You know we are living in strange times when an article is shared on Facebook 2,800 times yet I only see it because an old friend posted it. I was intrigued because I keep my eyes open for new perspectives on books or ideas that have already crossed my mind. In this case, it’s my thoughts about Rebuilt, a book by a priest and his lay associate who increased attendance at a dwindling parish by making some radical changes. They were largely inspired by evangelical megachurches, which are a common home for Catholics who leave the Church. If the people are finding something that seems better in evangelical churches, the men reasoned, we can give them those things in a Catholic parish. The result of their study and action was a revived parish, a popular book, and a second book focusing on strategies rather than story.
Rebuilt is not without its critics, though, and it is one of those critics that my friend directed me toward. I read the article she recommended and found it to be distinctly polarized against the Rebuilt strategy. (That’s probably part of why it was so popular; if you want page views, write something opinionated and controversial!) I agree that Rebuilt lacked details about the parish’s sacramental life, but I like that the authors were humble enough to admit that their strategies probably wouldn’t work for everyone (and some of their ideas had already failed). And we can’t ignore the large ex-Catholic population, so any idea is better than none. In the critique to which I am intentionally not linking, the author takes the approach that older is better and everything after Vatican II messed up what was already fine or misinterpreted recommendations for reform. His tone is biting, but he makes a reasonable argument that liturgy done well is outside the lived experience of many Catholics today. If all you’ve experienced are lackluster Masses, of course the Eucharist won’t draw you in like a good praise and worship band and a preacher in street clothes.
The high point of the article for me was a video featuring the restoration of a parish in downtown Omaha that decided to solve its hemorrhaging by looking back at the Catholic past rather than across the street to the evangelical present. Watch it here:
Now that’s an argument I can get behind! It focuses on what is good, and you can see the results. This ordinary parish (not even a cathedral) holds a Eucharistic procession. People are going to confession. The pews split by a long aisle are full. There are even laypeople gathered in the church to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. None of those things are new or found in evangelical megachurches, but they have brought life back into this parish.
I would be irresponsible if I didn’t point out that Nebraska has one of the most old-school dioceses in the country (Lincoln, the only other one in the state). I’m not at all surprised to see this coming from that particular locale. I would also be kidding myself, though, if I didn’t recognize my own faith experience and the experience of the students I worked with in ministry in the concept of making the old new again. As the pastor in the video notes, the old actions and attitudes gave us saints and vocations. There was a need for reform, but perhaps we threw out the baby with the bathwater, and if we bring that baby back, we will find new life.
What do you think? Where have you experienced new life in your parish and faith communities: in modern evangelical-style methods or in the revival of older traditions? Is there room for both? There is definitely room for charitable discussion here.