Sunday, October 27, 2013

Athens Church

It was one of those rare Sundays where I didn't have an afternoon Mass. So, after the 10:00 a.m. (and Confessions following), I got out of my clerical attire, donned a dress shirt and accompanied by one of our parishioners (a cradle Catholic who, like so many others, has been in the megachurch world) went out to the campus of Athens Church for "the 12" (the noon young adult/college oriented worship service).

Athens Church is a branch ("ministry partner"), if you will, of the highly successful North Point church operation in Atlanta, headed by Pastor Andy Stanley. As we know, tons of Catholics end up in evangelical megachurches such as North Point.

Athens Church is located in a shopping mall, off Atlanta Hwy, just outside the Athens Perimeter. Signs from the highway direct traffic to the parking lot, and several red-vested volunteers flag cars in. The building looks like, well, a shopping mall. It's painted an earthy brown color with red accents, and there's a simple metal sign that says "Athens Church."

Inside, there's music piped, folks milling around. There is a coffee bar, and areas off the main corridor where kids programs are held (the noon service does not provide these). There's an information booth. Everywhere there's friendly red-shirted volunteers smiling and greeting. There's computer stations where one could log into the church website (I didn't see anyone doing this, however). The auditorium itself is closed off with a "rehearsal in progress sign." The crowd is overwhelmingly young -- late teens, early twenties, maybe some older. Largely white, a few non-white faces scattered in. Just before noon the doors open and one files into the cavernous auditorium. The stage is lit with blue light. There are giant screens around it. We sit towards the back. It feels like being in a theater.

The service starts at about 12:05. The auditorium is not entirely full. I estimate it can seat about 1200 or more. There's several hundred young folks here. 500? 800? Maybe more. I'm horrible at estimating these things. Several are talking in groups or checking their phones. The service starts with a welcome message. Announcements are done using slick video presentations -- on Nov. 10, there is a big evening "community event" which will also include Communion followed by dinner. There's the Christmas giving drive -- 9000 lbs (!) of food donated last year, over $145,000 delivered to local non-profits (along with reality TV style videos of recipients opening their checks). Then there's three praise & worship songs, followed by a video testimony of a member who has chosen to get baptized. There is a video of the baptism (they don't perform the baptism in church itself?), and then the (presumably recently) baptized comes out onto the stage to applause. Her testimony is heartfelt -- a life of partying, sin, that is now in the past thanks to grace.

Then we get to the heart of the service: the Message. On entering, a friendly usher handed us a little bifold card with the theme of this week's Message: "The immeasurable life." (See Eph 3:20). This is about half the service -- basically, a 30-35 minute sermon. It was slick (with a lot of video support), rhetorically polished, well delivered. And, as far as I could tell, everyone I looked at was paying attention. And what was it? That God's plan for life is fulness of life, "immeasurable." If you think that "church people" (and therefore God) is simply about not having fun, that's incorrect. Basically, to paraphrase, God's no, has a deeper yes behind it (that's the language of Pope Benedict, not Pastor Sean). The past is past, grace always promises a new beginning. A lot of the rhetoric has this comparison with "church people" and "church world." We, Athens Church, the implication is, are not like ordinary church. There was a call to deeper conversion. To turning away from habits of sin (with reference specifically to pornography, sex, partying and drinking -- quite appropriate given the demographic). A very clear distinction made between newcomers, guests, and "Jesus followers." Suggestions for how to connect to someone to go deeper ("Starting Out" -- a group for those who want to start their walk with Jesus, or "Next Steps" for others). And then, the service ends with an extempore prayer, at about 1:10 p.m.

In the Catholic world, Nativity parish in suburban Baltimore has been taking a leaf out of Andy Stanley's playbook. (The most common reaction I've gotten from those who've been to their website is, "that's a Catholic parish??"). Their pastor, Fr. Michael White, has written a book about the transformation of the parish culture, to focus on the unchurched, and to have discipleship formation as the central mission of the parish. The book comes with a forward from Cardinal Dolan, and has gotten generally positive reviews. Last fall, I made a trip out to Nativity for Sunday Mass from the Mount. My own thoughts about Nativity  and Fr. White's approach are best left for another day. However, after this visit to Athens Church, so much of what I experienced at Nativity makes sense.

So. That's the report. My thoughts?

