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Filling Our Empty Churches: Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down

Jeffrey Bruno

Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 09/01/15

Can't we offer God's best to His people and our best to God?

“Casual Atmosphere. Serious Faith. No Weird Stuff.” These words headed a brochure placed in my friend’s mailbox by a local congregation. She asked me what I thought of the brochure. I told her I would have preferred: “Reverent Atmosphere. True Faith. Endless Mystery.” Then we talked about the wisdom of various attempts at, for lack of a better phrase, “Christian advertising.”

I suspect that there is always a temptation to “market” the Gospel rather than proclaim it, to try to “sell” Christ to others rather than lead others to Christ. Fulton Sheen spoke of meeting a young priest who said, “Oh, Bishop Sheen! Since I was ordained, I’ve gotten 17 converts! How can I get more?” Bishop Sheen replied, “Stop counting.” The appeal of the empirical is that such things can be counted, measured, displayed, and then lamented or boasted about. But eventually the spiritual outstrips the empirical. Who could take seriously the claim that, say, “Our congregation has had a 43.5% increase in awareness of the felt present of the Holy Spirit this month!”

The tension between marketing and evangelization has been on my mind lately as I’ve been re-reading Marva J. Dawn’s, “Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time.” Granted, there is much of the book that is suitable only for a Protestant context, but there is still much food for thought to be gleaned from it.

She acknowledges that all Christians, especially Christian leaders, want to see their congregations and institutions grow, but many seem to be anxious not to be “too Christian (or Baptist, or Catholic or Evangelical, etc.)” lest people be driven away. To make the congregation or services or institutions grow, they reason (sometimes explicitly, sometimes not), we have to dilute the message to make it more palatable to more people. This approach I call, “The Problem of the Thai Restaurant.” (This image especially appeals to me, having served—and eaten—in Thailand.)

The menu of a Thai restaurant in America, for example, has many warnings about degrees of spiciness. In Southeast Asia, as in Latin America, North Americans are renowned for their inability to tolerate robustly spicy (hot) food. What most Americans would consider “spicy,”  most Thai natives would consider tepid. If I were at a Thai restaurant here in Florida, for example, and asked the waiter for the dinner seasoned for native Thai, the waiter would roll his eyes, shake his head, and assure me that I couldn’t handle it. (And he’d be right, as I’ve learned the hard way.) Local Thai restaurateurs know that if they offered only cuisine spiced for the native Thai taste, they would drive away most of their American customers. The restaurateurs are glad for the increased business, but they are quietly pained, they say, by the knowledge that they can’t offer authentic Thai cuisine to their customers.

Some folks, I imagine, seem to wish to manage Christian congregations and institutions in very much the same way. If we don’t serve, at least initially, “mild” Christianity, that is, Christianity that is not “too” Christian, then we will alienate people and drive them away. And then how would we pay our bills and answer to the higher ecclesiastical management?

This scenario is an exaggeration, of course, but it does have a point. Yes, all faithful Christians want to, as Marva Dawn says, “reach out”, but it seems that some folks have concluded that our present culture (in this case, a culture that is both post-modern and Western) has lost its taste or tolerance for “strongly spiced”, that is to say, fully robust, classical Christianity. (“Classical Christianity” would include, for instance, an emphasis on the Cross, the need for conversion, and an insistence on moral absolutes.) Consequently, Dawn notes, the well-intentioned believe that they only way to reach out effectively is to water down (she would say, “dumb down”) Christianity.

She confronts this false dilemma, especially as it is applied to worship, with some very challenging words:

