How to Be a Dynamic and Evangelizing Parish
Two very different parishes show what it takes to be both energetic and spiritual.
CAN YOU HEAR the death knell ringing in your parish? In these times of declining membership, can the Catholic Church in the United States breathe new life into the Body of Christ? Is a resurrection possible? If we focus on the basic mission of the Church, namely, to take the Gospel into the world (to evangelize), we have reason for hope—contrary to prevailing perceptions.
In the broadest sense of the word, evangelizationis spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ. In the narrowest sense, it is presenting the Gospel in such a way that those who hear it are led to respond in an “aha” or “now I get it” moment. In between the broadest and narrowest sense lie catechesis, faith formation, liturgical celebration and theology.
On the practical level, the parish is both the object and the subject of evangelization. In this setting, two dynamics work simultaneously: A parish must be evangelized and a parish must be evangelizing.
St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Findlay, Ohio, is a “megachurch” with a census of 10,000 members (www.findlaystmichael.org). Holy Infant Parish in Durham, North Carolina, is a moderate-sized parish with 771 families (www.holyinfantchurch.org).
Both parishes give witness to the power of taking evangelization seriously. They provide encouraging examples of American parishes which are both evangelized and evangelizing. They give witness to a healthy vision of Church in our day.
St. Michael, founded in 1839, is the sole Catholic parish in Hancock County, Ohio, in the Diocese of Toledo. It fits into the category of “megachurch,” that is, a worshiping community of 2,000 or more members in attendance every week.
The new church, built to accommodate the large congregation, seats 1,500. It is a beautiful, modern, inviting structure in the Romanesque style. Although the structure is as large as a cathedral, it maintains the feel of a parish church.
The parish plant is a complex of church, school (three rooms of each grade), gymnasium, auditorium and offices. As impressive as the buildings are, more remarkable are the active involvement of the parishioners in church ministries and the enthusiasm of their participation in liturgies.
The pastor, Father Mike Hohenbrink, believes the enthusiasm and participation of parishioners flow from their openness to the Holy Spirit. The people have been invited to take their faith seriously.
Geri Leibfarth, the parish’s director of religious education, suggests that there are three essential steps in the process: “Keep the people informed, provide opportunities for faith formation and then send them out in a variety of ministries.”
She credits the pastor with the ability to “connect with the parishioners and learn their needs. Father Mike is good at that,” she says about the priest who has been pastor of the parish since July 2000. “We have to listen first. Programs that don’t meet the needs don’t work.”
One of the needs obvious to St. Michael’s membership was ongoing adult education. A monthly systematic study of the faith titled “What Do Catholics Really Believe?” has an attendance of some 300 members. Parishioners asked for a parish mission and over 400 attended the four nightly sessions offered during Lent in 2007.
“There are over a hundred ministries in our parish,” a parishioner explains, “and several of them are to people outside the parish. We take care of our own, but we don’t stop there.”
Asked what sustains him at St. Michael’s, parishioner Chris Brooks says, “In brief, God’s grace through the Eucharist. I also experience his love through the church members.”
Beth Seman has been a parishioner her entire life “and it feels more like my family every day. We have a vibrant parish with over 100 ministries available for all ages. A person can choose to be part of a ministry by simply praying. Or a person can become involved, using God-given gifts and talents to minister to others. There is something for everyone.
“Our current staff and ministry teams are just as dedicated as our priests. Their hard work really shows,” Beth adds. “We have also been blessed by many parishioners willing to volunteer their time and talent.”
According to Father Mike, “St. Michael’s has benefited from strong lay participation over the past 40 years. Their good understanding that they are Church has helped them to be faith-filled and to search for ways to grow in faith. Our history of parish retreats, enrichment programs, participation in RENEW [a spiritual-development program] has raised the bar for them to be active in ministry.”
About 40 percent of the congregation attends Mass regularly, which is about 10 percent above the national average. Father Mike maintains that his people take prayer very seriously, a reflection that “prayer calls us to ministry and ministry calls us to prayer.”
In a parish-sponsored synod (a gathering of parishioners for assessment and planning), members agreed to renew their efforts in Catholic education for adults and youth, to be more welcoming and inviting, to improve their marketing and advertising, and to engage in additional outreach.
