A couple of weeks ago, I received this postcard in the mail. It was from another church in the area inviting me to join them for coffee and worship on Sunday morning. I’m sure the church must buy a list of names and addresses and send out their invitation to anyone who moves into the area. But, I found it a bit ironic that the Catholic Priest was getting an invite. How would they know that Joseph Rascher who is now receiving mail at a street address in Trenton is ordained? My mind does have a habit of making odd little connections and I thought of sending a reply to the pastor of the church inviting me to join them paraphrasing the Cole Porter song from the 1930’s “Miss Otis Regrets” (click this link for lyrics and this link for a recording by Ethel Waters).
“Father Joe regrets he’s unable to pray, today, pastor.
Father Joe regrets he’s unable to pray, today.
He is sorry to miss coffee
But on Sunday at his church he’ll be missed,
Father Joe regrets he’s unable to pray, today.
There are a few thoughts the invitation to visit the church did bring to mind for me.
First, Jesus did say somewhere in the Gospel that we are to be as shrewd as serpents (Matthew 10:16) when it comes to proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Blessed John Paul II coined the phrase “The New Evangelization” at the dawn of the third millennium to stress among other ways that the Church must embrace new technologies and tactics to proclaim the message of Jesus in the 21st century. So, using marketing tools like direct mailings is not unusual or offensive to me in trying to draw attention to your church. My former parish of St. Stephen in Caseyville, IL produced an 8 minute video and mailed it in DVD format to anyone who moved into town for a while. The DVD was professionally produced by a parishioner’s husband who taught in the Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville campus Mass Media and Communications department.
But, targeted mailings, while clever and new evangelistic in methodology can not take the place of good old-fashioned personal contact. People come to accept the invitation to meet Jesus when the Body of Christ (the church who embodies him in the present) reaches out to those in need, to those seeking answers to their questions. I’d much rather be asked to visit a church by a living person that is convinced their church is a great place to hear the Word of God than receive a piece of mail.
Unfortunately, it’s been my experience that too many Catholics become shy and terribly nervous or tongue-tied when they have the opportunity to invite someone to our parishes. They seem to equate such invitation with the very direct door-to-door, two-by-two, white shirt & black tie wearing elders evangelization of a group like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (The Mormons). I know we’re not embarrassed by our beliefs, but maybe we’re a bit too worried about rejection or offending someone.
Evangelization doesn’t have to be the dirty E-word. We evangelize each time we unselfishly help another person. We evangelize (that is invite someone to respond to the Good News of Jesus) when we take a chance and invite the new neighbor who just moved in next door saying something like, “If you’re looking for a church, you’re welcome at ours” and then not pushing the issue).
If readers want to learn more about Catholic evangelization thinking, there is no better document to read than “Go and Make Disciples” by the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops.
Another thought that came to mind when I received my post card invitation is this. Notice what the church first invited me to experience? Coffee! Social time! I don’t remember Jesus giving us the sacrament of coffee. The early church did meet in private homes, but I’m a bit suspicious of churches having the feel of a Starbucks. Many people seem to find community at their local coffee dispensary, but is it an encounter with the source of all being, or just an encounter with a good bean? (Sorry for the pun!) My first reaction is that this is not worthy of the Word of God, it aims too low. The folksy style of gathering and worship “coffee house” churches provides is warm and fuzzy and facilitates connections between members but the Church is not about taking the edge off the harsh world by providing a space to chill out but about engaging the brokenness of the world, offering it the Blood of Christ poured out on the cross for the healing of all our human pain.
True, community is an essential element of the Christian life. It is only through our relationships with other baptized members of the Body of Christ that we fully know the Christ. That’s a Catholic premiss. It is not enough to know Jesus as a personal Lord and Savior. I need to be in relationship not just with Jesus but with his body, to be a member of His church, to know Jesus and be carried by him to the fullness of life. Coffee and doughnuts, coffee hours, parish picnics, sodalities, small Christian communities, bible study groups and the like are all good at building relationships that help us experience the unity of the Body of Christ, the community he desires to use to invite people into a saving relationship. But before all else, invite me to the celebration of the Eucharist (Mass, Breaking of the Bread, The Lord’s Supper),THE act of Christ that gathers his people into His one body that lives and reigns, that survives even death, forever and ever. AMEN.