Catholic Way: "Shopping for a Church? "
By Rev. Mr. Keith A. Fournier June 23, 2002
We do not "shop" for a church; the Church invites us to be a part of the Body of Christ on earth.
It was the last part of my Saturday morning "relaxation" ritual, reading the local newspaper. It began with a casual cup of coffee, through the front section, local news and then to the entertainment section called "The Daily Break". The entire front page of that section was devoted to a feature article entitled "Church Shopping: Finding the perfect place to worship is answer to prayers for many."
I decided to read the article- after first dismissing it cavalierly.
My first negative reaction was to the subtitle. I recalled the words of an old Pentecostal preacher I met when I was as a teenager, right before I came home to my Catholic faith. "Son, if you ever find the perfect church, don't join it" he opined, "it won't be perfect anymore."
I then reacted against the very premise of the main title of the article -- that we can actually "shop" for the Body of Christ. The claim itself misses the very understanding of who we are and what the Church is. In so doing it misses the very path to discovering the existential purpose in our present life. Finally, it reduces our participation in the very communion at the heart of the Christian life to one more consumer selection among many in the contemporary smorgasbord of our modern life-ugh!
As I reflected upon the article however, I realized just how important the topic truly was. It revealed a fundamental human experience, the search. We all identify with the search to "belong", to have a place. Ultimately, the Christian claim is that we were made for God, and as St. Augustine said so well "our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee."
We were all born from our mothers womb to be "born again" into the Church through another womb, the font of Baptism. The modern "seeker" movement and the very trend called "church shopping" is symptomatic of a deeper longing to belong to God.
However, there is much more to be learned from this article. Not necessarily in the way the author intended, but at a deeper level. It reveals the shallowness of some contemporary versions of Christianity. Though they act as a road-sign, they sure do not satisfy that longing for a home in God. As I read the article I was struck by how far we have wandered from the ancient Christian faith.
Perhaps what was most disturbing and challenging to me personally, as a Catholic Christian and clergyman, were the comments in the article from one of the interviewees named "Mark." He was portrayed as a "life-long Catholic" who moved from Buffalo, New York to study journalism at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He had apparently joined this roving band of those searching for a "perfect" church by visiting more than a dozen congregations looking for "friends" and "soulful music." He started down the path after being encouraged by his classmates.
I am always happy to help people like Mark, or any other practicing or former Catholic (or inquirer) to understand the beauty of the fullness of the Catholic Christian faith. It is always a deep privilege for me to introduce other Christians (or re-introduce wandering Catholics) to the beauty of the Eucharistic liturgy, where the faithful are fed upon the rich Word of God and partake of the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.
What troubles me is when Catholics like Mark do not even understand the riches of their own Church. He is a perfect example of why we truly need the "New Evangelization" that the Holy Father has proclaimed, right within the Catholic Church. We often have un-evangelized and/or poorly catechized Catholics in our own ranks. We also have local parish experiences where some otherwise eager Catholics are falling through the cracks, missing what they truly long for-a full dynamically orthodox Catholic Christian experience.
I understand Mark's hunger for something more like what he "left at home" because I live in the same Diocese that he does and know the deep need for an authentic renewal in my own Diocese. However, he among all those who were featured in that article should understand that the Church is not something you "shop" for. If anything, it "shops" for you!
It is actually the Church that, in carrying on the redemptive work of the Master, seeks us out---not the other way around. "You did not choose me but I chose you..." said the One who is the head of the Church. (See, John 15:16).
I respect Regent University where Mark is pursuing a graduate education. It is an evangelical Protestant University founded by Pat Robertson. Its mission is to "train Christian leaders to change the world." I had a long and varied relationship with that University and with its parent organization, C.B.N. from 1991 through 1997. I always hoped that the "Christian" in its mission truly included all Christians, including Catholic and Orthodox Christians, even though it is an Evangelical Protestant institution.
