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  • Writer's pictureFr. Paul MacNeil

Homily series on parish renewal: Week 1 - Personal Story - my debt to the evangelical church

A number of parishioners have expressed excitement about our recent trip to Baltimore to visit The Church of the Nativity ("our" meaning our parish planning team - Sue Pellerin, Suzanne Coyne, Jeanie Stoyka and Debbie Pine - Deacon Gunther, who is part of our parish planning team, was not able to make it). So starting this weekend, I'll be doing a series of homilies on parish renewal.

Part 1: Personal Story - my debt to the evangelical church

Part 2: Encountering Christ at Our Lady of the Nativity

Part 3: Encountering Christ at St. Alexander's

Part 1: Personal Story - my debt to the evangelical church

I grew up in a very strong Catholic family, my father has advanced degrees in theology. But when I was a teenager I started going to an evangelical Baptist church in St. Catharines and I loved it. I was at first attracted to their youth group, they all seemed so kind and welcoming, and really wanted me to be part of their experience. I was grateful for having parents who understood my curiosity and allowed me occasionally to go to that Church. Although I never "officially" joined or abandoned my faith, I did accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Saviour through my experience of the Church, which is actually very catholic, something we should all do. But any questions I had, my father was particularly adept at answering any. It was partly this experience which woke up in me the first inklings of a calling to the priesthood, so I will always remain grateful to the Baptist Church and its community for what they shared with me.

Obviously, there's much more to my vocation story, but for the purposes of today, fast forward to 2016, when I first assumed my duties as pastor of Our Lady of the Scapular. Someone gave me a copy of "Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, making church Matter" by Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran. It was a book about parish renewal that I first rejected. I rejected it because of its connection with the evangelical church, particularly Saddleback Evangelical Church in Southern California. It was my arrogance that I thought I knew better. "I've been part of the evangelical church, if I want to take a page from them, I can learn from them myself." So I put the book away, until the last easter.

On Easter of 2022, one of our parishioners was relating a story about being stuck in a traffic jam that Sunday in, of all places, Niagara on the Lake, on York Rd. The traffic jam was caused by a new evangelical church opening for the first time that weekend. So my parishioners went on their website and thought "Wow, that's amazing. They are doing so much!" Then the thought occurred to me, that's really what we need to do. We were just coming out of Covid, the church was in desperate need of new life. How can we rebuild it, how can I get it to grow?

So I remember Rick Warren's "Purpose-Driven Life" and loving it, and also that he had written previously a book entitled "Purpose Driven Church," about his experience at Saddleback, going from a small home-based church that he founded to what it is today. With an average weekly attendance in 2022 of 24,494 in 15 cities, it is worth noting what they were doing right. They are bucking a tide: The fastest growing denomination in the US is "none. Since 1970, weekly church attendance among Catholics has dropped from 55% to 20%, the number of priests declined from 59,000 to 35,000 and the number of people who left Catholicism increased from under 2 million in 1975 to over 30 million today. In 2022, there were fewer than 42,000 nuns in the United States, a 76% decline over 50 years, with fewer than 1% of nuns under age 40 today.

So I bought Purpose Driven Church and I couldn't put it down. I loved their approach. They were very focused on bringing a fictional person they called "Saddleback Sam" into a deeper relationship with Christ. They are specifically trying to reach the unchurched - they don't want to steal anybody from anywhere else, they look at their community and try to reach out to them. And they have a clear path to discipleship: turning seekers into members, turning members into ministers who turn into missionaries. Yes, they actually send families and parishioners out to the missions where they are most needed, building high schools and hospitals and orphanages.

This captured my imagination and a gut feeling that I had to recommit to Jesus Christ and surrender my life to him, again. Of course, I had done that before, many times, and I'll do it again, for sure. Maybe you need to do that too.

But then two things happened right after that. First, I asked myself: Is there a catholic version of this? Then I remembered that there was. "Rebuilt, "the book that I put away in my arrogance. It was, in fact, based on Saddleback's methodology, their leaders went to their seminars on Church building to experience it and learn from them. I also heard of James Mallon's "Divine Renovation" which is remarkably similar in style and approach, and there are others as well. Patrick Lencioni who is very famous for his writing about meetings and teamwork has gotten on the bandwagon as well - "Amazing Parish" which I am also learning from. But first I read Rebuilt, and I couldn't put it down. In fact, I would like to give each parishioner a copy of this book so you can read and dream about what we can become if we put our minds and our hearts into it.

I also learned that I was moving here to St. Alexander's, so I had a huge decision to make - whether or not to sign on to the rebuilt coaching, which I did. Thankfully. By the way, Deacon Gunther and I have been receiving individual coaching from two excellent coaches, one of whom is from southern California, and a parishioner of Saddleback Church.

I share all this because my visit to Nativity Church is the home church of Fr. White and Tom Corcoran, and they transformed that Church into something quite amazing. We are obviously not going to just copy Nativity here or Saddleback for that matter (don't worry), but their approach is fruitful, I think we have a lot to learn from them.

Next week I'm going to talk more specifically about Nativity and our visit a few weekends ago, but for now, having seen some of the reasons for my attraction to a more evangelical approach, allow me to conclude with an image from Rick Warren. It's the image of the surfer. A surfer does what he can to learn his art. He has to have good balance, good equipment, lots of practice and skill to know when a good wave is coming. But what a surfer can't do is make the wave. The wave is a natural phenomenon. He just has to be aware of what a good wave is and ride it.

Warren makes the same point about the church. There is no doubt that we are in trouble, at least from a certain perspective. People are no longer seeing the church as relevant - which is unfortunate because for me being a follower of Jesus is amazing. There is everything good about it. The social justice teachings are amazing, the spirituality is ancient and deep, and as a way of life, it is refreshingly healthy. And if you don't think so, you might not be understanding us.

But the question Rick Warren asks, beautifully, is not "What can we do to make the church grow." The answer to that question, using the surfer analogy, is "absolutely nothing." Like the surfer, all we can do is identify the waves that God sends us. And he is sending wave after wave after wave. The question is not "What can we do to make the church grow," but "What are doing that is stopping the growth." We need to step out of the way of our own egos and just enjoy what God is doing, and what he's going to do in Fonthill.

Next week I'm going to talk more about what we found when we went to Nativity in Baltimore, what we found in the "Rebuilt" program and what their strategic plan was and how fruitful they have actually been. Then, in the third week, I'll conclude my series with a discussion of our strategic plan for next year and ask you to support it with your prayers and your engagement.

I'd like to conclude with this passage from Ezekiel, It's about us, and I believe it with all my heart. If you think we had a good year this year just wait:

"And you, mortal, prophesy to the mountains of Israel and say: O mountains of Israel, hear the word of the Lord.

But you, O mountains of Israel, shall shoot out your branches and yield your fruit to my people Israel, for they shall soon come home. See now, I am for you; I will turn to you, and you shall be tilled and sown, and I will multiply your population, the whole house of Israel, all of it; the towns shall be inhabited and the waste places rebuilt, and I will multiply humans and animals upon you. They shall increase and be fruitful, and I will cause you to be inhabited as in your former times and will do more good to you than ever before. Then you shall know that I am the Lord." Ez 36:1, 8-12.

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