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 peoplein 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
reasonsthey were often what I might term aggressively Christian.
The world and virtually all that was in it was sinful and Gods 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:
The following description is an amalgam, fairly common across the three
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 dont 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 conversationquite
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 ceremonysome 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
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
persona 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.
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.
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 movementraising
of the arms, clapping, dancing. There was always a variety of songs chosenfrom
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 pastors 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 livesthe
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 preachers
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
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 Gods 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 commitmentfor
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 weeks
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.
Home Cells: Linking Sunday Worship with Daily Life
During the week groups (known as Home Cells) meet for a variety
of reasonssometimes 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 Sundays 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.
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.
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 Gods 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 disappointmentsomething 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.