I remember when I first moved to Southeastern Virginia in 1991. It was in response to the invitation of Pat Robertson, to head the "American Center for Law and Justice," a pro-life, religious freedom public interest law firm that he founded. Though Jay Sekulow currently leads the ACLJ as its 'Chief Counsel' Pat Robertson is its founder and President. He is the founder of all that resides at (or proceeds from) 1000 Centerville Turnpike in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
I still remember how intrigued and excited I was when he invited me, a Catholic Christian, to help build what was to be an ecumenical Christian legal effort. I had served for years at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, in a very Catholic environment. However, through my pro-life work and because of the uniqueness of my own journey home to the Catholic faith, I had (and still have) a deep commitment to authentic ecumenical efforts. I also have great respect for the evangelical movement.
Upon arrival on the campus of Regent university (which houses the headquarters of the ACLJ), though I was happy to be a part of the entire environment on that campus, I felt out of place. As a Catholic, I felt like a "Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court."
One of the difficulties that I regularly encountered in the years I was there (1991-1997) was when someone from Regent or CBN would assume that when I said I was a Catholic, I meant that I was a "former" Catholic, or "from a Catholic background." What they came to discover (especially after I was ordained a Deacon in the Catholic Church in 1996) however, was that I was full-fledged "card-carrying, happy to be Catholic" Christian!
Like an increasing number of my generation, I am a "revert" to Catholic Christian faith. I journeyed back into the Church of my childhood after a sincere, difficult teenage "hippie pilgrimage" spent searching for truth. That search brought me home to the One who is "Truth" incarnate, the Lord Jesus Christ and back to His Catholic Church.
My journey home was aided by other Christians, mostly evangelical Protestants, who had the heart to tell me about Jesus at a time when I had wandered far from him. The journey led me through one semester at a Protestant Bible College (where I also felt like a fish out of water), to the rediscovery of the writings of the early Christian Fathers and ancient Christian writings, and into a Catholic monastery where I re-learned my faith and started to learn how to pray. I am still a student but never disappointed at the wealth of spirituality within the Catholic tradition.
My Catholic faith is the bedrock foundation of my entire life. It has been forged through all my questions and has stood the test of an intensely inquiring mind. To me, being Catholic is a way of being Christian, a way of living the gospel in its fullness.
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council wrote that the "fullness of truth subsides within" the Catholic Church. That should not make Catholics haughty but rather humble. We among all Christians have the duty to honor all those who bear the name Christian because we believe they are in some form of communion through their baptism with the Catholic Church. That is the understanding of the "ecclesiology" of the Council. When other baptized Christians come into the Catholic Church they are said to be coming into "full communion".
I would often tell those whom I befriended over the years on Regent's campus that if I were not raised a Catholic, I would have become one, partly because of my growing understanding of ecclesiology, the theology of the Church. Some would tell me, I believe sincerely, "we do not need theology" --to which I would respond "oh yes we do---now more than ever."
Theology is, after all, according to its ancient definition "faith seeking understanding." In an age that has elevated shallow thinking to an acceptable state of being; I believe that we need all the intelligent reflection on what it means to be a Christian that we can find!
Theological issues are what lie at the root of this rather odd newspaper article about "church shopping"and the mindset it revealed in those who were interviewed and who were doing the interview. Those interviewed expressed a way of thinking about the Church and the Christian vocation that was anything but classically Christian. It revealed is a kind of thinking that would have been foreign to ancient Christians.
In a kind of "reverse evangelization" some contemporary Christians have lost the depth of understanding found among classical Christians concerning the nature of the Christian vocation, the nature of the Church and the nature of Christian worship. To belong to Christ is to belong to the Church. An early Church father said it well: "whoever has God for his father has the Church for his mother."
This article on "church shopping" forced me to think about the nature of the Church and just who actually does the "shopping." Allow me to share some thoughts.
Shortly after my arrival in Virginia Beach in 1991, I was asked by some well meaning evangelical Protestant friends "have you found a church yet?"
It seemed an odd question to me as a Catholic. I wasn't looking! The Church found me at my baptism. She issued a wonderful invitation to come back home at a critical time in my life. She has since brought me the identity, the stability, and the rooted-ness for which I longed as a Christian.
