Taking people from ‘nones’ to regulars

Amazing Parish Conference debut highlights parishioner experience

Nissa LaPoint

Catholic heavyweights behind a Denver-launched parish revitalization movement shared with evangelizers across the country last week the keys to converting the unchurched into front-pew regulars.

Some 140 parishes and organizations from as far as New York and Canada gathered for an invitation-only workshop called The Amazing Parish Conference Aug. 27-28 in Denver to help churches become more vibrant centers for an encounter with Christ.

The first conference, funded by the local VINE Foundation, drew Catholic leaders including Jeff Cavins, Curtis Martin and Chris Stefanick to present with businessman Patrick Lencioni seven identified traits of an “amazing parish”—a reliance on prayer, a real leadership team, a clear vision, the Sunday experience, compelling formation, small group discipleship and missionary zeal.

What’s missing is not the sacraments, according to key organizers. What’s needed is a church filled with hearts on fire for Christ, and parishioners helpful to fallen-away Catholics navigating their way back to church.

“Yes, the Eucharist is enough, but so many people need more to understand that,” Lencioni, author and leadership consultant, said to the packed conference room inside the Hyatt Regency. “Those people out there who are former Catholics or Catholics going other places—they’re hungry for what you have. We know the most important part. This conference is about all the other things.”

Founders are calling it a Holy Spirit-inspired movement that began on the day Pope Francis was selected pontiff in March 2013.

Co-founder John Martin of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver told the Denver Catholic Register they want attendees to have “a zeal to take their parish to a level where parishioners are active disciples for Christ.”


Hearts on fire
This personal zeal is necessary for a transformation, Bishop Andrew Cozzens of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis said during his talk on evangelization.

“If we don’t have the fire in us it’s because we’re living a lukewarm and superficial existence,” he told the crowded conference room.

He urged pastors and parish staff that the best incentive for sharing the Gospel message comes from inside, from contemplating Christ in love.

“The fire begins to grow as I spend time with the one I love and when that fire grows then the Holy Spirit can use me,” he explained.

Parishes were asked to brainstorm ideas for putting this into action.

The bishop added that true zeal begins where natural enthusiasm ends.

“When you reach the end of natural enthusiasm and spiritual failure and weakness and you can’t go on, invite the Lord then a real transformation can happen and then real zeal begins.”


From consumers to disciples
Conference talks were built on the idea that a parish is where most people come to know Christ.

An alarming number of Americans are missing this opportunity, according to the Pew Research Center. “Nones” or those with no religious identity are a growing 19 percent or one-fifth of the population—and a third of adults under 30—researchers found in a 2012 poll.

Father Michael White, pastor of Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Md., and associate Tom Corcoran, shared how they shifted focus to these unchurched people.

Instead of adding more programs and ministries, the parish prioritized the Sunday experience and mobilized the help of regular parishioners.

The people in the pews were no longer approached as customers, he said.

“We were not leading people and we were not making disciples, but we were creating religious consumers in our parish,” Father White shared about the programs and activities they labored to provide. “So much of it was a waste of time.”

Together the pastor and associate authored the books “Rebuilt” and “Tools for Rebuilding” about the lessons they learned.

They asked attendees to brainstorm on ways to reach the unchurched by reevaluating their worship music, the message given during homilies and how ministers affect the Sunday experience.

“I want to see the average parishioner reawakened,” said Cathy Gold, parishioner at the 5,000-family St. Patrick’s Church in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. “Everyone should be sitting on the edge of their seat.”

After the discussion, Father Jarek Pochocki, O.M.I., pastor of St. Lawrence the Martyr and St. Patrick churches in Hamilton, Ontario, said he and his parishioners could work on reaching out to the small and diverse community.

“The topics seem obvious but this (conference) really reinforces our understanding of it,” he said.

During the conference, Archbishop Samuel Aquila of the Archdiocese of Denver celebrated Mass. Matt Maher led an evening of music, and adoration and confession were made available.

Lencioni presented on “a real leadership team,” Lisa Brennikmeyer presented on “small group discipleship,” Martin on “a reliance on prayer,” Cavins on “compelling formation,” and Matt Manion joined Lencioni to speak on “a clear vision.”


