What Is a Parish?
Though the parochial system has been a mainstay of Catholic culture for centuries, it remains but an optional approach to governance in the Church. That is to say, there is nothing doctrinal or dogmatic about the role of a parish, and so it is a legitimate question to ask in any age, "What is the purpose of a parish today?" One way to answer that question is to echo the words of Pope Paul VI and say that, just as the Church "exists to evangelize," the role and purpose of a church is to make disciples. But if we press the matter further, since it is the task of the entire Church to fulfill the Great Commission, the next question that needs to be asked is, what is the particular role that the parish plays in making disciples? Of all the activities that contribute to the mission of making disciples, what role is the parish uniquely suited to play today?
The way we answer this question today may be different than in times past. For instance, in times past the parish was for many the only means of access to theological education. Today, the internet age has provided abundant access to phenomenal Catholic teaching, much of it free. The parish is no longer uniquely or even optimally suited to fill the need of being a channel of information. So this exploration looks from the perspective of a present-day parish in the U.S.
BEGIN WITH THE END IN MIND
When formulating its mission and vision, every organization should ask themselves what the ideal outcome looks like. If we have phenomenal success, where will that bring us? The ideal scenario for many mission-oriented organizations is to put themselves out of business. A non-profit that seeks to eliminate poverty, provide clean water, or end human trafficking will make itself obsolete once it achieves its goal.
So what would happen if a parish accomplished its goal of making disciples? Is it possible for the parish to eliminate the need for itself, or is there some purpose that it continues to serve?
Imagine with me, then, a parish that has achieved the goal of making the vast majority of its members into disciples in a meaningful sense. Let's say 90% of those involved in parish life are personally committed to Christ, take initiative for their own spiritual growth, and fully embrace a Catholic moral vision. Granted, the disciple-making mission needs to extend to those outside church walls, but does this mean that parish's job is done vis-à-vis the disciples in her midst? What is the role that the parish can and should play towards her members at this point?
As I run through this thought experiment, the conclusion I come to is that the parish is uniquely positioned to function as a house of worship and a school of evangelization.
HOUSE OF WORSHIP
There is a lot of discussion today about how to capitalize on the Sunday liturgy as an opportunity for evangelization. From a practical perspective this makes a lot of sense. Sunday Mass is perhaps the most common point of contact the parish has with non-disciples, whether they be relatives attending with a parishioner, first-time visitors scoping things out, or even churchgoing non-disciples (yes, that exists!).
While it's a very positive sign to see this kind of discussion going on, if too much emphasis is put on the Mass as an evangelizing event then we run the risk of losing sight of the essence of the Mass itself. The Mass, the Eucharist, the liturgy - these are, in essence, FOR the evangelized. They are for those who have already been initiated into Christ, and they are therefore part of the lifeblood of the Christian life.
It may make sense, for a time, to have an evangelizing emphasis on Sundays, but the real core purpose of the liturgy is discovered when we think of our 90%-disciples scenario - the Mass is for worship, and the "human" elements of the Mass (preaching, music, art) should be focused on serving this purpose of worship, both in offering objectively fitting praise to God and in helping people become subjectively engaged in the act of worshiping (which is objectively more pleasing to God).
In addition to the liturgical/sacramental aspect of worship, the parish is uniquely suited to facilitate a communal expression of worship. Catholic piety tends to value private devotion, and our liturgies frequently consist in hundreds of people privately praying side-by-side. There is a great need to discover the unique blessings available through corporate worship. There are some victories that will only come when we go to the inner room and shut the door, but it is equally true that some victories will only come through the Body united in worship.
As a house of worship, then, the parish is uniquely positioned to facilitate communal and liturgical worship.
SCHOOL OF EVANGELIZATION
And he gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. -Ephesians 4:11-12
Traditional thinking about ministry is that seminary or theology school is where one goes to get trained to do ministry, and then the parish is the place where you actually do ministry. I think we need to make a shift in our thinking to align more closely with Paul's vision for the Church in Ephesians. We need to look at the parish as the place where you get trained to do ministry, and the world outside of Church walls as the place where you do ministry. (By extension, this means seminary and theology schools need to look a lot more like places where we train the trainers - not where you get equipped, but where you are taught how to equip others.)
Those who are well-established in their commitment to discipleship and in personal devotion still need to be equipped for fulfilling their part in the mission of Jesus to extend his Kingdom on earth. Here I am referring to the task of evangelizing both individuals and cultures. With regard to the latter, it is often not a matter of imparting specific skills, but of helping disciples understand how to use their skills and training under the direction and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. That is, a parish won't teach music lessons, but will give the musician the tools they need to enfold their musical talent into co-laboring with the Holy Spirit (apply this also to business practices, political activism, art, teaching, and so on).
One final point for now is that parishes are actually better suited for this task than institutes or colleges for two reasons. First, parishes can provide this training in the context of community, of interconnected relationships. Second, parishes provide this ongoing training in the midst of people's regular everyday life, that is, the mission field where they will be applying their training.
NAIL IT AND SCALE IT
Is it really helpful to evaluate the role of a parish from the ideal 90%-disciples perspective? Is this an unrealistic pipe dream? In a 90%-disciples parish, the tasks of delving deeper into the heart of God in worship and equipping the saints for ministry are the obvious pressing needs, but many people in our parishes right now need some more foundational conversion and formation to take place before they would be ready for these. Shouldn't we focus our attention on the pressing needs of right now?
My question in response to these objections is, are you confident that you could take just one person through this complete process? That is, would your parish be ready to begin equipping a disciple for ministry in their everyday life if they came to you, seeking your guidance in this area? If the answer is no, then we have to come face-to-face with the fact that we are putting a ceiling on the spiritual growth of our parishioners. One of the most sobering realities that was illuminated in Sherry Weddell's Forming Intentional Disciples is that about one third of those who leave the Catholic Church do so, not because they are slipping in their spiritual lives, but because they are growing spiritually and are not finding the support they need for their advancing spiritual journey in our Catholic parishes.
This is not a someday dream, but something we need to embrace right now. You don't need 90% of your parishioners to be on fire for the Lord, you just need to find those who are and start with them. Business entrepreneurs talk about the principle of "nail it and scale it." Figure out how to do this with a few people - or even just one! - and then turn around and do it for a few more, then for a small group, and so on.
In my next post, I will talk about how we can go about turning our parishes into schools of evangelization.