Pope Francis is advocating for the Church to make a shift from maintenance to mission. Certainly, such a shift will upset the way we do business. Perhaps this will be felt nowhere more than in a parish's approach to adult faith formation. At Immaculate Conception Church in East Aurora they are making this shift, addressing the profound faith questions of their people, discovering new enthusiasm, and seeing a growing sense of purpose in the whole parish.
Deacon Don Weigel calls it the "most successful program we have done in the parish in a long time." The whole program is built upon the corporal works of mercy. It was presented in response to the diocesan Year of Faith initiative using mission passports. Immaculate Conception chose a published resource from Just Faith Ministries which is called Good News People.
"What is most startling to me," Deacon Weigel said, "is that we started with 140 parishioners who were willing to try it sight unseen and at the end of the first season we had 130 who completed the program."
After the first season with Good News People the results are still impressive. Participants in Good News People meet in small group faith-sharing sessions, mostly meeting in homes, a couple at Christ the King Seminary or the Roycroft building, and just a couple on parish grounds. In these small groups, people get well-acquainted, grow in trust, and learn to support and even challenge one another to live the words of the Gospel.
Small groups are the wave of the future in growth churches across the U.S. One of the parish leaders, Christine Peters reported experiencing warmth and participation in her group "and an eagerness to learn about how God lives in each of our lives; how He has blessed us, comforts us, shows us His loving way as His children, and the loving need to embrace others as our sisters and brothers in Christ."
From this experience, Peters already feels, "a calling to the bereavement ministry. This program has allowed me, through the guiding grace of the Holy Spirit, to become more active in my parish, using the skills and talents that God has given me."
According to Peters who chairs the program implementation team, "Challenging is a good thing. It is making people address their faith seriously and consider how it is lived."
This is a significant step toward mobilizing a parish for mission purpose. One aspect of this program is an immersion experience where participants go and investigate the stories of people who are committed to fulfilling one of the corporal works of mercy. Bonnie Marlor, one of the 14 small group facilitators, concluded that this program invites people to consider compassion as a way of life.
"Each week we share stories and experiences of how we have tried to put the works of mercy into action in our daily lives," Marlor said.
Weigel reported that those who were already involved in the Church reported feeling "confirmed in why they do what they do." As a result, their level of commitment to the parish increased. Those who were less involved or uninvolved felt a desire to do more and started attending other church events with more enthusiasm.
Another unseen, but even more significant, benefit of Good News People is that it implicitly taught dozens of leaders how to lead a micro-church community. Weigel relied on a diverse group to help him coordinate the program. After some initial publicity, he organized a core team and turned it over to the people who were ready to take initiative.
No published program is cheap but Immaculate Conception found the cost for Good News People to be a bargain, given what it accomplished in just a few short weeks. The parish paid $500 for the program, which is complete with online training for facilitators, publicity materials, a leader guide, prayer services and session scripts. Facilitator binders and DVDs were an additional, but moderate cost. In addition, participants purchased their own personal journals.
Participants were asked to pay whatever they could afford. At Immaculate Conception, extra donations actually covered the cost of the materials and additional workbooks for those who could not afford to purchase their own.
Perhaps the greatest strength is that this experience invites people to integrate a faith that has, for too long, been just in their heads. In a post-modern society, churches need to complete the circuit of learning and application.
If experts are right, today, right action leads to right belief, more reliably than it happens the other way around. If that is true, then Immaculate Conception Church in East Aurora got it right. This is a parish with purpose which is well on its way to becoming a mission-driven church.
For more information visit www.goodnewspeople-jfm.org.