On the Complaint that the Church Needs to Change…

While sitting in church last Sunday, a fellow parishioner turned to me and, after lamenting the low attendance at Mass, asked what’s going to happen here when we die? I responded, that others will replace us just as we replaced those who came before us…. And just like life triggered in us the need for God and a faith community, the same thing will happen to others and they will fill our seats.

The parishioner then responded, “I just simply think the church needs to change! I think the church needs to change if they’re going to get more people in here.” I whispered back, “…yes the church may need to make some changes and is changing, but I also think it’s the people who need to change too.”

Sitting there thinking about our brief exchange, I had to stop myself, as I began asking questions of this parishioner to myself like: Are you living the faith in a manner that invites others to what you have and experienced in the Church… or are you living a private faith that simply enjoys its treasury of blessings and then goes home to chill? When was the last time you invited someone to come to Mass? What is your active ministry in this Church, or are you like most too busy for an active ministry? Who in and what in this Church needs to change so bad? What have you done to bring more people into the church?

Prideful and feeling like a military person (which I am not) who was listening to civilian complain about America’s woes, but then glibbly slips in how they have never voted or served because of some easily forgettable reason, I had to humbly remind myself that no one knows the heart of another or how they are standing before and serving the Lord! Yes, thanks to the Spirit, I was able to give myself a severe self-check right there in church!! Aware of my bad attitude that accompanied these good questions, I refocused on praying the Mass and didn’t share them with the parishioner. However the questions did stay with me, especially the one about living out an evangelical faith.

The challenge of living the Gospel is always ongoing and difficult for all Christians. It’s easy to hold the faith as a personal spiritual treasury, a place for us to personally be restored and empowered… but it is hard to acknowledge the Gospel’s universal call and mandate (to us in the pews especially) to share and live it always and with all. Sharing the Gospel is not force-feeding it to others; it is simply living the Gospel in our speech and actions in an open and inviting manner.

It is so easy to believe the lie that spreading the Gospel is optional for us in the pews and that it is primarily the job of the clergy, religious and the institutional church. The rush to judge our clergy, religious and institutional church and the willingness to repeatedly gloss over our own gross sins – reflects the universality with which this lie is held by “the faithful.” Even the sweetest believer in the pews – if the right topic is brought up – can unmercifully straight crucify the clergy and/or church in a record time that will have Mr. Guinness knocking at their door about the new world record! [Hmmmm…. what is this topic for you?]

Sharing one’s faith with others – especially when our secular culture holds that it is a private manner and faith discussions are frowned upon in the public sphere – can be daunting. It takes courage, vulnerability and the willingness to be unpopular in doing so. Please believe me – there is a cost – at work and in public – for standing on the faith. I worked in Catholic high schools for over two decades and still found that people were afraid of being ridiculed or worse, when faith discussion surfaced in the teacher’s lounge. It often got very quiet as many were all ears but unwilling to enter into discussions, as they were STILL scared or CONDITIONED not to speak and share – even in a supposedly openly religious context where the open exchange of ideas was suppose to be welcome! Why? Because even today in many Christian institutions – there is still a cost of being too orthodox or not being politically correct on certain issues, etc.

Despite Christians being force fed secularism, consumerism and various other “-isms” 24/7, we Christians are scared to take the initiative and to simply share with another Christian, for fear of being charged with or being confronted by our brothers and sisters with proselytizing or over zealousness! Don’t believe me? When was the last time you said yes to that Jehovah Witness at your door?

Many are often so willing to talk about how the church should change – and yes this is true in many regards – but often these are the very same people who are hesitant to acknowledge that they/we are first and foremost the church, not its buildings and institutional structures! Yes the church has to change, and that change begins with me/us – the person in the mirror (Church) – to quote Michael Jackson.

Later, in the post-communion song the minister of music sung and proclaimed that “the fight is not ours, the fight is the Lord’s.” The priest gave an ending prayer reminding us “to be hopeful, to not be discouraged and to remain strong in the faith.” I nudged the parishioner and we both chuckled.

I agree whole-heartedly! It is the Lord’s fight, but we have to be His hands, feet and voice as we take up the battle in our daily lives. We do have to remain hopeful and seek not to become discouraged; we must also continue to pray for and not judge others if and when they momentarily succumb to it while on this pilgrimage. We must also pray for the Spirit to give us the self-awareness to self-check ourselves when we do!

May Spirit speak through and use each of us this week as we continue fighting the fight and running the race of faith. Amen.

Author: P. J. West, Jr.

Paul J. West Jr. is a cradle Catholic and native Chicagoan who has ministered in Catholic Schools, parishes and hospitals for over two decades. His current ministries are focused on both hospital chaplaincy and writing. Prior to this, he ministered as an educator for almost twenty five years teaching religion, scripture, philosophy and ethics at four Chicago area high schools and adults at the Chicago Catholic Scripture School. His parish ministry has included preaching, teaching, writing and serving as a Eucharistic minister. Mr. West, who is native south sider, has been married for almost 30 years to Dr. Joy West. They have raised four beautiful daughters who are all hardcore Bears and White Sox fans!!!!

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