Simplifying Church

One of the first things that I started noticing in my new role as Adult Faith Formation Coordinator four years ago was the startling number of classes, events, retreats and sessions that we were offering year round. While most Catholic parishes struggle to have anything for adults other than the RCIA, we have the opposite problem. The sheer glut of programs and classes lead to territoriality quite easily. “This is my classroom!” “This is my storage!" "These are my people!”

That’s the perspective I have from an administrator and leader. I am done with the fighting and the yelling and the competition for space and people. From my vantage point, we are quick to own spaces, times, and people that are not ours at all. They belong to God and His parish and not any particular ministry or class.

Until I read Simple Church I had not considered the dizzying array of offerings from the perspective of the parishioner. The authors advocate a simplified and clear pathway for discipleship for each church. They hold that there is a statistical connection between simple discipleship models and thriving churches, as well as complex models and dying churches. 

As the rest of the business and marketing world is going simple and minimalist, the church seems to think more is more. The reason why the Church takes this approach is we think it is casting a wide net by offering as many things as humanly possible. This is quite literally exhausting our key volunteers and staff as well as our clergy, but without another approach, this is just accepted as “the way.”

Simple Church sees another way.

Casting a wide net does not mean offering a thousand programs to appeal to everyone, it means offering entry level to more advanced levels of offerings and arranging it in a way that is clear and progressive, with next actions that are aligned with one another. There is order and purpose crafted into its very structure.

Instead of offering 13 Bible studies at different times of day and days of the week, all with slightly different approaches or methods of delivering the content, the Church would train people on how to study the Bible, how to read it devotionally, and how to pray with it. Then anything else after that would come through sermons, small groups, or one’s own initiative. The church itself would not offer Bible studies on campus in any formal, reoccurring way.

Coupled with this approach is the cultural aspect of valuing the domestic mission. The church, in simplifying her structures, would have to communicate the mission of the parish effectively to ensure catechesis was ongoing. For Catholics, the thought of not teaching Adult Faith Formation in a classroom is a huge stumbling block, for we feel like we are failing at our task of catechesis. But I would suggest that the feeling of failing is false because it is merely attached to the hosting of classes and events. The parish does ensure ongoing catechesis and evangelization even if the parish campus is not hosting the actual event or class. The parish should supply, organize, and promote ongoing instruction, but it does not require the parish to host it. But this would involve a culture-shift in the parish.

The culture of a parish that chronically hosts everything in my view must necessarily be anti-domestic church. I say necessarily because if the leaders (staff or volunteer) think only good catechesis can be done in the parish setting, then they will habitually, even if unconsciously, promote the parish campus and demote the home. Theoretically we could probably make a distinction here between parish-centric work and the domestic church without being hostile, but I have never seen it done in practice. There is always a suspicion that the home church is really just a social gathering and not catechesis.

If a parish goes the simple route in terms of formation it must be coupled with the creation of a parish culture that values and uplifts the ecclesia domestica. I say culture because part of the Simple Church formula is parish-wide acceptance of these new approaches. Without this cultural emphasis on home-based and work-based formation, adult formation will surely drop off. People need to know what to do next.

This is where Simple Church really begins to shine, I believe. They advocate not just clear levels of discipleship but also a pathway through it. Every class, session, or event should have the person leaving the building with a clear direction about where to go next. We have this in the RCIA: Inquiry to Catechesis to Mystagogy. We do not have this clarity anywhere else.

When someone is new to the parish or is returning to the Church, they should be able to look at the website or bulletin and know where they should go. The educational components should leave people with “next steps” to connect relationally or towards service. Community and Service should be a part of faith formation, but are usually way to outside the box for most of us. I run the Adult Faith Formation ministries and not Outreach. However, I should be intentionally ordering my educational programs to send people to Outreach ministries, like our St. Vincent de Paul Society, and the Outreach ministries should be channeling people back into the educational side of the parish, and both to retreats.

Formation is more than education. I say that all the time, but it is poorly reflected in the ministries that I run. I tend to be classroom oriented because that’s where my strengths are, but how many new Catholics have to leave the Church a year after entering it before I realize they desperately need community to support them and service to engage them. The Corporal Works of Mercy are necessary to the formation of adult Catholics.

I think Simple Church has left me with a lot of insights as to how I will move forward and restructure various aspects of my parish ministry. I have already partnered with Outreach and Liturgy to start offering spiritual and service components as Next Steps from my faith formation programs, and they are working with me for those intellectual formation components in their ministries to make sure that we are all rooted in Christ and His gospel.