One of the things that is certainly “new” about evangelization in the 21st century is the greater diversity of the religious and spiritual practices, needs, and hungers of people today. Over the past four decades far too many diocesan and parish evangelization projects have utilized “one-size-fits-all” programs and resources. One example of a evangelization model that is very popular is the six-week small group program, usually organized around spiritual/religious themes and conducted over a few seasons or years. Such a program makes assumptions about the faith life and commitment of people, which is why they tend to attract a certain group of people and not others.
We need to think today in much more targeted ways about our evangelization efforts. We need to build our evangelization ministries (outreach, programs, resources, etc.) around the lives and diverse religious and spiritual needs of people today. We need to begin to ask: To whom are our evangelization efforts directed? How are efforts tailored to address the religious and spiritual needs and hungers of this group of people? Who are we addressing? Who are we neglecting?
Over the past five years I have been using a framework for interpreting the religious and spiritual needs of people today that provides one way to become more responsive to where people are in their faith lives (see Faith Formation 2020: Designing the Future of Faith Formation). Originally designed as four scenarios for envisioning the future of faith formation, they can also be utilized as four profiles for designing targeted evangelization efforts. The four profiles form a continuum from people who are have a vibrant faith and are actively engaged in the parish community – to - people who participate occasionally in the parish community and whose religious faith is a less important part of their lives – to – people who are more spiritually committed than religiously committed and not engaged in a church community – to – people who are not affiliated with any established church and not interested in spiritual and religious matters. How can we target our evangelization efforts to each of these groups?
People of Vibrant Faith and Active Engagement
The first profile describes people of all ages and generations who are actively engaged in a parish community, are spiritually committed, and growing in their Catholic faith. These are people who have found their spiritual home within the Catholic tradition and a parish community where they can grow in faith, worship God, and practice their faith in the world.
Far too many evangelization programs, resources, and initiatives (e.g., the six week small group or the two or three year renewal program) are actually targeted to the adults within this group. Who else would make such a sizable commitment of time to a “religious” program? While we need to continue to deepen the faith of these members of our faith community, this cannot be the sole focus of our evangelization efforts. We need to equip these people to be “missionaries” to their families, friends, colleagues, and the community. One very successful effort at equipping people of vibrant faith is the Unbinding the Gospel project developed by Martha Grace Reese (see www.gracenet.info) and implemented in thousands of Christian congregations across the country.
One church I am familiar with invited 100 people to become the core group. Using Unbinding the Gospel the group first experienced “training” to help them strengthen their own faith and to learn to talk about it with each other first, and then others outside the community. Second, each person was asked to invite one person who was not involved in a church community to try a no-obligation experience of spiritual discussion, prayer and community for just four weeks. The 100 served as guides, walking with the person they invited through a four week immersion in the life of the church community. If the “new” people wanted to get more engaged their guide could help them find opportunities in the church community. Six months later the church invited another 100 people into the process of becoming missionaries and guides. And on it goes.
People Who Are Participating Occasionally
This second profile describes people who attend church activities occasionally. They may participate in significant seasonal celebrations, such as Christmas and Easter, and celebrate sacraments and milestone events, such as marriage and baptism. Some may even attend worship regularly, and send their children to religious education classes. They are not engaged in their parish community enough to nurture their faith life, and their faith commitment is not substantive enough to encourage regular engagement in the life of the parish community. Their connection to the church is often more social and utilitarian than spiritual.
Churches often address the needs of this group through programs and activities that are designed for people of vibrant faith. Look at the content, scheduling, and degree of commitment in these programs. This is one reason why so many parish leaders get frustrated when their more comprehensive evangelization programs don’t get a response from this group. (Will this group of people make a 6-week commitment or a yearlong commitment?) This is also why the “come home” campaigns don’t turn seem to turn short-term visitors into more active long-term members of the faith community. People who participate occasionally do so for a variety of life-situation reasons, as well as a level of faith commitment, and we need to recognize that in our evangelization efforts.
Parishes need to begin in the life-worlds of this group and design evangelization efforts around their spiritual and religious needs, their relationship with the faith community, and the times that they actually do participate. Rather than trying to get them to do something additional, parishes can incorporate an evangelization component (and also people who can serve as guides/witnesses) into the times they do participate: church year feasts and seasons, baptism, first Eucharist, programs for their children, vacation Bible school, and more. There is no better time to start with the “occasionals” than at baptism and walk with them through the first Eucharist years with grandparent guides, online faith forming resources for their child and family, whole family activities, parent faith formation, and more.
Evangelization efforts need to recognize that by increasing the opportunities for belonging (engagement) we can guide people toward living (faith practices) and believing (faith commitment), and in the end, toward a more vibrant and vital faith.
Continue to Part 2 of this Blog for the next two profiles.
Roberto, John. Faith Formation 2020: Designing the Future of Faith Formation. Naugatuck: LifelongFaith Associates, 2010 (www.LifelongFaith.com).