As long as I find an altar, an ambo and the Eucharist, I will be just fine. Oh, I wish that the Diocese that I currently serve in was a little different but I know that just means I have to pray, serve and love all the more. After all, she is God's Church. He takes care of her.
To a Catholic Christian the Church, the Body of Christ, finds us. We are her sons and daughters and she is, as the early Christian fathers so rightly called her, our "mother." Funny thing about your mother, no matter how old or disheveled you may find her at times, she is always your mother!
This family imagery is laced throughout Catholic ecclesiology, the theology of the Church. It is not simply piety, but prophecy. To Catholics, the Church is a "Communio" a communion, an organic relational reality into which we are re-born! Not simply a "spiritual" construct but a real community that is both "institutional" and "charismatic". Membership and participation in this Church is the entryway into the eternal communion we will have one day have with the Lord and with one another.
We do not really "go to Church" at all. We live in the Church and go to the world! The Church is meant to become the home of the whole human race! We are her sons and daughters, sent from her heart, on mission into the world that God still loves so much "that He sent his only Son". He still sends His Son- now- through the Church that He founded and established. It is her ongoing mission to bring all the lost sons and daughters of the Father home through the ongoing redemptive work of Calvary.
Jesus Christ continues to make His presence, His power, His authority, His mercy, and the mystery of His majesty present "incarnationally" on the earth through His Church! There is no "plan B." The Church is the plan for the entire human race. The Church is "catholic" because it is universal, intended to be the home of the whole human race, which, redeemed in the Son are invited to enter into communion with the Lord.
The Church is the Body of Christ. We are members, grafted on through the Son to the vine. This process is dynamic and begins at Baptism. It is initiated by God and invites our response, our freely given "yes." This is one of the reasons why when Christians of other communities are said to enter into "full communion" with the Catholic Church when they become Catholic, we do not "re-baptize" them. There is one baptism, one Lord, one God and father of all.
That's right---Catholics believe that all Christians who are baptized are, in a sense, already in communion with the one Catholic Church. That is why we speak of the One Church. Though the Body is broken, that is not God's plan. The Church is meant to be One and will be once again.
This is a bold belief given the current disunity within the broader Christian community. However, it is rooted in faith. It accepts the reality that we are not perfect, we make wrong choices, individually and corporately. This is called sin. The divisions within the Body of Christ, no matter how important the issues may have been at the time, should never have resulted in the breaking of the unity of the Church.
Since the first breaking of the unity of the Body, the splintering has only continued. There have been many mistakes on all "sides" and repentance is the path to healing.
Faithful Catholics are aware of the "mixed" history of the Church. We understand the reality of sin, and the presence of both the wheat and tares in the Church. However, we believe that the unity of the Church is a part of the plan of the Son of God.
Sometimes the apparent tares are disfigured wheat simply needing and waiting to be cleaned up. The home where that can happen is the Church. The Church is "holy" in the sense of being set apart for God. However, her members are also called to be holy and that entails a process of sanctification and conversion.
When Catholics are asked by other Christians "Are you saved?" the proper response is "We are saved, we are being saved, and we hope to be saved!"
The Church is our mother, even when because of the weakness and sinfulness of some of her members; she doesn't behave or look the way she should. She is still the mother of the "new humanity" recreated in the Son of God.
She is also, as the fathers of the Second Vatican Council called her ,the "seed" of the Kingdom, making the kingdom present in the temporal world. She is prophetically demonstrating eternal truth in a transitory world. She is not "the kingdom" but she is a sign, a "sacrament" of the kingdom. The kingdom will only come in its fullness when Jesus returns.
However, a seed has the "genetic code," the DNA, the elements, of the tree and the fruit that will grow from within. The Church is the vine and makes the kingdom present through her fruitful life and mission as lived through her members.
