franciscan - September 2002
© The Society of Saint Francis, 2002
The DNA of a Growing Church
by Malcolm Grundy
Church attendance may be in decline for reasons other than a loss of faith. It is possible that enquirers have attended church and found the experience less than they hoped. Others attend less frequently because they despair at congregations or denominations that are unable to come to terms with internal differences. I am part of a European network that is concerned with the ways in which adults can be welcomed, cross boundaries, and enter the church. This movement is called the Adult Catechumenate. It is concerned with the questions which people ask as they make a journey into faith. It believes that adult Christians willing to discuss faith questions are the right people to accompany enquirers.
I am not writing to commend the Catechumenate, or its sisters Alpha and Emmaus. I am going to tell you what I have learned from these years of work with those on the way in. I have developed a ‘template’ which can be placed over the life of any congregation. If any one part is missing, this is a dysfunctional place; people are more likely to leave than to join. There have to be thought-through elements of welcome, of how faith is deepened, how decisions in faith are marked with preparation and liturgy, and how a congregation lives together – with its differences and tensions as well as its joys. This template has been called ‘discovering the DNA of any congregation’.
The Catechumenate uses members of local congregations, in groups convened and supported by the priest, to welcome others into the congregation by a process of sharing together in groups over a year or more. There are four elements: Welcome, where initial contacts are made and discussions begun, Deepening of Faith where in-depth discussions take place over some months on subjects suggested by enquirers, a time when the decision for commitment is made leading to baptism and/or confirmation and a time when members of the group share with one another what it ‘feels like’ to be a member of the eucharistic congregation.
Crossing boundaries in this way, or marking stages on a journey, becomes a sacred shared time with other pilgrims. Across Europe there are stories of what this experience means: ‘It was like my wedding day’, one lady said as she went to the cathedral with her sponsor and friends for her confirmation; ‘It is like coming home’, said a man who returned to church after half a lifetime away; ‘I can now offer my work up to God’, said a stressed worker; ‘Our congregation is renewed by people who talk with ease about where they are now in their faith’, said one priest.
There are many different ways in which someone can enter a congregation. ‘Come in and become like one of us’ is not one of them. Welcome as people enter a church can be overdone or it can be understated. The sensitive congregation will give appropriate support before, during and after services. One diet of opportunities to meet people will drive the hesitant away. I know of a congregation that devises a different kind of social occasion or activity each month so that different people can be invited in. I know of another where a couple hold ‘newcomers lunches’ every so often so that those who are new to the congregation can exchange experiences of joining, and be able to laugh about them!
People do not join congregations to be put on the flower rota or the brass-cleaning list. Teachers do not join to run the Sunday School or accountants to become treasurers. Those who join should first meet opportunities to learn about faith and church. A congregation with no Lent or Advent activity, no prayer or healing group and no opportunity for bible study, even as notes, has a whole section of its reason for existence missing.
Churches that are growing are those where adults can have the opportunity to get at least some of their questions answered and where all can learn how to pray. The congregation that thinks that midweek activities of any kind are only for enthusiasts is closing itself down, as is the one which has an assumption that Sunday worship can sustain all comers, of all ages, through everything that a week can produce.
‘They did not miss us when we were not there for a month’; ‘They asked us if we had come to hear our banns read and we kept on saying we were already married!’ Expect that enquirers have come because something in them has prompted them to come to this strange building. Expect that there is a grain of faith in parents who ask for their infants to be baptized. Most of all, expect that adults as well as children can come to faith and ask for baptism and confirmation. The congregation without these assumptions does not know how to visit, welcome and invite enquirers into a dialogue about commitment.
My own view is that every congregation should work out what its policy is for welcome and for invitation into initiation. There may not be anything more than an indiscriminate baptism policy, but it should be discussed and agreed as that. A church without the commitment from lay people to accompany enquirers, be they parents, marriage preparation couples, teenage or adult confirmation candidates is abdicating its faith responsibilities. Clergy should not do all, or any, of this. Their responsibility is to enable the already committed to share their faith and to create a culture within the congregation where welcome, nurture and an invitation to commitment are implicit.
In the Catechumenate there is a wonderful time, after confirmation, when the Eucharistic community welcomes newcomers. I have come to see that this is about as inspiring as ‘and they lived happily ever after’. What newcomers enter is a group of people striving to become a community. The idea that life within the church is a bed of roses needs to be contradicted immediately. Our biggest piece of learning when considering ways in and ways out of the church is to want to learn how we tolerate one another and how we live with all the tensions and frustrations which churches by their very nature produce.
Religious Orders are a radical experiment in community. The Third Order, or Iona or Taizé offer to their membership extra resources about life in community to bring into a congregation. Membership helps some of them to stay in their congregations. Deeper explorations about how the Christian faith is nurtured within the life of a church may help some to stay in. Is it really a model of community? Are tensions ever fully resolved about church order, interpretations of faith, lifestyle and the responsible use of money and buildings? Congregations where these issues are allowed to come to the surface and be managed are ones in which I hope some enquirers might find a welcome which is more than smile deep and where those who might leave can find a reason for hanging on in. f
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