City flooding in 2007 prompted community-minded parish members to launch “Calming the Waters,” a flood-relief outreach to citizens hardest hit by the deluge. Other parishioners offer year-round support to an adopted parish and school in Belize, a small country with the highest unemployment rate in Central America.
“The parishioners have taken ownership,” Leibfarth says about these and other forms of parish outreach. “I believe that this is the work of the Holy Spirit.”
Father Mike is understandably proud of the physical plant, but he knows that there is more to a parish than a “build it and they will come” dream. “We have the facilities,” he says. “Now we can focus even more on the mission and ministries they imply.”
The megachurch is not the only successful model for the evangelized church. Every type of parish church has the potential for realizing the mission of evangelizing and being evangelized. Within each parish there are all the charisms necessary to make Church.
When the U.S. bishops issued Go and Make Disciples, their 1992 national plan and strategy for evangelization, they outlined three basic goals:
1. To encourage Catholics to get excited about living their faith and sharing it with others.
2. To invite our fellow citizens to listen to the Gospel and to become members of the Church.
3. To promote Gospel values in society so that the power of Christ may transform our nation.
The bishops then listed dozens of strategies for achieving those goals, such as programs for renewal, Spirit-filled celebrations of the liturgy, better catechetical materials, formation of diocesan-evangelization committees, review of hospitality, ecumenical outreach and parish-education programs geared toward social justice.
Clearly, it is not the size of a parish that determines its spirit, its outreach, its power to evangelize. Every ecclesial assembly has the potential. The deciding factor appears to be whether the assembly is “called forth.”
Holy Infant Parish is a case in point. Tucked in a pine grove deep in Durham, North Carolina, this vibrant parish brings a unique blend of intergenerational catechesis to 771 families.
Holy Infant sustains an active faith community based on gatherings for members from preschool to the elderly. At these gatherings catechesis and evangelization are featured.
Lynn Sale, the parish’s director of faith development, believes that the parish’s success is based on a desire for interpersonal support that the traditional Catholic parish may not offer. The intergenerational model “widens the circle of formation to include parents, children and adults without children,” says Lynn.
Holy Infant, located in an area known as Research Triangle Park, is a transient parish that attracts Catholics beyond territorial boundaries. Lynn says that last year, 89 families joined the parish and 81 families left the parish. Yet, the Triangle area is expanding and so is Holy Infant Parish.
More than half of Holy Infant’s membership is young families, with 60 percent consisting of adults between the ages of 15 and 60. Parishioners are well-educated: Durham has the highest per capita number of Ph.Ds. The transitory nature creates a special challenge for this community.
At the time of this interview, Father Mike McCue, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales, was the pastor of Holy Infant. (He was reassigned last summer.) “Holy Infant has a solid tradition of member involvement,” he says. “People make liturgy, faith development, service and community happen. In addition, our people have a good understanding of these elements of parish life.”
While the parish has a fine reputation as a spiritual center that emphasizes Salesian spirituality, the shift to intergenerational faith-development programs seems to have boosted the spiritual energy of Holy Infant.
Intergenerational means that younger and older members are brought together for instruction, faith formation and prayer. Older members model faith life for the younger ones, and the younger ones inspire the older members.
According to longtime parishioner Tom Goehl, “The appeal of Holy Infant Parish stems from our priests’ understanding that it is imperative to address not only the parishioners’ spirituality but also their humanness. This understanding has led to a vibrant parish whose people truly care about each other and the wider community.”
So what accounts for such dynamic and sustaining energy in this mid-sized Southern parish? In 2000, the vision of the parish changed when parishioners undertook a long-range plan for evangelization. It was John Roberto’sGenerations of Faith Resource Manual: Lifelong Faith Formation for the Whole Parish Community that re-created the parish with “new wineskins,” says Lynn Sale.
A previous pastor, Father John McGee, invited Lynn to join the staff and immerse their ministry in this intergenerational model. Eight years later, the staff works in a collaborative style that encourages everyone to cross over their job descriptions as they work together developing the lifelong learning model.
The old CCD model was discarded. HI-life, as it is now called, offers faith formation for everyone at Holy Infant. Throughout the year, a theme-based curriculum is offered to the entire parish. The annual theme (justice, creed, prayer, sacramental life) is integrated into everything the parish does, from homilies to outreach ministries.
