instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, July 15, 2013

Rebuilt, and they did come

The Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland, is a Catholic parish in which everything -- from the parking lot to the website -- is designed to appeal to the unchurched suburbanites who live within the parish's boundaries. Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter, by pastor Fr. Michael White and lay associate Tom Corcoran, tells how it became the parish it is today.

I'd visited the parish website once, last August, and came away thinking it was all a little too forcefully not-going-to-use-any-Catholic-words-or-symbols for my taste, and the rock band and huge video screens in the sanctuary would have made me turn around and find somewhere else to meet my Sunday obligation. (Having read the book, I now know all the warm smiles from the Warm Smiles Team in the vestibule would have made me turn around, assuming I even got out of the car after all the warm smiles from the Parking Team. But that's just me.)

Given that, along with a few words of caution (but not condemnation) I'd overheard, I approached Rebuilt with something of the air of a grader, ready to mark down all the things they got wrong. And while I think they did get some things wrong, I think they also got some important things right.

According to the book, when Fr. White was assigned pastor of Nativity in the late 1990's, the parish was an awful, terrible place, filled with awful, terrible people. The horror stories are indeed horrible -- and worse, believable. My favorite is the Tale of the Hallway Pictures, in which pictures in a rectory hallway were rehung in a different order after the hallway was painted -- the same pictures, just arranged differently; the uproar didn't die down until a bishop was dragged into it

For the first several years, Fr. White tried to please his awful, terrible parishioners. The awful, terrible parishioners merely accepted all his blood, toil, tears, and sweat as their due, then complained when he wouldn't do more, or otherwise, or again, or whatever they wanted to complain about.

Fr. White eventually diagnosed his parishioners as "demanding customers," who viewed the parish as a place to get whatever it was they wanted out of a Catholic parish: a private club for the older cohort; box-checking sacraments for the younger.

Given this diagnosis -- which rings true enough -- he eventually decided that trying to keep customers happy was not only a mug's game, but prevented the parish from doing what the parish existed to do: preach the Gospel to all creatures. He came to see that a pastor acting like a concierge of a fading hotel, doing everything he can to please the guests, is a corruption of his office, his parish, and his parishioners:
Corruption results in breaking and destroying something by using it for a purpose other than the purpose intended.
Taking tips from Evangelical congregations that were growing, he settled on the purpose of making everything about Nativity appeal to "Timonium Tim," a composite of the unchurched husbands and fathers of young families who filled the single-family houses in the parish. (Where the father goes, the family follows.)

This, as you can imagine, didn't play well with a lot of the demanding customers of Nativity Parish. He soldiered on, along with Tom Corcoran (who'd joined up early in his tenure as the youth minister and is now the "associate to the pastor"), in the face of the opposition of "churchpeople" who liked church to be churchy and didn't care about the unchurched. Churchpeople, the book explains, are more interested in the Catholic religion than in the Catholic faith:
Religion is not faith. It is a cultural system that collects faith and belief and then aims at supporting and sustaining them. And, like any cultural system, it is inherently resistant to change.
The parish went through all sorts of changes, and plenty of mistakes, to get where it is today.

And where it is today? That question is a little hard to answer. Membership and charitable giving are way, way up, so according to some metrics they're doing fantastic. But there are hints here and there -- I'm thinking chiefly of the side comments in the section on the importance to their parish model of small groups, comments that suggest importance hasn't translated very effectively into participation -- that maybe attendance and giving is more related to an enjoyable "weekend experience" than to surging discipleship.

As I mentioned above, I think Fr. White & Co. got some important things right. These include recognition of the fatuity of satisfying customers as a parish model, the centrality of the Gospel commission to a parish, the importance of preaching -- and of preaching the full Gospel (including the part about sacrificial giving). I think they're right in recognizing that places like 21st Century Timonium, Maryland, are, for practical purposes, mission territory. I think they're right about the limits of aesthetics:
Most pastors want to build or renovate a church... But beautiful churches don't make disciples. If they did, Europe would be filled with them.

What do I think they got wrong? The rock band, for starters:
Typically the band plays current "praise and worship" music because that's a style of music we've found is attractive and engaging to Tim and his family.
This, mind you, is at all five weekend services -- er, Sunday Masses. If you're not Tim and his family, if you don't personally find current "praise and worship" music attractive and engaging, tough.

My question is, how is playing the same music at every Mass because it appeals to your target market not catering to consumer preferences?

And that, I think, stands as a symbol of a generalized unease I had while reading Rebuilt. I couldn't quite shake the sense that, in effect, Fr. White rebuilt his parish in a way that would attract the kind of parishioners he wanted -- the cheerful, enthusiastic parishioners, like all the cool Evangelical churches had -- and get rid of the kind he didn't. There's contempt, I think, expressed in this book toward churchpeople, while "the lost" for whom Nativity is customized are portrayed as docile and guileless.

And I have to wonder whether they're forming Roman Catholics at Nativity, or nondenominational Nativity Christians. In wondering that, I don't at all question the orthodoxy or Catholic identity of Fr. White himself, or of his parish staff. I know what their intent is, but I'm not sure even they know whether they're succeeding. The right words are said about the centrality of the Eucharist, but there's an insurmountable disconnect between Evangelical-style welcoming and the reservation of the Eucharist to those who profess the Catholic Faith. The Eucharist can't be central to the "weekend experience" of "the lost," and whole chapters of the book are about how the weekend experience of the lost has become the benchmark against which all parish decisions are made.

I may be completely off base with these impressions, but I go back to the quotation above about corruption resulting from the misuse of a thing. And I go back to an opinion I've long held, that the Mass is for offering the Mass, not for cramming in all the week's Catholic activities, including catechesis, building fund updates, a performance by the school choir, announcements about the Knights of Columbus raffle, and whatever else someone might like to bring to the parish's attention. They don't do that sort of thing at Nativity anymore, but they do customize the Mass to appeal to non-Catholics.

The Mass isn't the Catholic equivalent of an Evangelical worship service. To treat it as one because you want people to come to Mass who are willing to attend a worship service is to misuse the Mass, and that, in Fr. White's word, is corruption.

UPDATE: I think the last few paragraphs may come off harsher than intended or warranted. If I'm right that it's corrupting the Mass to pitch it at the unchurched, then it's corrupting the Mass to shoehorn all the other nonsense that's regularly added to the Mass, in parishes all over the country if not the world, as the one hour a week the parish can reach its parishioners. And at least Nativity is doing what it does for a thought-out reason, not just because they can.