Why do we want to simplify the Church? There is a need to cast the net both deep and wide in parish ministry but we all know that our natural human tendency is only to focus on those who are there, who are contributing, and who know where they belong in the parish. When we focus on those who already belong we will exclude those who do not yet belong: the un-churched or the de-churched. We effectively abandon them.
Casting the net wide means we create places and events where the outsiders can step in. Casting the net deep means we also build upon whatever foundations are there and increase the maturation of a Christian further into Christ. Having a simple structure enables us to plan and build around these type of events and classes that cast the net deep and/or wide.
The problem comes when we are offering 50 classes, sessions, retreats, events, and whatever else and leave it up to the outsiders to figure out how to find their way to the starting point where they can step into a church, faith, community- whatever it is they are looking for. If you have, say, 20 educational ministries like I do, should a potential new believer start with any one of 10 "intro" sessions offered? Do those introductory classes serve new or seeking believers or are they offered for more advanced classes? Is Matthew more advanced than Acts of the Apostles Bible Study? Is Inquiry for the RCIA for everyone thinking about becoming a Christian, or is it for those already committed to the process?
Or, as I said to one friend who thought The Biblical Walk Through the Mass was a good “Win ‘em for Jesus” introductory course, “What if I don't know the Bible and don’t really go to Mass? Is it still a win?”
Simplifying your parish would probably start with, well, the beginning. Where should people who are inquiring about faith begin their search? Where should seekers and skeptics go if they desire to dip their toes in the pool, but not in the deep end?
There is a lot of cultural resistance to this notion. Some Catholics, well-meaning of course, get annoyed at the idea that there should be a shallow end of the Church pool. People should jump in, they think. But this attitude tends to gloss over the many steps that people, converts or reverts, take in coming into alignment with Christianity. They ignore the fact that, while such seekers may abhor the Church’s stance on gay marriage and cohabitation, they may be falling in love with the Trinity or moved by the Eucharist or overwhelmed by the lives of the saints. So one aspect is pulling them in, another is pushing them away, and all they encounter are Catholics who think they should put up or shut up.
Creating a simplified process allows your parish to create places where those questions can be asked and answered while at the same time encouraging deeper and deeper commitment to Jesus Christ. People need to know that doctrine will not be shoved at them, but that doctrine springs from a living relationship with Christ. After all, at the end of the day it is not a doctrine that we believe in, but a person, Jesus Christ. The doctrines safeguard what we know to be true about Him and ought not an intellectual stumbling block.
Here are some examples of clear cut “Start Here” ministries for seekers and skeptics that fit within an overarching discipleship process:
North Point Community Church calls their process Starting Point and they create a small group environment where individuals, regardless of background or beliefs, can attend an 8-week group that covers the basics of salvation in Jesus Christ. This is a carefully thought out and skillfully executed process to bring people to the point of faith and let them decide. They propose the saving message of the gospel but are maximally open to questions, comments, doubts, and fears.
Church of the Nativity calls theirs Vantage Point. These are carefully created places where you can explore your questions and doubts, but this is held on campus at 7:45 am. This Catholic program runs from October to Easter and serves as their RCIA program and is intended to be saturated in the basic gospel message, exploring Catholicism in an introductory way.
Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan holds Questioning Christianity sessions in an 8-week format. It is a peer-led and held in apartments across Manhattan. They are intentionally structured for a New York skeptic, not necessarily a seeker, and each topic becomes a different lens through which they answer one question: Does Christianity make sense emotionally, culturally, and intellectually?
Saddleback Church is a bit different. While they have the clearest discipleship path, they do not have a full-fledged "Start Here” program or ministry. For them, it starts with Christian Life and Service Session (or CLASS for short!) that progressively immerses you into the life of a Saddleback member. CLASS 101 is really a membership class where they do baptisms after every session. They rely more fully on their small groups, sermons, and podcasts to do the outreach instead of intentionally creating spaces on or off campus for seekers.
Lastly, we look to the Alpha program. Alpha has been around for years and is only getting better. Begun at an Anglican parish in London, Alpha has spread around the world. The 10-week program is centered on a weekly meal, video, and open discussion. The table facilitators are trained to listen and not correct people’s beliefs and fruitful discussion is the result. There is a Holy Spirit retreat near the end where a lot of lives are changed. There is Alpha in a Catholic Context, and they hold 30 seats on the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization.
Right now there are Catholic parishes either adopting the Alpha model or are busy trying to build their own. It’s my professional opinion that if want to walk down the path of simplifying your parish, you should start with the beginning and shift, slash, and burn as you go along. Do not try to implement change all at once. Get a culture going around the best Start Here experiences you can create, which may take you two or three years. That’s OK. Rome was not built in a day, either, and turning your parish around into a coherent whole will not happen quickly.