How do we reach the unchurched? What should we be doing in light of the fact that church attendance, commitment to the church, and simple interest in the church as slipping daily?
What do we do, given that both our culture and our own children, for the main part, are not interested in the church?
Today there is a lot of talk, and considerable passion, on this matter. For the most part, however, this has been more helpful in pointing out the importance of the issue than it has been in suggesting effective ways that the unchurched might be reached.
There have been some good efforts made, like some of those around the concept of “the remembering church,” but, in the end, they have not been effective. We continue to lose ground, both in terms of impacting the mainstream culture and in bringing our own children back into the mainstream of the church.
I say this with due sympathy, as someone who doesn’t pretend to have the answers on this, but, and the hard truth needs to be accepted here, that despite considerable sincerity and effort, we have come up with neither a language, nor an approach, nor a program, nor even a vision that offers much hope for even a minimal effect on the unchurched.
Most of what we have developed which is good—in terms of vision, approach, language and program—has to do with maintenance, with sustaining the church life that we already have. However, for all our efforts, we have done virtually nothing that has significantly impacted the mainstream, unchurched culture.
So what’s to be done? How do we take Christ to the world? How do we take him to our own children?
I’ll begin by saying this: I don’t know and it would seem that nobody else knows either! If we did, we could simply go out and do it. For all of our sincerity, efforts, pastoral think-tanks and workshops on re-founding, our imaginations are still pumping dry.
Moreover, this is not our fault since as one of the theorists on re-foundation, Gerald Arbuckle, is fond of saying: “The new belongs elsewhere!” And we aren’t elsewhere—we’re here, inside of the church, incapable, for now, of imagining new ways of reaching the unchurched, let alone imagining new ways of living together as a church.
So where will our answer come from? My own hunch, based upon how new imagination (“revelation”) has often come into the church in the past, is that it will not come from either our hierarchy, our theologians, our pastoral projects, nor as a result of our endless meetings and workshops on the issue.
It will come when some wild man or mad woman, like Francis of Assisi, will one day strip off his or her clothes and walk naked out of some shopping mall and out of some city and begin, with his or her bare hands, to rebuild some old church somewhere (or something to this effect).
That madness will not only capture the imagination of the world, the unchurched, but it will again reshape the imagination of the rest of us, the churched—and it will reshape it in ways that are right now beyond the imaginations of both conservatives and liberals in the church.
My own hunch too, based upon the axiom that “the new belongs elsewhere,” is that this wild man or mad woman will not be someone who is of our generation, that is the generation of Catholics that is so pathologically and inextricably wrapped-up in its own reactions to Vatican II, be they liberal or conservative and all the infighting that flows out of that.
A wild imagination is like a wildflower—it grows elsewhere, in unspoiled meadows, far from well-used roadways and city streets. The imagination that eventually truly reshapes our ecclesiology will, I suspect, constellate in someone who is already post-critical, who isn’t shadow-boxing with his or her own Christian past and with his or her own fellow Christians.
That imagination, which I suspect will come out of a new convert or out of somebody who, while born and raised a Catholic, has already understood both the awesome power and ultimate emptiness of pagan beauty and needs now to fight neither the world nor the church, will be truly free to pull from its sack the new as well as the old.
I suspect that it will be somebody, like Francis of Assisi, who comes out of the yuppie generation. But then, who knows? That’s just my imagination—and I am not a wildflower! I am one of those Catholics in whose imagination I have, in this point, little confidence.
In the end, the answer will come from the Spirit of God, the wildest of all flowers, which grows in both spoiled and unspoiled meadows and can resurrect dead bodies and faith in both the unchurched and the churched.