“Evelyn Waugh once remarked that the West is dying of sloth, not wrath. For the most part institutions are lost, not because they are stormed by hostile outsiders, but because their custodians, overcome by apathy, diffidence, and intellectual fecklessness, simply give them away. Will we give away the Church and its gospel power by dumbing it down or by failing to reach out?… Truly, all of us who serve the Church want to be faithful and not to be dumbing down the Church. The question is whether we know when or if we might be doing it. Teachers in schools know that they are dumbing down the work and tests, and many educators are trying to counteract the societal forces that necessitate it. Do pastors, musicians, worship participants, and parish leaders know when we are dumbing down the Church? Do we sometimes know that we are dumbing down worship, but think that we must do so in order to appeal to persons in our culture?… Most of all, let us all together always be asking this basic question: Do our efforts in worship lead to genuine praise of God and the growth of character in the members and the whole body of this Christian community?… Out of concern for character formation, churches must think very carefully in planning the liturgy. We must not ask, Is this liturgy attractive? but always, What kind of character does this nurture? Does our liturgy focus on feelings rather than on God’s character, which evokes those feelings? If so, it will nurture a faith that depends on emotions rather than a faith that can cling to who God is in spite of human experiences of sorrow or estrangement.”

Throughout her book, Dawn insists that confidence in the transformative power of Christ must govern our proclamation of the Gospel, our order of worship, and the conduct of our ministry. The maxim of the great Jesuit missionaries has always been, “Enter through their door, but lead them through yours.” These wise and holy men entered alien, even hostile cultures, learned local customs and languages, and led people to the fullness of the Gospel, the life of the sacraments and the way of holiness to be found uniquely within the Church Christ founded. They could “reach out” without in any way disfiguring the Faith in an attempt to make it more “palatable.” They entered the door of the people’s culture, and then led the people through the door of the Church.

The great Jesuit missionaries can be rightly commended for (to use a contemporary phrase), “Meeting people where they are.” But they were not content to let people stay where they started. Dawn notes, “The people are, as they ever were, at the point of starvation for excellence.” The great Jesuit missionaries knew that all people are made for holiness, for an excellence at once godly and human, and deserved to have the fullness of the Gospel and all the riches of Christ within His Church offered to them. Perhaps when we are tempted to add a little too much water to the soup, we might learn from them, even as we pray for their intercession on our behalf. It is a policy of neither compassion nor prudence to offer a half a loaf when they deserve and are in need of a whole loaf.

I can well understand the temptation to despair or at least frustration when considering how to win over people enculturated such that they seem incapable of (or at least uninterested in) the timeless values of stillness, silence and solitude—so we may be tempted to offer excitement, entertainment and stimulation instead. (As if any congregation can compete with the worldly for the production of thrills…) I can well understand the discouragement of pastors, cantors and choirs when they ask, “Why won’t our people sing?”—so we may be tempted to offer musical novelty, percussion and volume as incentives to sing, as goads towards the visible (and therefore seemingly only) form of “liturgical participation” that some people take congregational singing to be.

Again, Dawn acknowledges the frustration, while offering a caution: “If most people only know the sounds of rock music and advertising jingles, is it even possible to engage them at any other level? Does anybody have the responsibility to try? Is the rich engagement of faith with the deepest and most profound musical expressions of humankind totally off the screen? Are people to be denied this legacy and treated contemptuously? I can only speak from my own experience, which is that people long for what is worth their time and effort. They look to us to struggle with what that is, to provide them with it as best we are able, and to treat them with the respect they deserve.”

Dawn is cautioning us against what has been summarized in political and educational contexts as, “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” In other words, it is not act of kindness to fail to offer people made in the image and likeness of God all that the human person is capable of in rendering worthy worship and discipleship to Christ. With great care, effort and patience, by invitation, witness and education, all people can be formed for discipleship and worship of Christ that neither cheats what is divine nor demeans what is human. That work simply cannot be done by slick brochures with catchy phrases, or with worship that is “not-too-Christian” or by any other means, however well-intentioned they surely are. Instead, that work can only be done by disciples of Christ who are witnessing to mysteries they are actually living, and whose lives can only be explained by their discipleship and their worship of Christ according to the mind of Christ in His Church.

Let us surrender our illusions and our manmade idols and confess that no mere technique or adjustment will fill our empty churches. The ongoing conversion of the faithful, seen to be both teachers and witnesses of an alluring and unsettling mystery—the great drama of Christian revelation—will draw people into the pews, for the good or souls, of course, but above all for the greater glory of God.

When I write next, I will speak of my experience of teaching medical ethics courses for almost 20 years, and how the classes have changed over that time. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

Father Robert McTeigue, S.J. is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus.  A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry, and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both Rhetoric and in Medical Ethics.

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