Last year’s theme was “Acting for Justice.” This led the parish to start “Just Faith”: small-group discussions. In addition, parishioners built a Habitat for Humanity house and moved forward with a parish-stewardship campaign.
Paulo Chiquito, the father of three and an active HI-life participant, reports, “Coming from a very traditional Catholic upbringing, HI-life breathed a new life into my concept of catechism teaching. The sessions are very dynamic and challenging.
“I love going together as a family, but with the opportunity for separate age-specific activities,” Paulo explains. “The kids love these and the grown-ups have a chance for a more mature presentation and discussion. Some sessions offer beautiful music, superb acting and some very spiritual experiences.”
Mike Somich, a member of the HI-life core team, notes, “I think most men are uncomfortable expressing their faith. I have found that, in the development and presentation of our intergenerational gatherings, parishioners are very supportive, so much so that, at a recent gathering, I was willing to witness to the role that the Holy Spirit has played and is playing in my life.”
HI-life gatherings turn the entire parish space into an interactive learning center. The vision of Holy Infant is to create a lifelong learning model in which more and more pieces of parish ministry and formation opportunities can be added as the community evolves into a deeper understanding of the Gospel.
Father Mike had an optimistic outlook about the parish: “For our future, I hope we grow in understanding and in action in these areas of parish life. I can see us continually rising to the challenge to keep fresh and alive—not giving in to the tendency to rest on our laurels. Church is a living body.
“One future task that we share with the whole American Church is that of welcoming new Americans, people from cultures that are so different from standard, middle-class American culture,” he added. “We have to make sure that their Church is a home for them.
“At Holy Infant, we have people from Asia, Africa and Europe,” Father Mike explained. “We need to make sure they feel a part of the parish so that we no longer think entirely in terms of ‘they’ and ‘we.’”
When Father Mike called the people forward, Holy Infant parishioners echoed that call to one another. Marshall Robers, member of the parish’s pastoral council, points out that the parish adopted the pineapple, a longtime symbol of hospitality, as the parish’s symbol. “Parishioners feel connected to the parish as a whole,” he says, “rather than merely having a close friendship with a few people.
“Stewardship goes hand in hand with this overall hospitality and sense of belonging, since parishioners willingly give of themselves when they are within a nurturing environment,” Marshall explains. “Once stewardship and hospitality have been embraced, the overall opportunities for faith development increase dramatically, since parishioners are connected with each other and growing in faith together, not only at events targeted for faith development but also within the ministries in which they participate.”
There is a movement in the Church in America that is unprecedented. The evangelization that is taking place plays out in a variety of forms. The model of Church is changing as numbers of active Catholics decline and the priesthood is undermined by crises.
Yet never before has there been such a unique energy to make Church. What is significant is that there are as many ways to create an evangelized parish as there are faith communities to fill them. St. Michael in Findlay, Ohio, and Holy Infant in Durham, North Carolina, are different in many ways: large vs. mid-sized, Midwest vs. South, megamodel vs. a smaller intergenerational faith community. Yet each parish has discovered a working solution to creating a vital, living community of faith.
There is no template in evangelizing the Catholic parish. Every one is a unique faith family. The demographics, the leadership style of the pastor and staff, the cultural and ethnic character of the members—all this and much more determine the means through which a faith community will invite and sustain conversion for its membership.
The days in which a formula could be imposed on a Catholic congregation are over. While Catholic dogma and doctrine remain steadfast, the manner in which a Catholic parish catechizes and evangelizes is developed through a vision that is its own.
These two Catholic models of evangelization offer great hope for the future of the Catholic Church in the United States. Invigorating the People of God, the Holy Spirit has been quite busy building up the Church, not in cookie-cutter fashion, but in ways peculiar to the talents and needs of the people.
Within both communities, it is apparent that this Spirit provided all the gifts necessary to create and fulfill a healthy vision of Church. There are gifts sufficient to do this work and, just as Jesus promised, we have not been left orphans.
Father Norman Langenbrunner, a parish priest in Cincinnati, Ohio, has written for Catholic publications as well as for The Gettysburg Experience. Jeanne Hunt, advisor for catechesis and evangelization at St. Anthony Messenger Press, preaches parish missions and gives workshops on adult and family faith formation