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Vol 38 No 2


Jim Quillinan

Michael Trainor

Trish Madigan OP

Michael Fallon MSN

Phil Riordan

Mark Raper SJ

Bob Irwin MSC



New Evangelisation and learning from others


OVER THE PAST four years or so I have been participating in the Sunday worship and rituals at various fundamentalist or ‘Pentecostal’ churches in the large provincial city where I lived. It has been an extraordinary experience; sometimes my assumptions regarding such gatherings were confirmed but, more often than not, I was agreeably surprised and even envious!

For several years I had heard in a number of fora that the fundamentalist churches were attracting increasing numbers, that they were the fastest growing churches in town. Having given talks each year at the local Bible College run by the Assembly of God church, I was also surprised by the number of people who came up to me at the end of my talks to tell me that ‘I used to be a Catholic’. Those numbers were quite significant and I began to wonder what had attracted them or caused them to make such a change. I had also heard that, although many people joined such churches, it was for a short time only and their congregations changed often. The last piece of local wisdom was that these churches were attracting many, many young people—in contrast to the diminishing number of young people in the local Catholic congregations.

I decided to find out for myself. Over the last four years, while continuing to worship weekly in my own parish, I attended various fundamentalist churches in that city, sometimes once a month and, for a short period, two Sundays a month. Some Churches I quickly rejected for a number of reasons—they were often what I might term ‘aggressively Christian’. The world and virtually all that was in it was sinful and God’s wrath was about to descend. This apocalyptic message was usually accompanied by a very spartan liturgy, which often reflected this rather joyless and ‘hopeless’ message. Numbers in these congregations were small and few young people attended. I noticed that there seemed to be a high turnover of participants but a solid core of adherents was glued to this community. They were rather aggressive in trying to sign me up, rather than offering a genuine sense of welcome so evident in some of the other churches. I did not stay with these churches for long!

Over these years I came to narrow my involvement down to three churches, then in the last eighteen months or so, to two. This selection process was difficult, certainly not as simple and easy as the decision involved in deciding not to continue my involvement with the apocalyptic churches mentioned above. These three churches were much more welcoming, much more engaging and, although the ‘message preached’ was often apocalyptic and suspicious of the world in which we live, the ‘message lived’ was very appealing. That appeal was evidenced by the growing numbers in each of these congregations over these four years, the stability of the congregations and the number of young people, people from a variety of cultures and ethnic backgrounds who attended regularly and enthusiastically. From my experience, the notion that while numbers attending these congregations are increasing but change regularly is a myth – they are growing and people are staying on in ever increasing numbers.

I suggest that there are a number of readily identifiable reasons why these congregations are attractive alternatives to so many:
1. They are welcoming communities
2. The liturgy is vibrant and engaging and is responsive to the particular community.
3. The simple message, illustrated by scriptural texts and events, offers certainty, hope and confidence as it answers the concerns and confusion many people feel in what many of them consider to be this apocalyptic time of rapid change.
4. The action of God in our daily lives is recognized and acknowledged.
5. A commitment to Christ is required—we are challenged to work with Christ to change our world.
6. The connection between Sunday worship and daily life is strong and creative.

The following description is an amalgam, fairly common across the three churches.

Welcoming Communities

Perhaps this is their most striking and endearing feature. My initial contact with the more apocalyptic communities was almost stereotypical, the ‘foot-in-the-door type’ callers we have all experienced at home, those who don’t take rudeness let alone ‘no’ for an answer. I found them aggressively persistent and annoying. They wanted to ‘save my soul’ and sign me up in one encounter.

Others were very warm and genuine in their welcome. The three congregations I finally settled on were similar in approach. I was met as I entered the church. I was introduced to another member of the congregation who took me to my seat and introduced me to others around, in particular to a person who then became my ‘hospitality mentor’. That person made sure I was welcome by ensuring that I had a hymn book, I had some familiarity with the order of service and that I had met those around me in the church. I was to learn later that this group interacted on a number of occasions during the ceremony. My hospitality mentor stayed with me throughout the ceremony and during the rather lengthy period of refreshments at the end of the formal service.

At the outset I was immediately struck by the noisy and happy conversation—quite a contrast to my traditional, Irish Catholic view, which encouraged silence in the church. What I could only describe as ‘warm up’ music was always played before the formal start to the ceremony—some people joined in the signing while others, particularly the younger members of the congregation, circulated fairly noisily and happily around various groups. Over the next few months I found myself arriving earlier so that I could be part of this informal but very enjoyable period of welcome and exchange.

The second surprise was the large number present, the number of young people including young marrieds with families and those seemingly lost from mainstream churches— teenagers, those in their early twenties and members of the local indigenous community! Contrary to popular mythology, these people remained members of the congregation throughout the period of my being part of that assembly.

