Belonging leads to believing
Gallup research helps us understand that when people have a deep sense of belonging within their parish, they are more likely to be spiritually committed and to live their lives as people of faith in the world. The sort of parish life that fosters such belonging does not simply happen. It takes leaders, committed to forming their people as a community, through which they will become engaged within the parish. Through the parish, people are led to encounter Christ, grow as disciples, and share their talents, time, resources, and faith with others as good stewards.
Think of the people in the gospels who encountered and were encountered by Jesus: the small group of disciples who accompanied him from town to town; Martha, Mary and Lazarus; the Samaritan woman at the well. Each found him or herself feeling a deep connection to Jesus and, having met him, came to believe in him. Their belief shaped their lives; they openly shared their faith with others; they were transformed as people, and those around them were touched as a result. “Each of these people, touched by Christ Jesus, responded to him and so became part of the story of salvation.” (GMD, 1)
Their experience is echoed in the story of the early Christian communities, and in our parish communities in the present. The life of Christian men and women who have a deep feeling of belonging to Christ and to one another is compelling; just as those who came first into relationship with Jesus came to believe in him and drew others to him as a result, so, too, those who are deeply rooted in a relationship with Christ believe and draw others to Christ today.
Social Science Meets Catholic Theology
Perhaps then it should come as no surprise when research by social scientists affirms the role of a strong community in bringing people to spiritual commitment and in drawing people to Christ. Studies published by the Gallup Organization detail the importance of parishioner engagement a deep sense of belonging within the parish, and the factors that lead to such engagement among members. In fact, Dr. Albert L. Winseman, author of Growing an Engaged Church, states, “It is belonging (engagement) that leads to believing (commitment).” (Winseman, 2007). Catholic leaders who desire to foster engagement within their parishes will do well to study Growing an Engaged Church to discover the factors that lead to engagement and to consider the systemic implications of the Gallup research. A study guide is provided within this resource for that purpose. It will be beneficial to explore theological foundations as we begin to consider engagement as a lens through which to consider all that we experience in Catholic parish life.
Each of us is called to be a follower of Jesus Christ, a disciple. Disciples are learning the ways of the Master, who teaches us to share God’s love with others through the way we live. When people are engaged in their faith communities, they are drawn deeply into the ways of discipleship, transforming the world as members of Christ’s living Body.
Body of Christ
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6: 3-4) Being drawn into Christ’s death and new life through baptism, we become members of Christ’s body, acting in the world as Christian disciples. Certainly this holds true within the parish, which is “without doubt the most important locus in which the Christian community is formed and expressed.” (OHWB, 117)
Baptismal and Eucharistic Spirituality
“We seek to form parishes that are vitally alive in faith. These communities will provide a parish climate and an array of activities and resources designed to help adults more fully understand and live their faith. We seek to form adults who actively cultivate a lively baptismal and eucharistic spirituality with a powerful sense of mission and apostolate. Nourished by word, sacrament and communal life, they will witness and share the Gospel in their homes, neighborhoods, places of work, and centers of culture.” (OHWB, 17)
Such a “lively baptismal and eucharistic spirituality” grasps the immense mystery of Christ’s self-giving in the Church’s sacramental life, even while the individual grows in the awareness and grace of the sacramental life throughout the span of life. (see CCC,1253) The community of faith is an integral part of this process, as “the Christian community is in herself living catechesis.” (GDC, 141; NDC, 19C)
We have already begun to explore the relationship between discipleship, engagement and evangelization. In essence, the studies indicate that when people deeply belong within their parish community, they come to belong to Christ and to believe in him with the totality of the persons they are. There is a dramatically increased likelihood that people who are engaged will invite others to parish functions, and once within an engaged parish, those who are invited are likely to stay and to grow as spiritually committed people themselves. (Winseman, 2007) (see Go and Make Disciples, 7-8)
When people grow in a spirituality of stewardship, they come to know that all they are and have and will be are God’s. They respond in gratitude and with generosity and their participation in the community of faith becomes an expression of who they are as disciples. Their presence within the community at the Sunday Eucharist and throughout the months and years of their lives is a witness to the enduring presence of the Holy Spirit; they are nourished and sent forth from the celebration of the Mass as people who know themselves as Christ’s body, and they live with a deep awareness of their responsibility to imitate their Lord Jesus Christ in freely giving of themselves in service to others. Such living stewardship transforms the parish community in time, and enhancing engagement strengthens the parish’s fostering of discipleship.
The Good Soil
In Growing an Engaged Church, Dr. Winseman uses the parable of the good soil to illustrate the effect of engagement in the community and in the hearts of people. In fostering engagement within our parishes, we are preparing the soil of the community, leading people to open their minds and hearts to the depths of the Gospel.
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