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A Sense of Belonging: The First Step to an Evangelizing Parish

In our Catholic parishes, we have become more aware of the need to bring in those outside our parishes and to ensure that they experience a sense of belonging in our communities. Today, belonging is often the first step in a person’s willingness to be open to Jesus Christ and his Church.

by Dr. Janet Diaz

Many leaders talk about the human dynamic we call “belonging.” Psychologists say that all human beings have a fundamental need to feel they “belong,” to feel connected to others in a meaningful community. Business leaders foster “corporate identity,” pointing to the need for all in the company to feel a sense of belonging within the organization. Those in political life express a vision that they hope will inspire others to join up, to belong to their cause. Many megachurches insist on members joining small groups since the small group is a path to a sense of belonging within the larger community of the church. Most organizations recognize the essential importance of their members having a sense of belonging.

In our Catholic parishes, we have become more aware of the need to bring in those outside our parishes and to ensure that they experience a sense of belonging in our communities. Today, belonging is often the first step in a person’s willingness to be open to Jesus Christ and his Church.

“Belonging” yesterday and today

Belonging used to be a pretty simple matter in Catholic parishes. If you “belonged” to the parish, you were part of “the club.” The “club” as a whole tended to follow the same moral code.  Many Catholics who were members of a particular parish also lived in close proximity to one another. There was a lot of “connection.” While this sense of being “at home” in the parish was a wonderful experience for Catholics, it tended to be insular in the sense that Catholics rarely invited others—especially non-Catholics—into the fold. Priests and parishioners did not generally see evangelization as their responsibility. Somehow the comfort zones created in those parishes were so strong that the voice of Jesus saying, “Go and make disciples of all nations,” was barely audible to many Catholics.

This type of belonging is becoming a relic of the past. There are new factors at work. For example, we have greater diversity in our parish populations. And many parishioners don’t live in close proximity to one another since Catholics tend to hand-pick their parishes and not necessarily join the parish that corresponds to their geographic area. There are no longer as many built-in points of connection. We can also add two more factors: anti-Catholic bias and the extreme value placed on individualism. The almost automatic sense of belonging which was common in the past  well, that pleasant picture has sung its swan song.

Which, thanks be to God, has led us into a land of great evangelical opportunity! The greatest blessing within our new situation is that we can seek to deliberately form parishes that have their sense of belonging built upon a belief in Jesus Christ and a desire to live as his disciples. Isn’t that the best possible “glue” for bonding? Isn’t a sense of belonging which derives from a shared desire to be missionary disciples the perfect basis for meaningful community? We now embrace Jesus’ command to go and make disciples, to take seriously the foundational conviction of Archbishop Allen Vigneron’s 2017 pastoral letter, Unleash the Gospel, to be resolved “to undergo a ‘missionary conversion,’ a change in our culture, such that every person at every level of the Church, through personal encounter with Jesus Christ, embraces his or her identity as a son or daughter of God and, in the power of the Holy Spirit, is formed and sent forth as a joyful missionary disciple.” And as we grow in understanding this opportunity, we can truly appreciate that Jesus didn’t say, “Go and make disciples of all nations, but don’t worry so much about those whose beliefs or worldviews are radically different from yours.” We embrace, more and more, the call to evangelize those outside our walls.

A renewed understanding of the call to evangelization

Over the past seven years, much has been written about our renewed commitment to evangelization and how it should take shape in parishes. By reading books such as Rebuilt, Made for Mission, and Divine Renovation, we get a clear understanding of a new parish model which focuses on mission. The primacy of evangelization is always the driving force behind this model.

As part of this model, we acknowledge gracious hospitality as an essential component, especially in the pre-evangelization stage when the sense of belonging can begin to take root.  As we read in Unleash the Gospel, “Every parish should deliberate on how to welcome those who have never come to church, or who have not been there in years, and who may cross the threshold with some trepidation” (Marker 8.3).

The how-to’s of creating a graciously welcoming parish are abundant in the three aforementioned books and other recent publications. But what are the ways in which we must form and equip our parishioners in order that they may effectively offer this spirit of hospitality, this invitation to those coming from outside, to help them find a sense of belonging in our parishes?

Equipping parishioners to foster belonging

Before beginning to form and equip parishioners, it is essential to honestly assess the current state of the parish. Is it the type of environment that would encourage a sense of belonging in a newcomer?

Unleash the Gospel poses some critical questions in this regard: “Do some people attend Mass in isolation, not knowing or being known by others? Do some have the impression that relating to God is sufficient and relating to others in the parish is unnecessary? Are all aware of their responsibility to encourage and build up the faith of others” (Marker 3.1)?

Pretend that you are an unchurched person who is seeking. You are not sure what you are seeking, but you have that “there-has-to-be-more-to-life-than-this” feeling. Now, walk into an event at your parish.

Would someone greet you promptly? Would the parishioners seem genuinely happy to see you? Would someone be committed to learning your name and asking a few questions about you? Would someone try to make sure that you come back soon?

Be honest about the state of your parish concerning these expectations. Your candid assessment will help you understand how to project your strengths and work on your weaknesses.

In order to be a parish that fosters belonging, we need to form our parishioners to live out the following values and attitudes. Some basic guidelines are necessary.

Seeing the goodness of God’s creation in every person

Help parishioners grow into a commitment to living out the conviction that every person is a son or daughter of the Most-High God and has integrity. Each person demands our respect because of this child-of-God identity.

Making love a knee-jerk response

Whether people are easy or hard to love, we must act out of love. People in general, but especially outsiders, can tell whether our behavior towards them comes out of a wellspring of love. This kind of behavior takes practice and discipline.

Creating an invitational culture

Typically we think of only our parish leaders inviting us to things … small groups, talks, special prayer times. Form parishioners to understand that they too are meant to invite. Train them in the art of inviting and encourage them to invite over and over again. Make sure, by the way, that there are shallow-entry events, such as Alpha, parenting talks, or social events, to which parishioners can invite those outside the parish.

Reinforcing the “why”

The Gospel is the best thing we could ever share; a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is the best relationship we could ever offer. Form your parishioners in the deep conviction that there is nothing better they could do for others than invite them into a setting where they can learn about Jesus and his Church, and become part of the body of Christ.

Messiness will give way to believing and behaving

Research scientists spend lots of money creating “clean rooms” so that they can keep the outside out and not contaminate what is inside. We, on the other hand, are in the business of inviting the outside in. When we invite the outside in, things can get messy. In our case, messiness is often a good thing, because it means that people who are not normally in our parishes are now present with us. If we are true to forming our parishioners appropriately and continuing to be open to inviting others in, many of those newcomers, who will feel that they belong in our communities, will eventually become Catholics who both believe and behave in the ways of faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.

by Dr. Janet Diaz

Dr. Janet Diaz

Dr. Janet Diaz is dean of the Institute for Ministry at Sacred Heart Major Seminary

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Sacred Heart Major Seminary is a Christ-centered Catholic community of faith and higher learning committed to forming leaders who will proclaim the good news of Christ to the people of our time. As a leading center of the New Evangelization, Sacred Heart serves the needs of the Archdiocese of Detroit and contributes to the mission of the universal Church.