On my second visit to this community I was asked by my mentor to fill in personal contact details. Subsequently I was visited at home by that person—a brief, friendly visit, the duration of which was quite obviously dictated by my welcome and my desire to continue with this contact. In subsequent weeks I received a number of friendly visits and telephone calls. All of these contacts ended with us praying together. They were not intrusive calls as one might have come to expect from such groups. These contacts would, I suggest, be welcomed by those new to town or experiencing loneliness in any of its many forms. The mentor worked hard at ensuring that I felt part of the community, not just during the service, but that person delivered the ‘parish’ newsletters, kept me informed on progress of any of the projects being undertaken by the community and news of any of those for whom we had prayed. I felt I knew them! Had I stayed as a member of either of these communities, I would have been expected to undertake similar mentoring and hospitality.

The Ceremony

To say the least, ceremonies were vibrant, alive and engaging. At the same time, they contained periods of deep silence and reflection, times of sharing and opportunities to express and formalize commitment to Jesus Christ. The Australian Catholic Bishops suggest that the young Catholics of today find the current Catholic Sunday liturgies to be ‘bland, dull, repetitive and routinised’; my discussions with the young people attending regarding these ceremonies evoked a very different response.
Liturgies began long before the official commencement of what might be called the ‘formal celebration’. The choir and musicians began singing as the congregation arrived— we were encouraged to circulate to meet and greet. This period could often be quite noisy, with friendly greetings and conversation. Others simply sang along with the choir.

Establishing a strong sense of community was obviously a high priority.

I suspect that the musicians and some members of the choir were paid professionals. They were very, very good and the atmosphere they created was quite powerful. Singing was usually accompanied by movement—raising of the arms, clapping, dancing. There was always a variety of songs chosen—from joyous, engaging and welcoming hymns, to more sombre, reflective ballads. It was obvious that much planning had gone into each liturgy. Yet often spontaneity reigned, particularly in response to the pastor’s homily or to the prayers for members of the congregation but particularly in response to the Testimony of Miracles section of the ceremony. While spontaneity was often a feature, there was a recognisable order to each ceremony. The key focus centred on the saving power of Jesus in our daily lives—the hymns, songs, readings and prayers all testify to that action. Giving vent to the emotions was encouraged and many took that opportunity.

The reading and explanation of the Word is the central feature. While the Word is proclaimed forcefully and the delivery of the sermon is engaging, for me the message is not. It is very contradictory. There is little attempt at exegesis but rather scriptural texts were used to endorse the preacher’s particular point of view. While we have been saved by Jesus, and nourished by the Word, there is much emphasis on our sinfulness and sinful ways and our refusal to see the apocalyptic messages in the events of the world around us.
While we celebrated with joy being saved and redeemed, a vengeful God lurked nearby so we had to be ever watchful and vigilant. Yet the message contained a strange mix of fatalism while at the same time proclaiming the liberating and transforming power of the Word. Faith is seen as the free gift of God but there did not seem to be much emphasis on the free response of the person receiving that gift. The belief in the nature of the person was very much at odds with the theology of the human person enunciated during this papacy.
Yet such a message obviously addressed the needs of so many. In discussions later during and after the ceremony, so many of those participating were looking for certainty in times of change and in a period that quite a number (though not all) considered to be ‘End Times’. Some were consoled and confirmed in their belief that the world is a place of evil or at the very least, a place of great temptation. There is an underlying theme that some are chosen but many are not. The chosen ones, who have been baptised in the Blood of the Lamb, will listen to, be nourished and inspired by the message of scripture in its literal interpretation. The belief in the transforming power of the Word is extraordinarily strong—it is talked about by both preacher and members of the congregation. Simplicity and certainty were two key features of each Sunday message. The Scriptures address your every question and your every need. I could not help but wonder what so many young people found in this message but, in subsequent discussions, I concluded that, while for some the message was important, the attraction had more to do with the sense of belonging and community, the vibrant, joy-filled liturgies and the challenge to enact a commitment to Christ.

The Testimony of Miracles

Initially I was very apprehensive about this section of the ceremony, yet I subsequently found it to be both moving and inspiring. In simple terms, we prayed in silence to recall the miracle of God’s action in our lives. Then, in small groups each person was asked to give testimony to the wonders God had wrought in her or his life over the last seven days. Joining hands together at this time of reflection is very emotive. This period of silence can be quite long and, surprisingly, even the children remain quiet. After the silent reflection, each one in the group gave testimony to this action, from the small and seemingly inconsequential occurrence to the dramatic and ‘life-changing miracle’. All experiences were valued, acknowledged and were cause for praise to the Creator. Our small group gave thanks for the wonders of the action of God in each of our lives. This section concluded when all were called to assemble again and quite often many of these experiences were shared with the total congregation. The action of God across the whole world, as evidenced by world events during that week is also praised. The section of the ceremony concluded with the entire congregation singing a great hymn of praise.

The testimony of Miracles is a skilful combination of quiet prayer, contemplation and reflection. A personal, public testifying to my own faith rather than in a community recitation of the Creed was initially unnerving but became a catalyst for a much more reflective conclusion to my own prayers at the end of each day.