Frankly, I can see why Athens Church is so appealing. No pressure. No sense while walking in that there are unwritten rules made by the insiders that will result in getting glared at or worse. Lots of peers. Excellent kids programs (from what I hear), and a family friendly environment. Very welcoming. Casual. Come as you are. Plugging into a small group and a smaller community. Excellent preaching. This last is no mean thing, as the Pope himself lamented recently. And they do talk about Jesus and focus on Him.

1) The mission of Athens Church is to "lead people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ." This is what they say, and everything really seems to be focused on this mission and is driven by this mission. As their website puts it, "our foremost desire was to be an attractive environment for those who do not regularly attend church. For the most part, our feeling is that denominational titles mean more to people already involved in church than it does to others in our culture. For this reason, we have chosen not to affiliate ourselves with any particular denomination." They want to appeal to those who don't normally go to church, or who are only loosely affiliated with an existing church (That describes so many Catholics. Especially younger Catholics.) -- and feel that doctrine (i.e. "church language") comes in the way. This is seriously problematic, because they've made this no-doctrine a doctrine. Though, I can understand it from one perspective, if one's backdrop is the hugely fractious denominational world of Protestantism.

2) How are they doing in their mission? Well, far be it for me to judge based on one visit. I saw an overwhelmingly young crowd (in the Catholic world I've only seen something like this at Eucharistic retreats, such as the Steubenville Conferences or Mount 2000), listening to a message of conversion on a Sunday morning. That's nothing to shake a finger at. How deep does this go? I don't know. Of course the ecclesiology and understanding of worship is in a totally different universe from Catholicism, or even traditional Christianity. So, I would hazard that such places can only go so deep. But that would be, frankly, a very prejudicial view. I've heard from former North Pointers that basically it tends to be a Christianity that is quite this-worldly. A Gospel that is simply one part of a well-balanced, holistic suburban American lifestyle. I would certainly not have a hard time believing that, but again, that would simply be feeding my own prejudices.

3) I do know that Catholic parishes in the United States, in general, simply do not make disciples of our people. They do not come to know and love Jesus Christ as the center of their existence and lives, they don't trust Him, or pray, or follow Him in obedience, even after years and years of participation or involvement or "activity" in their local parish, or Catholic school. That's a very broad statement, yes. But survey after survey will bear it out. Which is why so many find these kinds of ecclesial communities to be so appealing. Making disciples is not really on our radar, for the most part. So, no matter that we have a rich spiritual tradition, a phenomenal intellectual tradition, the saints, an unbroken chain linking us to the Apostles, a huge body of doctrine, including the social teaching of the Church, and, of course, yes, the Eucharist -- yet, two thirds of our people don't show up, barely 10-12% of those under 30 show up, and we continue to hemorrhage folks to secularism and evangelical Christianity (Anglo, Hispanic, you name it). Local demographic trends might mask this (tons of people are moving into the Archdiocese of Atlanta but this has little to do with our evangelical outreach), and the dwindling numbers of priests means that our leaders feel overworked. But the larger reality remains. We have the fulness of the means of salvation, as every good Catholic knows. But I tremble when I think what we have to show for it to the Lord!

4) Yes many evangelicals find their way to the Catholic Church. I know several. But all of these were first discipled and came to know Jesus as a real person, in the evangelical world. We don't make disciples. The evangelical churches are meeting that spiritual hunger. For our people. And let's not cast stones, and say, "they just want to be entertained." The few I've talked to who have been through North Point, didn't say they went there to be entertained. They came back to the Catholic Church, or discovered the Catholic Church, because they were seeking more, but entertainment doesn't seem to have figured anywhere in their quest.

5) Convoluted mission statements of Catholic parishes seem really to be designed to perpetuate the particular ecclesiological views of the formulators, normally in opposition to other, rival ecclesiological views. It is entirely focused on insiders and an internal conversation which has the Second Vatican Council and What It Really Meant as the main focus. Mission, evangelization, tends to be an afterthought, if present at all. This, despite the considerable body of Magisterial teaching on evangelization as the central mission of the Church, the reason for her existence. We still haven't really heard this or intenralized this at a parish level (with several exceptions, of course).

6) Making growing disciples of Jesus Christ is the mission of the Church. The Magisterium has been telling this to us for decades. Are we listening?

When I get some more time: what I think we could learn from places such as Athens Church. 


bmcnavish said...

I found myself very interested in this. You explained the experience very well. Good post.

Father Raymond Flores said...

Thank you for the post, Father. On occasion, I go to non-Catholic services just to see how our other Christian brothers and sisters are doing and, also, to get a few good ideas. It's no secret there are some things they do better than us--discipleship, community-building, Biblical preaching (not to say those elements are totally absent from our parishes)--but, we can definitely learn a thing or two from them. And how much more we can do, since we have the fullness of Truth!