The Amazing Parish movement has provided free resources for Catholic leaders, clergy and laity, to achieve the seven traits at www.amazingparish.org. Key organizer Dominic Perri said the movement will also provide consultants to help parishes become thriving centers.

“The response has been tremendous,” he said during the conference. “There’s a tremendous hunger for this. … We’re here to serve the (parishes).”



COMING UP: Strong temptations? Defeat them like the Desert Fathers

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The fact that we don’t do what we want but instead do what we hate is a problem as old as our first parents. Yet, we can interpret temptation either as that which is always keeping us away from God or as the very vehicle to grow closer to him.

The Desert Fathers believed it to be a necessary vehicle: “Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven,” St. Anthony of the Desert used to say. They saw the fight against these evil enticements as a step to love God in a deeper way.

Here’s how these radical followers of Christ – who fled to the Egyptian desert during the 3rd to 5th centuries to live a form of daily martyrdom in a land where being a Christian was no longer a risk – survived the strongest enticements of the flesh and the devil, as they sought to live out the Gospel and grow in perfection.

The sayings, teachings, maxims and stories they left behind, compiled and known as the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, show that a combination of three things: self-awareness, prayer and practicality, are key to battling the strongest disordered passions.

Alertness and action

“The early monks understood that temptations often come in the form of thoughts. We become attracted and have fantasies, whether that be in petty things, bodily appetites or social interactions,” explained Father Columba Stewart, O.S.B., expert on early monasticism, scholar and director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.

The first disposition they considered to be key, was self-awareness, “knowing what happens in our minds and hearts… how to recognize [bad thoughts] before we actually do a sinful action,” he said.

After this base, which requires continuous self-examination and attention to the inner impulses of the heart, the importance of prayer and practicality follow.

A hermit of the desert said to a young monk suffering from strong temptations, “This is the way to be strong: when temptations start to speak in your mind do not answer them but get up, pray, do penance, and say, ‘Son of God, have mercy upon me.’”

Prayer is not isolated from action. The hermit tells him to “get up,” “do penance” and “pray.”

Practicality can take on different forms, such as going in the opposite direction of the temptation or seeking help from another, Father Stewart pointed out.

“For example, when you’re angry with someone… thoughts of anger start emerging, and you replay in your imagination what made you angry. Then that turns into a mental video of how you’re going to get revenge. This is when self-awareness comes in and you realize that the thoughts you’re having are inappropriate,” Father Stewart said.

A first practical action would be to step away instead of going to find that person, he continued. “Then to use your mind and imagination to instead remember the times when your relationship [with that person] was better or think about the future and how great it will be when this passes.”

Light overcomes darkness

Also, this “get up” practicality consists in bringing to light one’s sins or temptations to someone else and not fighting alone.

“A common exhortation, attributed to many different monks, was that the Enemy, the devil, rejoices in nothing so much as unmanifested thoughts… A sin which is hidden begins to multiply,” Father Stewart wrote in an article.

He then explained that “If the devil was delighted by a monk’s self-imposed isolation, surely this was because the opposite of isolation, encounter with another, was the way to salvation.”

According to Father Stewart, this understanding led the Fathers to break from “the illusion of self-sufficiency, a pose which encourages self-absorption,” and find spiritual fathers.

“The desert tradition is universally insistent upon the young monk’s need for a discerning elder,” he explained. “The basic insight of the desert… was that one cannot grow towards perfection through isolated, solitary effort: grace is mediated through one’s neighbor, especially one’s abba [spiritual father].”

The way these early hermits fought temptations is one of many treasures that Father Stewart says they left behind. In fact, he encourages readers to look at the Sayings of the Desert Fathers as a source that is still “amazingly relevant.”

“[The Sayings of the Desert Fathers] have been very popular sources of wisdom and inspiration throughout history,” he said. “What sets [them] apart… is that they speak from and to experience rather than text or theory.”

“The tradition of Christian wisdom is great,” he concluded. “People only need to know where to find it.”