The Church is not a building. Although Catholics (and many other Christians) love to build beautiful sanctuaries- houses for formal worship, such holy places should reflect the heavenly mysteries that take place within where God meets man. Though we call these places "churches"-- the Church is made up of the members joined to Christ (and through Him to the Trinity) and in Him to one another.
The Church is not simply a "spiritual" reality but a temporal one as well. After all Jesus was not simply spiritual but physical. The Incarnation continues in and through the Church that he founded, over which He presides and through which he continues to mediate His redemptive love on earth.
The Church is not a theatre or a house for entertainment. Worship is not about observation, or entertainment. Worship is about participation. That insight lies at the heart of good liturgy! That is why from antiquity a special High form of worship occurred in those houses that came to be called the "Divine Liturgy."
The early Christians understood this. Along with their clear "personal relationship with Jesus" they understood both the obligation and the joy of worship, adoration and sacrifice. They were, for the most part, Jews, and they therefore understood liturgy.
Anyone who would honestly study early Christian history, will find that the form of liturgical worship was at the foundation of the teaching on worship contained within the earliest of Christian sources. Anyone reading the greatest worship manual in the world, the last book of the Sacred Scriptures, the "Book of Revelation" will find that it is liturgical worship that characterizes the eternal activity going on around the throne of the Lamb- no "me and Jesus" ditties being sung here, but honor and elaborate worship as befitting the One who sits on that throne. Liturgy is presented as the model of the eternal worship!
The word "liturgy" actually means, "work." Not play. That is what the Christian life is also meant to be. It is a life of being poured out for God, and in Him for others. It is not a "spiritualized" consumerism.
The article that prompted these reflections noted that many who were "shopping for a church" were looking for dynamic worship. We all are. But worship is about more than finding "soulful music" or "good Sunday school."
Then there is the issue of good preaching. "Orthodoxy" (right doctrine) always promotes "Orthopraxy" or right living. In many Christian circles there is a growing concern over right doctrine, so desperately needed in an age where novelty over substance has infected too many Christian ministries and communities.
Catholic Christians believe that in fulfilling His promise to "not leave us orphans" the Lord gave us a "magisterium" (Latin for "teaching office" -- the root of which is "mater" or mother) to guide us in the interpretation of that wonderful entrustment of His Word we call the Bible. How many of the abberant practices in some segments of the Christian community are "supported" by an individualistic interpretation of a biblical text!
That is only one of many reasons why we need the gift of Church authority. "Where the Bishop is, there is the Church" wrote Ignatius of Antioch. Today, more than ever, we need to rediscover that truth is available to all who would seek after it. It is entrusted to a Body. We are called to hunger for it, seek it, and inform our lives by it. The Church is a teacher.
Catholics call the Church "apostolic" because we believe that the Lord has secured the apostolic office to guide and protect us as the Spirit leads us into all truth. The "institutional" and the "charismatic" are not at odds with one another. They co-exist in an asymmetrical relationship within the Church. She is ancient but ever new. Always in need of reform and renewal, she is able to anchor men and women in every age to the Rock of salvation.
I must confess, the older I get, I would rather have right teaching, delivered by a boring messenger, than a parade of new novelties from a newly self appointed and anointed motivational speaker. From my experience, every Christian group has some kind of "magisterium," some kind of interpreter of the scripture. I prefer one that has stood the test of 2000 years.
After all, the real task is to hear God's word, not to be drawn to any messenger. We are all to become a "living letters" (see 2 Cor. 3:2) written by the Lord Himself making His presence known in the real world.
The Bible is the Book of the Church. The Church is not the Church of the Book. Jesus did not come with a pen in His hand and dictate the sacred text. He came and chose the first fruits of a new humanity and entrusted His ongoing work to them. Through His death and Resurrection, He accomplished what we could not on our own. He paid the penalty for our sin, and opened the way for our communion with the Trinity!
To this new people, He gave the Sacred Scripture (remember the biblical "canon"--meaning "measuring stick"---was approved well after the Ascension of the Lord by the Church!) and the Holy Spirit, to guide us in all truth.