Anonymous said...

This was an interesting read, and I think you make some valid points that it would behoove Catholics to consider.

However, I wanted to encourage you because I have been 100% "discipled" right here at St. Joe's. That's mostly thanks to CRHP (not CHRP-a common mistake) but also to some other things. It's a somewhat lengthy and personal story too unwieldy for a simple comment on a blog, but I would be honored to tell it to you sometime if you're interested (Maybe we can trade since I'd still love to hear your conversion story.).

Last summer (then Deacon) Michael Revak talked about how the politically correct culture has crept into our Church and how wanting everyone to feel included has caused us to hide our figurative gold medal in the closet, so other denominations won't feel bad. Then, we show the world our silver medal and wonder why people aren't tripping over themselves to get to it.

I, for one, am tired of hiding the gold medal. Catholicism is beautiful. In orthodoxy and obedience I have found unbridled freedom and a deep and consuming relationship with Christ. I am broken by the weight of His mercy.

This is something I don't think you can achieve if you're only interested in feeling happy and included. Make no mistake, I love my church family most ardently, but I attend mass to be with Jesus. And, Jesus is in the Eucharist, not a fancy sermon with blue lights and video support.

Heather Gardner

Jam said...

Very interesting! I was just thinking about something like this yesterday. I'm a cradle Catholic and attend mass ~3 times a week, and yet when I go to a church that's new to me, 50% of the time I get something "wrong". I didn't grab a book at the back of church, I got the wrong book, there's some special prayer card or novena card I should have taken a copy of, you need the bulletin to know the hymn numbers or the words of the hymns are printed in the bulletin. And then it seems most parishes have taken away the new translation aids which I don't get; if you spent that first year attending the ordinary form in English every Sunday you probably don't need the cards, but what if you're not Catholic, or an irregular attendee, or regularly attend Masses in Spanish, Polish, Latin, etc? I regularly see people in the pews struggling to follow along or just looking clueless (and disappearing at communion) and it makes me annoyed at how often our parishes manage to convey a pretty unwelcoming message, whatever their mission statement or welcoming committee might say to the contrary.

Anonymous said...

thank you for sharing this experience, Father G.
- sam swygman

T.E. Cullom said...

What a thorough description! I think your assessments are spot on. I've finished the Forming Intentional Disciples book and Rebuilt is next up. I have lots of jumbled thoughts on why American Catholic parishes are failing to meet spiritual needs and some even more tangled thoughts on how to face this crisis and my own role in particular.

I sense the family is the most fertile place for discipleship to grow and thrive. Sadly, the concept of the domestic church has been abandoned for the most part in America.

Of course there is a need for individual ministries like teens, singles etc...But I wonder how true family centered ministries, where husbands and wives are not separated and kids are welcome and encouraged would vitalize parish life and nurture continuing, personal discipleship.

If the domestic church is so important, as Blessed JP II believed, how can parishes better encourage healthy domestic churches?

One things seems clear; the key is the certainly discipleship (Thanks Ms. Weddell!). At this, especially in a long term, I'm talking lifelong time frame, it is not so clear that non-denominational mega-churches like Athens Church are really better at equipping disciples of Christ in modern America.

Oh and I completely agree with your thoughts about it not being simply entertainment that these seekers are looking for...There is something about being challenged with the reality of God, the person of Christ and the movement of the Spirit that is just a magnet ! But, Athens Church doesn't have a patent on that, I am reasonably sure :)

Fr. Steve Beseau said...

As a priest in campus ministry, I wonder if Catholic churches should offer some sort of para-liturgical activity similar in style but clearly not the Mass. It would be for those needing conversion, who are not yet disciples of Jesus Christ.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this blog post. I have heard both Andy and his father speak countless times and have always been impressed with their presentation skills. Sadly, they are lacking the Eucharist and I hope we as Catholics continue to find effective ways to share the beauty of the fullness of the faith to those who have somehow missed it. Blogs like this inspire me as a Catholic to be more intentional about living and sharing this truth...

Josh Jones said...

Thank you for your post, Fr. Shroff. I am one of the pastors at Athens Church and very much appreciate your observations and comments. We know that the church has a very long, deep heritage, and we would never claim to get everything right. Hopefully, all those within the body of Christ can see our efforts as an honest attempt to reach our culture with the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Thanks again for spending some time with us- I'd like to visit your Parish sometime in the future.

