Church Life

Weaving Models Together for a Simplified Church

For many devout Roman Catholics, when they move to a new town they look around for the closest parish and start attending. The parish really does not have to do much to win the new resident. After a while, a new attendee may start parish shopping to find one with a more/less progressive mass, traditional mass, shorter mass- whatever their personal criteria for a “good” parish may be, but usually, the closest parish is the easiest one to join. The creation of a new Catholic parish is started often years in advance by the diocese purchasing plots of land and reserving it for future use. Once the demographics are right, the diocese will announce the new parish, redraw the parish boundaries, and people will start to filter into the new parish.

In contrast, many evangelical churches start out of people’s homes. A pastor and his wife will have a vision of “a new kind of church” in an area and start a church plant. A typical church plant will usually meet in a home with 6 or 10 other like-minded people. From the start, the idea of mission, evangelism, and discipleship are foundational to the culture of the church because without these three there will be no church in a year or two. Door-to-door conversations, neighborhood invitations, and street evangelization are common pathways to growing a church from a home to temporary space like a local public high school to a permanent location for many non-denominational evangelical churches.

It is a bit funny to me hearing from various church plant founders what motivated them to start a new kind of church because will almost always say something like, “I was reading Acts of the Apostles and became burdened with the difference between the way they did church and the way we are failing to do church today.” 

Perhaps it is simplistic, but it is not too far from reality.

When I teach the RCIA half of the time is spent convincing Protestants that the papacy, bishops, priests, and liturgy are all in the Bible, especially the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles. Their image of the Apostolic Church is this dynamic and ever-evolving body of Christ-followers and their image of the Catholic Church today is heavily institutional, rigid, and non-moving. The contrast could not be starker.

Cardinal Avery Dulles’ book, Models of the Church, is a brilliant Rosetta Stone for deciphering conflict in the Church. The five models are Institution, Mystical Union, Sacrament, Herald, and Servant. After rereading this book, I believe many of us have competing models of what the Church should be, and thus we minimize, neglect, or even attack other church models. The goal is to harmonize as many of these models as possible within the framework of a “communion of disciples,” where each person’s model becomes a point of discernment for where they belong and contribute within the Body of Christ. 

Many traditional Catholics will tend to favor the Institutional model of the Church over all others, though they may incorporate the Sacrament model as well. Those who are more American Leftists will tend towards the Servant model as they focus less on doctrine and more on social justice work and activism. Evangelicals wholly identify the Church with the Herald model, seeing the primary and perhaps only task to preach the Gospel to every creature. Those who are more prayerfully inclined than dogmatically so will adopt the Mystical Union model, seeing all believers in Christ as “essentially united.” Many Catholic parishes, though, have an Institutional model, viewing man’s relationship with God only through the lens of explicit membership in the parish. 

Let us take a minute to compare and contrast the two local church models of Institution and Herald. Evangelicals are right to say their model more closely aligns with the way Church was happening in the book of the Acts of the Apostles precisely because the newborn Church was busy evangelizing. Growth-movements of the Church will always be heraldic in nature to a large degree, but that does not mean the hierarchy or the sacraments do not exist or are not important. Peter’s role as authoritative plays itself out all the way from chapter 1 to 15. The regular sacramental worship of the Jewish Church around “the breaking of the Bread" gave them their earliest identity. The formation of the diaconate shows the essential nature of the Servant model, and Paul’s imprisonment highlights the Church-as-Mystical-Union.

Distortion and heresy enter the minds of men and women not because we believe in lies, but because we absolutize half-truths, or one truth to the exclusion of others, as Chesterton reminds us. Catholic parishioners have an allergic reaction to mission and evangelization because few see the importance of the Herald model for the local parish, though maybe for Religious Orders. “That sounds Protestant” is a sentence I hear a lot as a lay evangelist.

To create a simple parish one needs to see how different models work in different situations. As the American religious landscape continues to shift dramatically towards atheism or unaffiliated and away from Christianity, we need to shift away from the dominance of the Institutional model yet without abandoning or attacking it. 

For instance, to win people for Christ we need to actively cultivate the Herald model, but to get an atheistic world to perceive any sort of value in the Church, we need to inculturate in our parishes the Servant model. They are looking for witness first. The Jesus they know and like is the servant Messiah, the social justice Jesus. Serving the needs of the world through heroic self-sacrifice opens up people’s hearts and minds. Caring about justice, peace, the poor and vulnerable, and not just about the private sex lives of individuals, breaks the mold of what unchurched people think of when they think about Christianity. The priest sex abuse scandal, Protestant preacher infidelities, wealth accumulation- these are things the unbelieving world finds unbelievable about the Church and causes her to lose credibility.

But the Servant model is not enough to lead people to faith. The door opened by loving service must connect to the proclamation of the self-gift of Jesus by the cross and resurrection. These models interpenetrate one another, mutually support one another, and interpret one another. Parishes need to keep their social outreach going, but connect it with initial evangelization ministries to prevent the parish from becoming an NGO charity. Initial evangelization needs those Next Steps to move the evangelized out into mission and service.