However, most approaches I've seen towards parish revitalization have been less-than-great, ranging from the sorta successful to the miserable failure. There are tons of different parish revival programs, classes, and regimens, and the one thing most of them have in common is that they don't really seem to work. Now, I may be totally missing the mark, and you may be reading this thinking "My parish did such and such program and implemented such and such changes, and *poof* it saw staggering increases in parish life", and if that is the case, God bless you and God bless whatever person or group of persons who created such and such program. However, if you, like me, have no experience of that sort, you must surely be asking "Why? Why don't these parish revitalization plans work?
This subject was first brought to my mind when I saw a series of articles floating around the social mediasphere, articles like "MegaChurch or Catholic Church?" and "10 Ways to Put Megachurches Out of Business". Read them, by all means. They are bringing to light a real problem: the exodus of Catholics towards so-called "mega-churches". More often than ever, Catholics are finding themselves in the pews (excuse me, I meant to say the cushioned, comfortable seats) of "relevant" houses of worship, and less than ever, praying on the old rickety wooden kneelers of their Grammy's parish church. Unfortunately, as I read these articles, I found them laughably missing the point. Allow me to explain why:
If fixing the problem of the average parish's slow decay were as simple as a 10 step, clearly outlined process, it wouldn't be much of a problem. It'd be 10 separate, easily identifiable problems that correspond to 10 direct, identifiable solutions that, with some trial and error and fine-tuning, would be quickly and effectively implemented. But its not. The author's articles, which glimmer with the most golden of intentions, do not and will not solve the problem at hand, even if every single parish implemented it as best as they possibly could. "Why?" you ask? Because the author, like virtually every parishioner and everyone who sets out to fix the problem of parish decay, no matter how intelligent, looks at the problem through a corporate lens.
Let me step back here for a minute and give exposition. The United States of America, home to most (if not all) of my readership, is absolutely inundated by the trend of corporatization: the process of uniting different people to work cooperatively to achieve a common goal, namely, growing the corporation. Corporations dominate the economical landscape; they have so inundated our lifestyles that we have a hard time realizing just how odd they really are. Think about it: Corporations, that is, business corporations, exist to be successful. The moment corporations fail to be successful, they fail to exist anymore. They are unconcerned with making humankind better, apart from the direct economic benefits of doing so. The ultimate law of corporations is not towards humanity authenticity, but a relentless drive to gain and grow. The corporation utilizes those within it to feed this goal, it promises them that, by making the corporation grow and succeed, that those individuals who comprise the corporation will also grow and succeed as well (insomuch as we define human success as economic gain).
Don't get me wrong, I don't find corporations to be the icy cold grip of the devil upon the throat of humankind. I too enjoy the benefits and gains of corporate society as much as the next guy (special shout out to Dell Corporation, Microsoft Corporation, Google Inc., and Facebook Inc. for making my blogging possible). But its not all hard to see that the corporation, despite its being comprised of humans, is eerily inhuman. It is mechanical and artificial. Corporations do not care about goodness, truth, or beauty any more than the extent to which they can be used to become more successful. Corporations, despite being declared as "persons" in legal settings, do not feel, do not think, and do not love. They just want to be more successful. Period.
Decades of corporatization has not gone without its effect on our society. When you ask someone on the street "What do you want most for yourself?", they usually say something along the lines of success. People use corporate strategies to improve themselves and make themselves more competitive, so that they can be more successful, because, to them, the meaning of life resides in some re-iteration of achieving success. For example, when you discuss your college education with relatives, they invariably ask "What are you going to do with that?" Why? Because education itself is but a means towards success. Very few people are asking "What does it mean to be human being? What does it mean to be me?" "Me" is about succeeding. Period.
Now, back to the parish. Our parishes, along with most other Christian groups, are continuing to see themselves corporately. This is probably unintentional, but the signs of it are rather clear. Parishes are looking at their "problems" and asking "How can we be a more successful parish? How can we have more successful ministry? How do we get more people present and engaged in Mass?" These are decent questions, but any strategy to address these is going to be precisely that: strategic, designed to manipulate the situation and those in it to be more favorable to the strategist. Parishes do not exist to be successful, they aren't meant to create strategies on how to grow their "business". And yet, that is what they are doing. By orienting themselves towards evoking an effect, no matter how noble that effect may be, parishes have utterly failed at religion and reduced themselves into spiritual businesses, peddling appeasement to whatever it may be that our souls may desire for the price of making the parish seem "successful". This is why the mega-church is successful: its the Wal-Mart of spirituality, it appeases spiritual desires and does so in a way we are oh-so-much-more comfortable with.
Ten step plans for parish renewal, no matter how well thought out they are, will never compete with these spiritual shopping centers, because the Catholic Church is not a business corporation. There is no drive for success, there is no business plan, and there is no strategic plan for future expansion. There is just Jesus Christ, and the profound call to authentic holiness he has for each and everyone of us. So you want to make your parish better? You want to make your parish life more vivacious and beautiful? Good. Live your life in profound and authentic holiness, and beckon others to do the same. That's it. When you stand before eternity, God will inquire of you about how you loved Him and about how you loved others. There will be no questions about success, or about how you boosted parish participation, or about any plan for future improvement. There will simply be God gazing into your soul, searching for the love of his Son radiating forth from you.
Don't believe me yet? Look to Christ. Jesus had no strategic vision. He never uttered the word "success", at least not in the context that any of us would be comfortable with. There was nothing corporate about Jesus Christ, no plan to achieve anything except the will of the Father who sent Him. I don't think I really need to argue the point that Jesus was not a businessman in any sense of the word. Yet, there has never been anything as successful as Christianity. Christ made no attempt to be liked in the way our corporations attempt to be liked, so much to the extent that he was crucified, yet there has never been anyone so widely or passionately followed as Jesus Christ. Why? Because Jesus Christ was first and foremost concerned with doing the the Will of His Father. All the rest was secondary; every bit of real success about Christianity came to be because success was never the primary goal in the first place.
You want to build your parish better? You have to do the same thing to make your family better: be better. Your parish is your family of faith, it is those people God brought you together with, typically without much say on your behalf, because "Its not good for man to be alone" (Genesis 2:18). Your parish isn't supposed to do anything except be a family of faith together, to grow in holiness together. You have to strive to be holy if you want to make your Church better. Its certainly a much more difficult and occluded process than any 10 step plan, but it is the only real way to revitalize your parish. In fact, its the only way for you to do anything worthwhile. Period. Deo Gratias.