Fr. Gaurav Shroff said...

Thanks for the comments y'all. There's been a lot of good discussion on my FB page as well. Dear Pastor Jones, thank you for visiting and leaving a comment. You're always welcome to come to St. Joe's -- incognito, or not! :-D Actually, maybe you and I can have coffee sometime? I'd love to chat. I've got a follow up post or two rumbling in my head. "What we can learn from Athens Church." I'll put it up once my thoughts are a bit clearer. Thanks again!

Kathleen Stento said...

Like Heather's post above, I too believe we shouldn't be hiding the gold medal and TC Collum, you are spot on when saying we need to start with families. This is part of a message I sent to Fr. Gaurav privately, and he asked me to share it here:
I truly feel we need to be pouring our education efforts into families - young families- from the time babies are baptized, education MUST begin! It is the perfect time. New parents want to "give" their child a faith, many begin to realize how important faith is when they have children. Many are returning to the church after being away ( because they feel they "need" to baptize their children in the Catholic Church), many are wanting to become better Catholics as they become better parents, etc.. It all boils down to wanting the best for their children at this point. This sounds so basic, but as a catechist for many years, I witnessed so many parents who didn't know how to teach their child about the simplest aspects of the faith. From experience, I know many of these adults were poorly catechized themselves as children and therefore they feel intimidated to teach them anything at home. These parents are also embarrassed to ask for help or to let someone know that they do not know the basics, and they do not know where to turn for help! What I have learned in my 15 years of homeschooling and being around Catholic homeschooling families, is that you must begin teaching the faith when your children are very young, you treat your parish as your second home (and the whole family is involved in one or more ministries), you share your resources with other families, and you get together and support each other in this learning. This is a system any parish can implement. The vast majority of Catholic homeschooling families have children who are pretty well educated and grounded in their faith by the time they graduate from high school. The key is, the parents started young, had or found the needed tools ( good curriculum, support from other families, possibly a supportive priest), and didn't rely only on the parish school of religion to be the only teacher of their child ( too many parishes offer a very weak curriculum...full of" fluff" and " make the kids feel good " exercises, and poorly catechized teachers ..and very little emphasis on the Catechism) fact, sadly,many of the families avoided the parish school of religion and simply taught it all at home, or in groups with other homeschoolers ! Like the Protestant churches many Catholic families are lured to, we need to offer dynamic classes for parents and children, we need to offer familiy activities more often but make them richly Catholic. We need to involve our young children in the richness of our Catholic traditions, and at least have trained teachers to teach them their catechism and prepare them for the sacraments, and we need to assist families, from the time the children are baptized, with learning about the basics, the not so basic, and the challenges of the Catholic faith. We need to make families feel like their parish is their second home! For our teens, who seem to "graduate" on to something else after Confirmation ( which is far away from their parish), we need to offer them something more...and we cannot simply stop catechizing them....we need to challenge them ! We need to have dynamic teen programs which not only involves them in the parish, but also in the community, and not be afraid of offering traditional Masses for them ( rather than feeling they need a special " Teen Mass" with casual dress and today's popular Christian music, or else they won't show up for Mass). They need and desire structure and the sacredness and the beauty of what our faith has to offer! So that is my two cents. I am a parent who had to take the reins in my own hands many years ago so that I could ensure my children were learning about ( and hopefully love) their faith, and, I pray, they would not fall away from Catholicism.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your comments Father. You don't know how much they mean to me; I could share for hours. I came into the Church from a basically mainline Protestant background but returned to Christ through the evangelical world. It seems only cradle Catholics say it's all about entertainment. I heard about the blood of Christ and salvation. I was totally fired up. And then entering the Catholic world I was hit hard by spiritual warfare. Everything you mentioned is true. A relationship with Jesus was downplayed in favor of community. What?? I came to the Church through a Eucharistic experience but I have had the bardest time making a go of it here. Yes, at St. Joseph. Both churches in Athens did not fit well with my stage of discipleship and it almost killed me physically, spiritually and emotionally. I'm just now, 10 years later, getting over it a little. But I've lost the fire and don't have the energy to fight. *5 on your list is very true. And I find Forming Intentional Disciples to be speaking in that ecclesiastical, boring language. We just don't do discipleship well. i do think we need revival. Thank you so much for your service with us--I'll pray for you--please pray for me!

dachsiemama said...

Have thought a lot about this. Education and catechesis aren't the answer. They had that in the early 20th century and it didn't stop the outflow. We need a personal relationship with Jesus. That's what it's all about. Yes, as a Catholic.

