Expert offers tips for parish evangelization


COLUMBIA — When Father Patrick J. Brennan told an enthusiastic crowd of 100 parish leaders on Jan. 30 to “grow things organically,” he wasn’t talking about gardening. The Chicago pastor was talking about evangelizing in the parish, and he used marketing language to illustrate his point.

“The great quest for us in parishes is to move people, especially young adults, from disinterest to curiosity to want,” Father Brennan said. “Either we’re going to be a maintenance church or a mission church. If we’re going to be a mission church, evangelization should be a contagion.”

The signature of mission parishes, he said, is that they are innovative, concerned about the unchurched, seeking and welcoming seekers; they are younger demographically than maintenance parishes and they bring in adequate resources. Stewardship and evangelization are webbed together, the priest said. He suggested an holistic approach to evangelizing, including developing small Christian communities within parishes (also known as house churches), transforming imperfect motivations during sacramental preparation time into conversions and using the catechumenate model for planning processes.

“To evangelize a parish, have a plan. That means doing research, conducting surveys, formulating a vision statement and a mission statement which involve heart, values and principles, and then creating structures and strategies to accomplish your goals and objectives,” he said.

Father Brennan is the author of 12 books on spirituality, psychology and church renewal and is the president of the National Center for Evangelization and Parish Renewal, in addition to being pastor of Holy Family Church in the Archdiocese of Chicago. His parish has 3,000 family members and offers 150 ministries to them. He was brought back to South Carolina after his presentation at the Diocese of Charleston’s All Ministries Conference last autumn proved so popular. His seminar at the Ramada Plaza on Jan. 30 provoked bursts of animated discussion all day long.

Father Frank Palmieri of Immaculate Conception Parish in Goose Creek said that the purpose of liturgy is to evangelize — to spread the Good News of Christ: “We come to church to be fed and to feed.” Father Brennan told the pastor that he was articulating the sacramental theology of St. John.

Ray Deshazo of Corpus Christi in Lexington said that children have asked him why Protestant churches seem to have so much fun.

“Their ministers inspire them,” he said. “Whenever I sit in a pew and hear a poor homily, I feel bad.”

Virginia Sejman of Our Lady of Lourdes in Greenwood said that parishes can’t shoulder all the blame for poorly evangelized members.

“Evangelization should begin at home,” she said. “That’s where we lost it.”

Patricia Dunphy of St. John Neumann in Columbia said: “It starts with me, works through us; and there are no theys.”

Jerry Arter and Ralph Keene of Immaculate Conception and Stick Thibodeaux of St. John Neumann agreed that small faith communities have the potential for increasing the church’s success in inviting people into communion with her.

“Evangelization efforts will have to come from small Christian communities,” Thibodeaux said. “We have to energize and evangelize the faithful (through the house churches), and then ask them to step out of the box.”

The Diocese of Charleston is gearing up to promote small Christian communities within parishes, according to Paul Schroeder, director of evangelization, initiation and catechesis. The diocesan emphasis is on evangelization, he said, and the concept of small, Christian communities is at the top of the list.

“That’s the vision of the Synod (of Charleston) too. We’ll start at the diocesan level by training facilitators; you start in the communities by faith sharing. It’s where the church is moving. Stay tuned,” Schroeder said.

House churches are groups of parishioners who meet for faith sharing, Bible study, Christian parenting discussions and other spiritual purposes in members homes. They are patterned after the style of the early church and are thought to instill a greater sense of community and ownership among the faithful. Liturgical celebrations still take place in the big church.

Father Brennan said that preparation sessions for baptism, first Communion and confirmation offer “the most opportune time to evangelize” whole families and outlined how the process can follow the structure used in RCIA in most parishes. He provided hand-outs on everything, including the particular nature of evangelization in the Catholic Church.

Catholic evangelization has certain characteristics. It is:

• Christ-centered

• inclusive

• invitational (not manipulative)

• oriented to life-long conversion

• at once individual and communal

• public and oriented toward justice

• a process of dialogue and experiences.

He said that the Catholic Church has had more than 40 years of statements and documents on evangelization, and is just now recognizing that it is not the exclusive domain of evangelical Christian denominations.

It’s a slow, painstaking process, he said, but beginning to bear fruit finally. It must start at the parish, in each parish’s own manner. That’s what he meant when he exhorted the crowd to “grow things organically.”

Father Patrick J. Brennan’s presentation was co-sponsored by the diocesan Office of Christian Formation and the Institute for Parish Leadership Development.