The Commitment to Christ

No-one leaves the assembly without making some commitment to Christ for the next week. No-one. That commitment is usually discerned individually in a small group process near the end of the ceremony or allotted by the group leader at that time. Leaders (known by a variety of titles such as ‘deacons’, leaders of Jesus Ministry, Ministers of the Word etc) have already been appointed to facilitate the groups. Many of those present know what they will do to demonstrate their commitment—for those like me, new to this experience, the leader suggested ways in which we might become committed to Christ. Suggestions included such alternatives as the study of one of the Books of the Bible (for those who were infirm or perhaps aging), or a commitment to visit each house in a number of streets, or a commitment to assist in the preparation of next week’s gathering. In my case, after two weeks of attending these ceremonies, I was allotted a family to care for. The mother of these three children was quite ill. The father was working long hours in a rather arduous job. I mowed their lawns, completed general handyman tasks and cooked meals for the families on some occasions. It became very obvious to me that my entry into the group was not the norm but rather the exception. During this call for a commitment all of us were asked to ‘bring a friend’. Most people who took part in these ceremonies and who joined this church came after an invitation from a friend. A very strong emphasis was placed on issuing such an invitation as a tangible sign or even proof of our commitment to Christ.

I was very struck by the fact that I had never been asked to do anything like this by my own church congregation, I had never been asked to testify to my faith in such a personal manner or by any such commitment to action. The call for a practical Commitment to Christ was compelling!

Home Cells: Linking Sunday Worship with Daily Life

During the week groups (known as ‘Home Cells’) meet for a variety of reasons—sometimes just for some like-minded interest (art and craft, four wheel driving etc). Other groups meet regularly to undertake some study and prayerful sharing of scripture; another meets to assist in the preparation of the following Sunday’s sermon. If a concerted visiting drive is to be undertaken in a particular area or suburb, a group meets to plan that campaign while another group meets regularly to pray for the success of that campaign throughout its duration. There is a strong expectation that everyone will be involved in such a gathering at some time during the year as part of his or her commitment to Christ and as part of their need to belong to and be continually nourished and protected by belonging to this community. Prayer is a strong feature of such groups. That takes a variety of forms from reflecting on scripture, to long periods of silent reflection, but spontaneous prayer is always a strong element of such gatherings.

The outreach to young people was a very important and innovative ministry of each of the churches I visited. Time did not permit my becoming involved in such gatherings, but if attendance at Sunday gatherings was any criterion, this ministry was very effective.

Some Pastoral Implications

Ceremonies are the product of much planning and organization. They are a skilful combination of careful organization, theatre and opportunity for spontaneity in that they allow for and encourage the movement of the Spirit. The Synod Fathers of Oceania expressed their desire that local Churches continue to foster their liturgical life, fostering greater participation leading to a greater sense of mission. Some exploration of the practices, which are the source of such a renewed sense of mission and prayer so evident in these churches, could prove to be very helpful.

The various church ministries find expression during that central gathering. The ‘hospitality mentors’ and those who facilitate the Commitment to Christ and the Testimony of Miracles are well trained. Musicians and ceremony leaders are similarly trained and prepared.

The welcome is nothing short of compelling. It is a very, very important feature of the gathering and goes to the heart of their belief in community. This is a gathering of those who have been saved but who are also in need of continual care and protection. The world is full of temptations that could drag them away from the community, which is the expression of God’s love and care. Hence the contacts outside of the Sunday and the need to be about the work of God (Commitment to Christ)—the devil makes trouble for idle hands! Increasing numbers of young people quite obviously find membership of these communities to be satisfying and challenging. A considerable number of them were once members of the Catholic Church. Many of them expressed satisfaction with ‘the spirituality’ that they find in such gatherings and such communities.

Belonging to such communities is ‘costly’ both in time and in money. Sunday services demand a commitment of around two hours. Such a commitment did not seem to deter anybody. There is a strong expectation that time will be committed during the week to some pastoral work or membership in a group activity. Financially we were encouraged to be ‘generous’ even to the point that a suggestion was made as to how much an individual might contribute, based on the personal contact details provided on my second visit. While tithing was not the norm, it was not far from it!

The Oceania Fathers consider the presence and activity of these groups and movements to be a challenge to the Church. In response, a more welcoming approach to young people and a revitalised pastoral outreach is encouraged (Ecclesia in Oceania #24). More importantly perhaps, is the call to better biblical and sacramental catechesis as well as an appropriate spiritual and liturgical formation. It is certainly a high priority.

When Pope John Paul II first spoke of New Evangelisation, he called for new ardour, new methods, new ways. This involvement has given me an opportunity to experience all three. The mission of the Church is to retell its great Story of God’s love in ways that excite our imaginations and touch our hearts. Obviously for increasing numbers of people these churches are retelling this Great Story in such ways.

I was full of admiration for much of what I saw and many of those whom I met but I felt a sense of loss and disappointment—something was missing in all of this for me but, more ardently as it were, a sense of loss for those who no longer find our central gathering place an occasion which speaks to them. We can learn from these churches.

Jim Quillinan is currently Head of Educational Services at the Sale Catholic Education Office. He previously worked in Queensland. He also works in the area of teacher spirituality and formation.