The Parish as School of Evangelization
In my last post, I talked about re-envisioning the role of the parish today and concluded that directing our energies to making the parish a house of prayer and school of evangelization is the best way to take advantage of the present historical and cultural context we find ourselves in. In this follow-up, I want to take a closer look at the parish as a school of evangelization that focuses on training her members to evangelize outside of parish walls. There are two main objections that come to mind in this regard. First, the parish has always been a provider of pastoral care for her members. Would the focus on becoming a school of evangelization mean setting aside the valuable pastoral care our parishes provide? Second, many might object that a great number of parishioners need much more foundational formation themselves before they would be ready to be trained in evangelization. Sure, we need to do some evangelization training, but isn't it unrealistic to think that we could make that the central focus?
I believe both of these concerns can be addressed within a framework that views evangelization training as the primary mission of a parish. By adopting the following two strategies, we can not only meet these pastoral needs but increase our capacity for providing pastoral care and spiritual formation.
To start down this road towards becoming a school of evangelization, identify those who are ready to be trained, i.e. those who demonstrate a personal commitment to Christ, who are well-grounded in prayer, and who have a hunger to see others come to faith. This will likely be just a handful people, but this is the starting point in the "nail it and scale it" process I mentioned in my previous post - successfully bring just a few through the process of equipping them for ministry, then think about expanding your reach to a wider audience. So you begin with the low-hanging fruit and work backwards from there by identifying who is the next closest to being ready for training and determining what it is they need to take that next step.
On one level this seems like an obvious strategy, but in reality it is very difficult for most of us in full-time ministry to embrace. Our natural inclination is to pursue those who are lost and give our attention to those who are struggling in their faith. We want to leave the ninety-nine who are okay to pursue the one who is lost. Becoming a school of evangelization requires a disciplined decision on the part of parish leadership to do almost the exact opposite, to leave the ninety-nine who are lost in order to equip the one stalwart disciple!
So then, how do we address the pastoral needs of the many?
One of the most important principles that I have become aware of recently is the need to have a safe place to practice and develop ministry skills. We need to arrange opportunities for people to get comfortable with doing the "stuff" of evangelization. This is especially true in light of what I have proposed about getting our evangelization efforts focused on the world outside of the parish walls. That's the scariest place of all to evangelize, and if we do nothing more than exhort people to go evangelize their co-workers and neighbors without providing an opportunity to develop these skills, very few people will respond to that call.
What I propose is a three-step approach to helping people develop these skills.
1. Do it in training. 2. Do it in a parish ministry. 3. Do it in everyday life.
First, give your trainees a chance to practice with each other while they are training, in an environment where others are being trained and where it's safe to take risks and to fail. Second, plug your trainees into a parish ministry where they have access to "easy targets," that is, where the people they are ministering to are already open enough to come to a parish ministry event. Third, position them to apply the skills they have developed in their everyday life outside of parish walls.
For example, if you are training people for relational evangelism, in training you would want to give them the opportunity to deliver their testimony, practice threshold conversations, and even make an invitation to faith. They can put these tools into practice through something like an Alpha Course, which will attract those who are interested in learning more about the faith. Finally, with some experience under their belt, they can be encouraged to start reaching out to coworkers, friends, and family members.
Again, you can apply this process to what I call prayer evangelism, introducing people to Christ by praying with them, especially for healing (much like the way Jesus himself ministered - he often healed people first, then followed up with an invitation to repentance and faith). In training prayer evangelists, you give them some guidelines and tools for praying for healing, and let them practice with each other. The parish can then promote a healing ministry, say, after Mass, where people who are more open to receiving prayer will come to receive prayer from your ministry team. With some experience - and successes! - under their belt, you can prepare them for offering prayer even to strangers in the grocery store or mall.
This three-step approach not only provides the optimal training experience, but it also meets the demand for ongoing pastoral care within the parish while keeping the focus on training for evangelization outside the parish.
A CULTURE OF CELEBRATION
A final piece of the strategy to make the parish a school of evangelization is creating a culture of celebration. We need to celebrate successes, celebrate the fruit we see from our evangelistic efforts so that people will be further encouraged and inspired to continue in those efforts. Testimonies need to be actively encouraged because many people's natural inclination is to choose the "humble" route of not drawing attention to themselves. But since every evangelistic success is a ultimately a work of the Holy Spirit anyway, what seems like humility really just ends up being a missed opportunity to give glory to God! That's what people really need to see to get motivated to evangelize - they need to see that God is alive and active, and that He's ready to move through anyone who is willing to step out in faith.