So far, what has the New Evangelization (and all its attendant buzz) really looked like? How has it been rolled out in the broad discussion it has received?
Typically, it sounds like this: “We gotta do more stuff!” And that stuff is usually programmatic and event-based. More programs, more events, more video series, more meetings, more conferences, more talks, more books, more etc. We want to get the hippest, most attractive, technologically savvy, meeting-people-where-they-are-at kinds of talks and idea-exchanges. That is all good stuff – it needs to be done and thank God it’s being done. But like the tower of Babel, all of these efforts to communicate will come toppling down if we don’t build this effort to evangelize on a more sturdy foundation: community.
It is the expected solution of a thoroughly technological society to ‘see problem, build machine, fix problem.’ But that’s just not true to human life and it’s not how things grow. We don’t need just our evangelical gadgets. The New Evangelization is about reaching people and people are not like machines, they are like plants: they need an ecosystem in which they can sit and let nature takes its course. Thus, discipleship and evangelization (except for very rare cases – like cactuses in the desert) will never happen without relationships and community.
If that’s the case, then we have our work cut out for us. Catholic (especially young adult) life across the country is nearly exclusively event-based. We hop from Mass to Theology on Tap to an interesting talk to a conference and back around the circle. We live (at best) like a book club and not like a family. In this regard (like so many others) we sharply mirror the broader American culture. That’s cause for alarm. We survive on a hand-to-mouth social lifestyle thinking that simply fending off starvation can satisfactorily nourish us. We are like Hot Pockets being zapped in the microwave: never well cooked and really quick to cool (just ask Jim Gaffigan).
Toss aside the Hot Pocket life; what we need to do is make stew. Zapping in the microwave isn’t enough, we need to cook. We need a way to just let ourselves soak, mix in the flavors, keep each other full of heat, steep in the juices and simmer with each other. We need to build community. We need quantity time and quality time. We need to live our lives radically immersed in the (super)natural ecosystem of Christian communal life. We need to be in a place where the wind can blow freely, branches and roots can entangle and life can organically produce the fecundity that it naturally does.
How relationships grow and how community happens is far more messy and mysterious than problem solving. But, it is more real, because so is life! A forest isn’t built like a skyscraper, nor a stew made like a Hot Pocket. Moreover, this sense of a greater mystery afoot, of life somehow growing and growing is the typical mug-shot of the Holy Spirit at work, is it not?
The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit. (John 3:8)
Life lived in close relational proximity to other Christians allows the wind of the Holy Spirit to blow through and connect, causing more cross-pollination and more life to sprout (not just in terms of marriage and babies, but in all areas of life). Living in the gales of the Holy Spirit is tremendously creative (Gen. 1:2). He brings people together and in their midst produces light, healing, beauty, purity, trust, peace, joy, hope and love. He brings people together to sustain them, transform them and sanctify them.
So our attempts at a New Evangelization (which isn’t about ‘getting people back to Church,’ but about deeper conversion based on a personal relationship) will be frustrated if we fail to build community. This idea is nothing new. It is as old as the Acts of the Apostles and as recent as St. John Paul II:
Communion with Jesus, which gives rise to the communion of Christians among themselves, is an indispensable condition for bearing fruit: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). And communion with others is the most magnificent fruit that the branches can give: in fact, it is the gift of Christ and His Spirit. Communion and mission are profoundly connected with each other, they interpenetrate and mutually imply each other, to the point that communion represents both the source and the fruit of mission: communion gives rise to mission and mission is accomplished in communion. (Christifidelis Laici)
A final, practical point: how do we build community? As always in our technique-obsessed society, that ‘how’ kind of question is over-emphasized, but it is still good to ask. One easy yet profound way community can be built is through men’s and women’s groups. In such an environment, disciples of Jesus can tangibly support and fight alongside each other. Moreover, the idea of a ‘life lived together’ becomes concrete, experienced and visible. When “two or more” gather like this, great things happen. Men’s and women’s groups – find one.
Let’s be evermore aware that, as disciples, we need to live our lives in the context of Christian community. We warriors cannot fight alone; we need support. Let’s ask the Spirit to guide us in examining our lives for ways in which we can dive in deeper.
Let’s move beyond an event-based Catholic life and towards a community-based Catholic life.