The modern parish is a lot like a factory farm. Laypeople can change that.
Recently, I listened to a podcast episode in which the owners of a family farm discussed the problems with factory farming, and it struck me: The modern parish can be a lot like a factory farm.
Let me explain.
Farming and evangelization are two activities that God specifically asked each of us to do. In Genesis, we are told to till 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 to these calls and have agreed to centralize them for the sake of convenience.
The best argument for factory farming is that it seems to work. The holes in the system only become apparent during food shortages, price increases and labor strikes. Similarly, a parish may adopt the principles of popular church renewal books like Rebuilt or Purpose Driven Church, but any parish will eventually break down if it becomes too centralized and too focused on measurable outputs.
Any parish will eventually break down if it becomes too centralized and too focused on measurable outputs.
Soon after I graduated from college with a theology degree and a zeal for evangelization, I took a job at a parish, and after a while, I felt like a cog in a machine that takes in baptized babies and spits out confirmed 8th graders. I am still a youth minister, but sometimes it seems that my job, to put it crudely, is to convince these units to remain in the church until they graduate high school.
In my first year, I was convinced the system needed to change. We were relying on an outdated way of doing ministry. Catechism classes and groups like the Knights of Columbus were not enough. The parish also needed small, evangelization-focused programs, like Life Teen, a high school youth group, and Alpha, a weekly class that introduces non-Christians to the Gospel. But the real problem was that we were relying on a “system” in the first place. We expected the programs to work on their own. We were falling back into industrial evangelization.
Jesus speaks of the owner of a garden who wants to cut down a fig tree not bearing fruit (Lk 13:6-9). The gardener in his employ asks for one more year to pay special attention to the tree and cultivate the soil around it, adding: “If it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”
We laypeople are failing in our mission. We have outsourced evangelization to a few paid members of staff and a collective of volunteers.
Our world is filled with fig trees ready to be cultivated for Christ, but too often our approach is industrial. We assign specialists to work at a large scale: One builds a harvester, another makes the fertilizer, and yet another handles front office operations to make everything run smoothly. We may even hire a farming consultant to show us how to be more efficient.
The result at the parish level is that teens are, if not energized, at least entertained in a large group run by the youth minister. Parents may be pleased with a vibrant parish school run by experienced faculty. Older folks are happy to see that their church offers a children’s liturgy. The parish seems to be growing. So the average parishioner sees no need to evangelize. They do not become farmers themselves and are content to remain consumers.
This is fine until the fruit stops coming. The problem with factory farming is that it is less responsive to the needs of the land and the needs of the individual trees. For example, monoculture farming (the failure to rotate crops) may damage the soil. Eventually, the fruit stops coming and the hired hands move on.
Likewise, with industrial evangelization, the fruit stops coming sooner or later. The only way to prevent this is for each person in the pew to learn how to evangelize.
Much of the work that parishes do on a daily basis, including the celebration of the sacraments, is fantastic. But we should not be content to let this be the sole work of the church. On the whole, we laypeople are failing in our mission. We have outsourced evangelization to a few paid members of staff and a collective of volunteers. Yet we are all called to cultivate the soil around the fig trees near us.
It is the responsibility of every Catholic to make disciples. You should not think your work is done if you serve on pastoral council or stay “involved” at the parish. We are called to preach the Gospel to those who need it, Christian or not. We need to bring up spirituality in conversations with our children, neighbors, co-workers, and sometimes even people we meet at a bar or coffee shop. We cannot leave evangelization to our parish priests and religious sisters.
Sometimes all we need is permission and a little courage. One of my catechism students was surprised when she found out 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, that comes from God. But more than anyone else, he wants you to evangelize the people in your life. He gave you a small patch of his garden. Cultivate it well.
[Read next: Bishop Wack: We need more evangelical Catholics]