Recently I listened to a podcast episode in which the owners of a family farm discussed the problems of factory farming, and it struck me: the modern parish can look a lot like a factory farm.
Let me explain.
Farming and evangelism are two activities that God has specifically instructed each of us to do. In Genesis we are told to cultivate the garden (Gn 2:15) and in Matthew we are told to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19-20). But too many of us have abdicated our personal responsibility for these calls and agreed to centralize them for the sake of convenience.
The best argument for factory farming is that it seems to work. Holes in the system only become apparent during food shortages, price increases and strikes. Likewise, a parish may adopt principles from popular church renewal books such as Rebuilt Where Goal-oriented Churchbut any parish will eventually crumble if it becomes too centralized and too focused on measurable results.
Any parish will eventually collapse if it becomes too centralized and focused on measurable results.
Shortly after graduating from college with a degree in theology and a zeal for evangelism, I took a job in a parish, and after a while I felt like a cog in a machine that welcomes baptized babies and spits out confirmed 8th graders. I’m still a youth minister, but sometimes it seems like my job, to put it bluntly, is to convince these units to stay in the church until they graduate from high school.
During my first year, I was convinced that the system had to change. We relied on an outdated way of doing ministry. Catechism classes and groups like the Knights of Columbus were not enough. The parish also needed small programs focused on evangelism, such as Life Teen, a high school youth group, and Alpha, a weekly course that introduces non-Christians to the Gospel. But the real problem was that we relied on a “system” in the first place. We expected the programs to work on their own. We fell back into industrial evangelization.
Jesus speaks of the owner of a garden who wants to cut down a fig tree that does not bear fruit (Luke 13:6-9). The gardener he employs asks for another year to pay special attention to the tree and cultivate the land around it, adding: “If it should bear fruit next year, so much the better; but if not, you can cut it.
We lay people are failing in our mission. We contracted out evangelism to a few paid staff and a collective of volunteers.
Our world is filled with fig trees ready to be grown for Christ, but too often our approach is industrial. We assign specialists to work on a large scale: one builds a harvester, another makes the fertilizer, and yet another takes care of the front office operations to make sure everything runs smoothly. We can even hire an agricultural consultant to show us how to be more efficient.
The result at the parish level is that teenagers are, if not energized, at least entertained in a large group led by the youth minister. Parents can be satisfied with a dynamic parochial school run by experienced teachers. The elderly are happy to see that their church offers a children’s liturgy. The parish seems to be growing. Thus, the average parishioner does not see the need to evangelize. They do not become farmers themselves and are content to remain consumers.
It’s fine until the fruit stops coming. The problem with industrial agriculture is that it is less responsive to the needs of the land and the needs of individual trees. For example, monoculture (lack of crop rotation) can damage the soil. Eventually the fruits stop coming and the hired laborers move on.
Likewise, with industrial evangelism, the fruits stop coming sooner or later. The only way to prevent this is for everyone in the pew to learn to evangelize.
Much of the work done daily by parishes, including the celebration of the sacraments, is fantastic. But we shouldn’t be content to let that be the sole work of the church. On the whole, we lay people are failing in our mission. We contracted out evangelism to a few paid staff and a collective of volunteers. Yet we are all called to cultivate the land around the fig trees that surround us.
It is the responsibility of every Catholic to make disciples. You shouldn’t think your job is done if you serve on the pastoral council or stay “involved” in the parish. We are called to preach the Gospel to those who need it, Christians or not. We need to bring up spirituality in conversations with our children, neighbors, colleagues, and sometimes even people we meet in a bar or cafe. We cannot leave evangelization to our priests and our nuns.
Sometimes all we need is permission and a little courage. One of my catechism students was surprised when she discovered that she could start her own Bible study group and meet outside of youth ministry. Well, if you’re thinking of doing the same, consider this your permission. As for courage, it comes from God. But more than anyone, He wants you to evangelize the people in your life. He gave you a small part of his garden. Cultivate it well.
[Read next: Bishop Wack: We need more evangelical Catholics]