2019 Best Book Awards, Finalist: Religion—Christianity
Take a moment and ask yourself: does every activity in my parish point more deeply to Jesus?
Julianne Stanz wants to help you and your parish community make sure the answer to this question is a resounding, "Yes!" Serving parishes in her diocese as the Director of New Evangelization, Stanz has recognized a practical and motivational way to restructure a parish's mission – start with Jesus.
Start with Jesus is a book about people, process, and culture, rather than an emphasis on quick fixes or unsustainable efforts. She aims to help regular people be transformed from the inside out by growing in relationship with Jesus Christ through individual and group experiences, thus transforming our parish communities.
Start with Jesus will be an essential resource for decision-makers and thought-leaders in parishes, but its true strength lies in its value for the countless Catholics longing for peace, healing, and hope in the context of our parish communities. It will be an inspiration to Catholics who come to Mass each week, parents trying to instill the faith in their children, leaders searching for an effective and sustainable approach to parish renewal, and to all who are curious about developing a relationship with Jesus.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: Reclaiming the Fire of Parish Life
In all my years of experience, the moment that transformed how I look at parish life came through the wisdom of my three-year-old son, Ian. It was a Sunday morning when I went to wake him up. “What day is it?” he asked sleepily. “It’s Sunday, son. That means it’s time for church,” I said. Under the blankets I heard an audible sigh of displeasure. And then he said the words that all parents dread: “I don’t want to go to Mass.” It was the first time I had ever heard him say this, and so I asked him why. In my mind, I thought about all the reasons a child might not want to go to Mass: how few children he would see in our church again that weekend; the quietness and lack of movement; the fact that he often cannot see what is happening; the music; the lack of snacks; and so on. But my son did not list one of those reasons, as I expected. “I don’t want to go to church, Mama,” he whispered, “because nobody looks happy there.”
I thought my heart was going to break.
Nobody Looks Happy There What do our children see when they look at our parishes? What do they experience? What do they see in each of us? In me? I thought about what my children saw on a Sunday morning in our home. Was I calm and filled with expectant joy about going to Mass? Or was I the harried mom stretched for time who rushed my children out the door and into a pew without thinking? Were we prepared as a family for the gift of the Eucharist? The answer was no. If we want our children to become joyful witnesses to their faith, they must see it first in us as parents. If we want our parishes to be places of joy and transformation, then we must see it first in our parishioners.
Our parishes must reclaim the fire and excitement for faith so that it is visible to all, especially to the least among us. This is especially true and critical for active parishioners and the parish team. If your committed parishioners do not radiate love for their faith, don’t expect those they encounter to radiate joy either.
Our parishes are complex systems, communities within communities that work together, but, essentially, they are composed of people. It is our people who will renew our parishes, not programs, slick marketing, or great resources. Those factors are peripheral to the core work of renewing our parishes by renewing our people, beginning with our own disposition and witness. Throughout the book, you will notice that I refer to “parish leaders” and “leaders in the parish.” Is there a difference? Yes, there is. The term “parish leaders” refers to those in formal ministerial roles, including the pastor and paid parish staff. These are the people who most often compose a parish staff or team. “Leaders in the parish” refers to members of the parish who have the gifts or the potential to help others grow in their faith and, with them, the parish. This includes volunteers, committee members, and all those who want to contribute to leading the Church they love. If we are going to renew our parishes, we need all people to step up and be leaders, working with our parish leaders to shape the parish and the community in which it lives. Together, we must recover the sense of fire and energy that comes from a faith fully alive and in touch with the Holy Spirit.
Go Set the World on Fire!
Fire has played one of the most significant roles in the advancement of civilization. The world depends on the warmth and energy of the biggest fire near the Earth—the sun. Without fire, there would be no life. Fire and life go hand in hand.
This is also true of our spiritual lives. The metaphor of fire is used throughout the Bible to indicate the presence of God directly and the presence of God in others. God is described as a “consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29), and we are told that we will be baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matthew 3:11). Without the fire of our faith, we would be lifeless Christians lacking fervor and energy. We would have no “get up and go”!
Too often, our approach to our faith lacks the fire or energy that it deserves. Too often, what once was an energetic fire dies down to a few burning embers as we get stuck in comfortable and familiar patterns. Does the fire of our faith produce change in ourselves and in others? Does it inspire and energize? Does our parish reflect a fire that is warming, moving, and inviting? Or has our fire died down so that it is barely visible? Fire can be a creative or a destructive force; it is never static but constantly moving, growing, and consuming. And yet, many parishes have become stuck in outdated modes and methods that hold them back from unleashing the energy and warmth of the gospel fire reflected in our people.
Much as a fire will die out or a circuit will short when it reaches maximum overload, we as a Church have reached what Pope Francis calls “a diagnostic overload” (Evangelii Gaudium, #50). This overload, caused by a flurry of activity coupled with dwindling personnel and financial resources, can smother the fire of parish life. If we put more and more activities, events, programs, and stresses on our parishes, we risk allowing our fires to dwindle to bare embers.
This danger can be avoided, Pope Francis reminds us, only by an evangelical discernment that prioritizes missionary discipleship. This requires a change from a more administrative model of ministry to an evangelical missionary model that emphasizes transformation of the parish culture through relationship building, accompaniment, and community impact.
Fire is visible and always produces change, energy, and focus. St. Ignatius of Loyola urged his followers to go set the world on fire, and there is no better place to do this than in the parish. The parish is ordinarily the first point of contact for most Catholics, particularly those who have been away from the Church and who seek to return home. In the parish, we become engaged with the wider Church community, are nourished by Scripture and the sacraments, and have opportunities for initial and ongoing formation in faith.
And, in our parishes there are many overlooked leaders waiting for someone to notice them and invite them into a deeper relationship with the Lord. In fact, you as a reader of this book might be an unrealized leader with tremendous potential to help our parishes share the gospel. If you are waiting for a sign, this is it! Do not be afraid to see yourself as a leader in your parish and your Church; Jesus Christ himself is depending on it! We, as leaders in our parishes, must be equipped to see how every aspect of life is an opportunity to go out into the world and make disciples of all peoples (Matthew 28:19), remembering that it is primarily in the parish that God’s people are brought to new birth through water and the Spirit (John 3:5) and to eternal life in the body and blood of his Son (John 6:54). Each of us is asked to bring to others the good news of the gospel and share how it has transformed our lives. This is what God wants for each of us, and it is the deepest identity of the Church: bringing the Good News to others.