Fr. Gaurav Shroff said...

@Anonymous Nov. 3 04:00 pm -- thanks for sharing. There's many converts who find Catholic parish life to be difficult to adjust to, from what I've gathered. "Forming Intentional Disciples" is written for those involved in parish ministry -- clergy, staff, lay ministers etc. Hence its style. The first chapter is all statistics! Trust me, it's shaking things up in the Catholic world in the U.S. Yes, we do need revival.

Anonymous said...

Anon - I truly understand since I nearly left the Church three times during my first year and would have to say that at a personal level, being Catholic has been a desert experience most of the time (not always). A long, hard slog. If I hadn't been a serious disciple before I entered from the evangelical world, I would not have survived. But Father G is right. I wrote FID for the three percent of Catholics - the three million who are highly active outside of Mass. Because they determine the direction of almost everything at the parish level and the parish is where things will have to change if individual Catholics are to flourish as disciples. I wrote it after 9 years of attempting to talk to leaders from all over the world about the folly of not making disciples and getting endless push-back or incomprehension. Slowly I learned how to say what I wanted to say in a way that would get through. I didn't write it for you or me as individuals. The stunning thing is that Catholic leaders from Bishops on down are reading it everywhere (45k read so far) and finally acknowledging the 800 pound gorilla in the room. For the first time, dozens of dioceses and hundreds of parishes are asking "how do we need to change?" God is doing a new, aleit still fragile thing. As one of my prophetic-intercessor friends told me as I was writing FID, he sensed that the spiritual atmosphere of the US Catholic Church was changing - and leaders all around the country tell me that they see that change. There is hope.

Sherry Weddell

Anonymous said...

Joe C. I want to share my personal experience with the school of religion [RE]. I have taught RE classes for over 25 years to many age groups but mostly Confirmation classes and sacramental preparation. Some years, I was the only teacher and others there were a team of teachers so I got to observe a lot of variety of substance and approaches [pedagogy]. I can honestly say that there was no lack of substance and rigor. Our biggest problem for years and years was not the communication and sharing of faith "facts" and understanding of how they fit together. The same problem every time I am sad to say was the lack of commitment of our students. They said the correct things, they always voiced their appreciation of the deep spirituality of our retreats, they had the correct facial expressions and here comes the "but". But they disappeared after receiving the sacrament of confirmation. We even talked about it with them to encourage their important future contributions to the church but I rarely saw them after the last class. I eventually assumed that there was no ongoing parental support since I didn't see them or their parents no matter what mass I attended. The most pressing gap in our students was the same every time - we needed to put the most effort in building up their spirituality. Even when we got them slightly more mature and it was a 2 year program the results were depressingly the same. There were always a few real successes but sadly, they were small numbers. We gave them a rich variety of ways to grow their faith, join in church activities, serve others and take a leadership role in varying capacities. I never figured out a way to reach the parents for their vital parental support. I think this is a lot like regular school. I teach at a public high school and it is evident to all of my fellow faculty members that our combined influence is tiny compared to their parents influence and the lifelong influences outside of school. I have had conversations with protestants [ teachers, pastors, youth ministers] and they have the same problem. The kids just disappear. We seemingly are unable to counteract the allure of the world. I am still looking for the magic wand. But hey - even the Apostles didn't bat a 1,000.

Anonymous said...

This is anon from Nov. 3 at 4 pm--Sherry thank you so much for clearing that up. Even before I read your post, I re-read my post this morning and realized that I was sort of grumpy yesterday and I do apologize for my quick negative judgment. Your explanation really makes sense to me--it explains the ecclesiastical language that turned me off--but you are using it to *reach* just those individuals. And I did find much that was so exciting in your book; I think my psychology is such that when something really reaches me like this, after my negative experiences in the church, I just vent because it's such a relief! I hope that makes some sense, even if I'm a poor communicator. God bless your amazing efforts--truly.

Tracy C. said...

To Joe C.- I get what you are saying re:religious ed. It seems that even if the content is good, even if the teachers are well trained and committed ... it seems all for naught. Really that is further confirmation that family centered education and support is a huge need to be met in order to have a lasting, generational impact in our parishes. I can't say I have any idea how that would look practically :) but maybe this is one way...

On another note: I asked my best friend (non-dom Protestant) how their churches seem to get entire families engaged and participatory and she answered very simply, "It's just what we do! Many of us grew up just putting Church and church activities and relationships first."