Though we all like to be "inspired" by good preaching, in his instructions, St. Paul reminded Timothy that all scripture is "inspired" ---literally "God breathed" and he encouraged him to "fan into a flame" the gift that was given to him by the laying on of hands. Good preaching helps but we are the best preachers in our own lives.
In the Catholic Church we are invited to come to the formal liturgy having read the sacred texts, already prescribed in a continuum of orderly readings called the "liturgical year." I know that when I am properly prepared, even a boring homily can come alive when the breath within the word of God touches my receptive heart!
The predictability of the liturgical readings of the Church year also allows for an orderly progression through the scripture over the course of a year. It is not meant to be a substitute for personal, communal or extemporaneous reading and study of the Bible. Instead, like the liturgical seasons, it is meant to provide a pattern and structure to the ongoing life of faith.
The garnered wisdom of 2000 years of Christian history has confirmed for me what anyone who has served the Lord for more than a year will admit; sometimes spontaneity isn't spontaneous anymore. Liturgy is not drudgery, but rather an opportunity and a gift! There is a liturgy, a flow, to life itself! There are seasons in our lives. We humans mark time. The Church has chosen to mark time, to sanctify it, by the great events of Christian faith.
Over those years I watched the development of the Christian way of life at CBN and Regent University, I noticed that the times of formal worship and assembly became increasingly liturgical. There were formal "roles" that developed among the main leaders. There were also "special" days and a "calendar" that grew up among that community of Christians. There was also a "form" of hierarchy and a "teaching office" developing. This is a natural (and supernatural) progression. It will occur whenever a community of Christians gathers and matures together.
As a Catholic Christian, I choose to stand in a continuum of 2000 years of history, on the shoulders of giants. I believe that we can learn so much from the communion of saints who have gone on before us. There really are very few "new" theological issues and the human experience has not changed. I find great solace and confidence in the ancient yet ever-new liturgy of the Catholic Church and the clear, wise, direction of the teaching office "the magisterium" of that Church.
So do an increasing number of other Christians these days. It seems that "everything old is new again." There is a record return of Catholics to the Church. A growing number of Christians from other communities are seeking the solidity, maturity, historicity and depth of Catholic faith and life.
Well, is all of this a reaction to one article in the "Daily Break" section of my newspaper?
Well, not really.
The article simply presented me with an opportunity to present a Catholic distinctive on a vital contemporary topic, the "search" for a church.
Hearkening back to those early days when I first encountered so many good evangelical Protestant Christians at Regent and CBN, and they asked me (out of legitimate concern) "Have you found a church yet?" I should have answered honestly.
"No! The Church found me and I am so glad. Come and find her again.
Where is the Eucharist? Where is the Word, rightly divided and understood? Where are the people of God, constituted over time, ordered for service, worship ---one foot on the earth so as to redeem it, the other stretching toward and bound for eternity? Where is the Bride, espoused to the Holy Bridegroom that is being prepared for the wedding feast of the Lamb?
Where are the altar, the ambo, and the precious Body and Blood? Where are the men and women being made holy in the furnace and purified by the fire - not perfect, but being perfected, by the One who is alive in her midst?
There, there is the Church. With all of her human weakness and mistakes, yet eternally bound to the One from whose wounded side she was born on the altar of Calvary."
I am so glad I don't have to shop for that Church.
Deacon Keith A Fournier is the founding member of "Lentz, Stepanovich and Fournier, P.L.C." and practices law in Southeastern Virginia. Long active in political participation, Fournier was a founder of Catholic Alliance and served as a lobbyist. He is the founder of Common Good. He was the first Executive Director of the ACLJ (American Center for Law and Justice) and served as an advisor to the presidential campaign of Steve Forbes. He holds a Bachelors degree from Franciscan University of Steubenville in Philosophy and Theology, a Masters Degree in Sacred Theology from the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University and a Juris Doctor from the University of Pittsburgh. Fournier is the author of seven books on issues concerning life, faith, evangelization, family and policy and cultural issues.
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