By Pierre-Alain Giffard (Ph.D.)
According to Jim Rohn, entrepreneur and personal development coach, success is nothing more than a few simple disciplines, practiced every day.
In the context of our local Church, a question arises: Which disciplines should we practice to successfully accomplish the mission that Christ has given us?There are of course personal spiritual disciplines, such as forgiveness (Luke 6:37) and charity toward the poor (Matthew 25:40), but at the parish level, towards the mission to make disciples and grow the Church (Matthew 28:19), what should these disciplines be?
Prayer. Church growth is first a spiritual matter. The Word of God tells us that it’s God who ensures growth (1 Corinthians 3:7); without him, we can do nothing (John 15:5). To begin a journey toward growth, a parish should start praying for its renewal and development: ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you (Matthew 7:7). These activities of prayer need to be planned and organized by parish leaders.
Spiritual Renewal. The Church began to grow right after Pentecost, and what growth! This phenomenal expansion can be attributed in large part to: 1) the action of the Holy Spirit, which was poured out on the disciples (following their prayers in the upper room); 2) the disciples’ life testimony; 3) the supernatural power that accompanied their preaching.
But Pentecost was not meant to be just a one-time event; outpourings of the Holy Spirit occur each time Christians seek to be renewed by sacraments, by personal and community prayer, by the reading and studying of the Word, by seminars like Life in the Spirit, by Eucharistic adoration, by spiritual retreats, by participation in small faith-sharing groups, by occasional fasting, and by other spiritual disciplines. Renewal will occur if activities like these are planned and organized by parish leaders.
Evangelization. For the last 40 decades, Christians from older established churches, have put more emphasis on social justice than on evangelization. Now they are encouraged by their leaders to reach out to those who do not know or do not follow Christ. But how can this be done at the parish level? Fortunately, there are programs and methods, like the Alpha Course, Parish Evangelizing Cells and others. Running such programs greatly contributes to the renewal and growth of a parish.
The Sunday Experience. Invited guests and visitors will most likely come back to church after a first visit if their Sunday experience is positive. This Sunday experience depends on how they are welcomed, preaching that is divinely inspired and connects truth to life, the quality and playfulness of worship, if children’s services are offered, the cleanliness of the facility, opportunities to get involved in volunteer activities and opportunities to create friendships.
To grow, parishes need to think in terms of integrating visitors and find a strategy to help newcomers experience fellowship and get involved in parish activities. As is the case of prayer, spiritual renewal, and evangelization, the Sunday experience has to be planned and organized by the parish leaders and supported financially by the board of administration.
These four pastoral disciplines come from the solid experience of growing parishes. They can become a reality in our parishes if our pastors, parish pastoral councils and our boards of administration make them a priority.
Parish leaders, like Jesus, should be driven by a God-given desire to make disciples. They need to move from maintenance to mission and encourage new pastoral initiatives that enable the parish and all its members to seek, welcome and integrate new people into the Church.
Without this desire, most of our parishes will continue to decline and eventually die because their pastors and members will not have fulfilled the fundamental divine mandate of the Church: to bring God’s love to all and integrate into the Body of Christ those whom God invites to forgiveness, peace, love and eternal life through an authentic loving relationship with Jesus.