nice way to get to know people at least by face. One if the things I loved growing up was that my church truly felt like a family, with people of all ages. So though my women's group is made up of people in similar situations to mine, I at least get some time with older people after daily mass (especially now that they have a baby to ooh and ahh at).

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  8. Just for the record, this post was not meant to be an evangelical vs Catholic service debate. I merely used some of the difference to illustrate a bit of the different culture. Sometimes when we grow up in one denomination or another, we assume that "our" way is the "right" and "only" way. For good or bad, we take it for granted, and we can then have difficulty in seeing things from a different perspective or learning how to integrate various experiences. Anyway, that's all :-)

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  9. Bethany,

    I have found this post extremely compelling, but probably not in the way you intended. I am protestant, southern baptist to be exact. I find your blog so enlightening on the christian faith as a whole, since we do not have liturgy or celebrate different saints or "holy" days. I appreciate how Christ is focused on throughout the year and the celebration of the lives of "saints" who lived their lives with the single purpose of glorifying the Lord.

    What I found interesting about your post was the fellowship idea that consumes evangelical churches in America. As humans we do thrive on community and a place to belong. But I fear, many of our evangelical congregations have over emphasized fellowship and left scripture behind. Many evangelicals are weak in scripture and cannot defend their faith outside of "God is love". Fellowship is a wonderful thing, and the current church my family attends has a great fellowship atmosphere. Unfortunately, we meet all of fellowship needs and do not meet the spiritual needs of the community that is around us.

    Nothing is perfect and all of our churches need work, obviously :) Like you mentioned, prayer is what we all need and a deeper spiritual desire to go beyond the surface and desire God in a deeper relationship.

    I appreciate your blog. It has challenged me greatly. Thank you.

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  10. I wanted to thank you for this post. It addressed the very issue that I have been struggling with myself.

    I moved to a new community a year ago when I married my husband, and meeting people has always been a challenge for me.

    We attend a wonderful Catholic church (the same church we were married in), and I love services at the church-- I really feel the presence of Christ in the liturgy there. However, when I have looked for activities outside of the liturgy, activities where I can meet people and grow spiritually, I could not find much of anything. Having a community with whom I can share my faith is especially important as I am a convert and have very few people outside of my husband that I can share my faith and insights with.

    My sense of isolation has grown enough that a few weeks ago I started to look for another church-- because I knew that they would have fellowship activities that were easy to find. I don't want to leave the Church, but I have begun to feel as if it might be the only way to have the fellowship I crave. Your post has shown me that a) I am not alone in my desires and b) there are ways to have the fellowship I need within the Church I love.

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  11. Thanks for this post, lots of potential for all of us to think about our own churches and how to be part of making them even better. The Catholic church I attend has lots of activities during the week and a wonderful Mass. But they can only have coffee and donuts once a month or less, due to the serious parking shortage. The bulletin advises people that before getting coffee, they should move their cars to make room for the next Mass before coming back to socialize. It does inhibit spontaneous socializing to have to run to your car, tool around for a spot on the street, then run back to try to meet people in a social setting. And where I live, the Catholics just seem shyer about approaching new people, whereas at our former Evangelical church, strangers would walk up to you, start chatting, invite you to the diner, etc.

    Compare this to my former Evangelical nondenominational church, where not only was there coffee after the service, but you drank coffee DURING the service. I'm not saying I think Mass should have coffee during the proceedings, but there are definitely opportunities for culture shock going from one style to the other, in either direction.

    I do attend a daytime bible study (my evangelical friends were surprised that yes, Catholics have those too) but at 44, I'm one of the youngest people there! And the study tends to be more academic, whereas at the Evangelical church bible study I used to attend, we shared emails, hugs and emotional prayer requests (as well as two thousand calories in baked goods).

    Then again, our Catholic church is going to have a wine (real wine!) and cheese reception for new parishioners. I guess all churches have some great social things, and we could all learn from each other.

    To the Baptists who commented: Love your potlucks! My DH is converting to Catholicism, but still misses those great potlucks from his Baptist days. I went to a potluck once too at his parents' former church, YUM!

    Oh, and at both the Catholic and Protestant churches I've been to, middle-aged singles and childless couples of all ages seem to fall through the cracks.

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  12. This is beautifully written, and sensitive to both sides. I am not Catholic, but don't like the label "evangelical" either. Really, I just don't like any label except that of "Christ-follower". I can sympathize, though, with your feelings from both sides of the fence- desiring the vibrant community, yet also desiring the strong liturgy and deep traditions. Thanks for bridging the divide so gently. :)

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