Outside-In or Inside-Out?
For just about everyone, everywhere, September is one of the busiest times of year. I’ve always found it quite exhilarating… (okay, so I was one of those geeky kids who loved nothing better than new stationery for the return to school). Everyone seems pretty refreshed coming back from summer, there are still some beautiful sunny days to enjoy, and the new crispness in the air seems to be calling us “back to business.” And yes, we are definitely hitting the ground running in the parish. But underneath all the busy-ness, we are still doing a lot of “big picture” reflecting – our vision for the parish, breaking this down into a strategy, all the time considering how various approaches will impact our strategy from the outset.
One of the big questions we have to ask ourselves is, where do we start with evangelisation? The image below is used famously by Rick Warren in The Purpose-Driven Church where he says that his church’s purpose is to move people from the outer circle (low commitment/maturity) into the inner circle (high commitment/maturity). As Catholics, bearing in mind the thresholds of conversion, we might say this is helping people move from “pre-trust” (in Christ, in the Church) through to fully-fledged discipleship.
Rick Warren notes – and I think this would be an automatic approach for Catholics who are keen to start evangelising – that the traditional wisdom would be to form a core of mature disciples first, with the intention that these will then move out to evangelise others. But, he advises,
Grow the church from the outside in, rather than from the inside out.
In other words, don’t delay to evangelise outside of the parish. Don’t wait until you have well-formed disciples who can explain the faith perfectly. I think Pope Francis expresses this, too:
… indeed, anyone who has truly experienced God’s saving love does not need much time or lengthy training to go out and proclaim that love. (Evangelii Gaudium, 120)
Does this make you slightly nervous? To be perfectly honest, it has me shifting awkwardly in my seat. As we set off for our first Alpha last Tuesday, welcoming around 20% non-Christians – including atheists, agnostics and Buddhists – I found myself inwardly questioning (and laughing at God’s enormous sense of humour). For years I have been writing, teaching and generally banging on about catechesis. And here I was in a room full of agnostics, alongside their hosts and helpers – recent alumni of Alpha themselves and full of ardour, joy, enthusiasm – who on the whole could not tell the one end of the Catechism from the other (indeed, one of them asked me the other day what the Catechism was). I admit, I had a laugh at the divine messiness of it, knowing that our only option was to cling mightily to the Holy Spirit.
What would happen if we took the other approach? What would happen if we invested much more time and resources into the 20 initial people who went through Alpha? Rick Warren suggests that, by the time you have adequately “discipled” the “core”, they have often lost contact with the “community” and may even be afraid of interacting with the unchurched. I think that’s probably true. If we want to make evangelisation absolutely upfront and centre, we have to make it part of our fledging disciples’ DNA right from the outset… even before we’ve had chance to introduce them to the Catechism.
There is a strong impulse to take the opposite approach because we see how little people are formed (even the ones at the core) and we are desperate to sort it out. We see all the various incongruent lifestyles and we think some good catechesis will sort it out. We want to hammer out the basics that we know people are not consistently living (Sunday Mass attendance, Confession, Friday abstinence) at every opportunity we have, (and believe me, we have just about every kind of ignorance you can imagine here – I would say we have just about seen everything…). But, I am becoming convinced that, by far the more effective approach, is to win them by attraction. Draw them into a contagious web of relationships, fascinating discussion and on point hospitality. Only on encountering Jesus and learning to entrust themselves to him will they be in the least bit interested about what he has to say about their life.
I know this will make some people uncomfortable, maybe even prickly. But I would add – significantly – that this approach will only work if you have a longer view about how you really are going to disciple people into the core. This worries me about parishes that I see starting Alpha. Not many have a robust follow-up plan, and I think this is – I’m just going to say it – enormously irresponsible. If Alpha is the start of a clear evangelisation process, then you are inviting people into an ongoing process of deeper evangelisation and growth. Because you know that sooner or later they will be catechised, and more importantly, ready and hungry to hear it, you can relax a bit.
In the meantime, however, you will have all kinds of funny, incongruent scenarios. Yes, I’m pretty sure our parish will soon be full of budding disciples who might bring a friend along to an event at the church, although it hasn’t yet sunk in that they have to go to Mass every Sunday. Or enthusiastic new volunteers who happily invite everyone to a BBQ on a Friday. And a whole host of moral issues that I won’t even mention. You know what I’m talking about.
“Making disciples” – there’s a holy, glorious messiness about it, and really, it is the only way.