Having read this summer a little library of books on church growth and evangelising, I have obtained many useful insights into what makes a good parish. Still, I have not found a successful formula which can bring back the good old times when Sunday Mass was a natural part of European culture. There seems to be no easy fix to counter the secularisation of daily life. On the contrary, despite of our well meant endeavours, Western Christianity seems to be dying. The empty churches may signal that we are the last Christian generation.
In this climate, it is perhaps understandable that many parishes in desesperation try to lower the threshold, accommodating to modern culture by giving up traditional worship and instead adapting to forms of communication that we associate with the market place. To put aside what seems to be offensive to the modern mindset may give some results in the short run, but it is a blind alley as a way to growth. Rather than asking ourselves how to attract people to fill the pews, we must search for ways to grow spiritually. Our calling is to prepare ourselves for what looks like a long winter and thus lay the foundation for a bridgehead for the future.
Thus, the starting point should be a reflection on the nature of what we call mission and evangelisation. Fortunately, the Lord himself enlightens us when in the great commission, He urges the apostles to make disciples baptising and teaching them as he had commanded (Matt 28:19f).
Jesus describes the task of his disciples then and now as a form of harvesting (Joh 4:35ff). As labourers in God’s field reaping his harvest (Matt 9:37f, 1 Cor 3:6f), our evangelising is part of God’s salvation history and must therefore be understood in an eschatological perspective (Apoc 14:15). We are acting in God’s name adding to the church those to be saved (Acts 2:41,47). Thus, with Christ as the cornerstone the church grows into a ”holy temple in the Lord, a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Eph 2:21f). This is real church growth.
Understood in this perspective, what we call evangelisation must be seen as our participation in God’s own work. Consequently, it is God who gives us growth (Matt 9:37). We are only sowers and the seed is the word of God (Luk 8:5ff). Whether we are many or few will in the end be God’s own decision. Paradoxically, this does not mean that we are free from the great commission. The parable of the talents teaches us that we are under obligation to put ourselves and our resources at God’s disposition knowing that we are but worthless servants.
In the perspective of salvation history, the Father is the sower and Jesus is the reaper who sends his disciples to collect the harvest. The English hymn We plough the Fields expresses this penetration of God’s mystery in relation to our work:
We plough the fields, and scatter
The good seed on the land,
But it is fed and watered
By God’s almighty hand;
He sends the snow in winter,
The warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine,
And soft refreshing rain.