|Evangelicals at Hillsong Church in Baulkham Hills, Sydney, Australia
Photo Credit: Ben Rushton
Before I was Catholic, I was Anglican. But before I was Anglican, I was Evangelical, and I have a secret. My secret is that Catholics were the easiest targets to pull out of the Church, and convert to Evangelicalism. Sadly, a good number of the Catholics I pulled out (when I was an Evangelical) went on to have a strong anti-Catholic streak, much worse than anything I ever experienced as a cradle Protestant. I don't believe I put this anti-Catholic streak into them. I think it developed on its own, organically, from having left the Church and a natural human tendency to want to justify that.
So the question is why? Why are so many young Catholics converting to Evangelicalism? And why do Evangelicals so easily pull our young people away from the Church?
The Modernity answer is clueless. This assumes that it must be the praise music, guitars, drums, and emotional worship that does it, along with a happy, non-judgemental, "I'm okay, you're okay" pop-psychology preaching. This retro-1970s solution is not only tired and worn out, it's also inaccurate. It isn't the music, worship style, and pop-psychology message that pulls young Catholics out of the Church. Nor is it these things that make Evangelicalism so successful. For four decades now, we Catholics have been redesigning our parishes, and renovating the mass, to appeal to this mindset. It's not working. It never worked, and it never will work. Because it misses the mark entirely. It seeks the solution to the problem in aesthetics and sentimentality. Neither aesthetics nor sentimentality were ever the problem to begin with. Not only does it misdiagnose the problem, but the proscribed cure is worse than the disease.
The Traditional answer is a bit closer, but still misses the mark. Traditionals assert that the problem is poor catechises and bad liturgy. They would have us believe that if we would just go back to the pre-Vatican II Church, things would be better. There is, of course, an element of truth to this, and we certainly would be better off with more traditional liturgy and catechises, but that alone isn't enough. My Lutheran forefathers, from long before Vatican II, easily converted Catholics as well, and some of them even bragged about it, as late as the 1950s. Not all was well within the Catholic Church prior to Vatican II, and I assert the Church needed some of the reforms of Vatican II desperately. Yes, I assert that Vatican II was necessary -- but incomplete and far too vague. As a result, this lack of clarity and closure from the council opened a door to something far worse. Like Pope Benedict XVI, I assert that the public message of the council was hijacked by the media, and as far as the public mind was concerned, it was made into something it was never intended to be.
When it comes to the question of why young Catholics are leaving the Church, Traditionals overshoot the answer, and the Moderns shoot in the wrong direction entirely. Both are missing it. That's because the answer is so simple that both could easily hit it, if only they knew exactly where it was. Where is it? It's right at their feet actually. It's literally under their noses.
What is it?
It's simple really. Evangelicals are kicking our tails because they teach their people how to have a personal relationship with God the Father. That's what we're missing in the Catholic Church.
You see, there is nothing in that message that is anti-Catholic. In fact, it's probably the most Catholic message there ever was. Jesus came to atone for our sins, so that we may all have a relationship with God the Father as he does. With the Holy Spirit indwelling us, and receiving the physical body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, we are brought into the Trinity, literally elevated right to the Father's throne, and given the opportunity to know him and love him -- personally.
For some strange reason, however, most of our priests and catechists stop there. They explain the mechanics of how it works, this theosis or divinisation of the Christian, but then leave the implication of that message almost completely untouched. Most Catholics today couldn't tell you the first thing about what it means to have a personal relationship with God the Father. The Holy Spirit indwells us, the Holy Eucharist feeds us, and we are brought into the Holy Trinity literally body and soul, only to be left standing at the foot of the Father's throne not knowing what to do next. We speak with him in one voice during the "Our Father" prayer, and then we are silent. Please tell me, what kind of relationship grows in silence? What kind of a marriage exists when a husband and wife never speak to each other? That's what we are lacking, and that is why Evangelicals are kicking our tails with young people. It has nothing to do with the loud music, laser beams, fog machines, or non-judgemental message. It has everything to do with the fact that Evangelicals have unwittingly stumbled onto a Biblical truth that Catholics have for too long ignored, or just taken for granted. These Evangelicals are teaching our youth how to have a personal relationship with God the Father. We Catholic parents have prepared our children for this through the sacraments, only to have them stolen away from us at the last moment, because somebody else taught them the meaning of it all before we did. Here's the irony folks, Evangelicals are so successful because their using our own message against us. They've taken the core message of Catholicism, a message that many of us forgot, claimed it as their own, and are now using it to clobber us.
We are to have a relationship with Our Father in Heaven. That's what it's all about. That's what the Church is all about, the Sacraments, the Eucharist, the Saints, the liturgy, the hierarchy, all of it! It's all about having and growing in a personal relationship with God the Father. It's about knowing him as "Our Father," as our Abba (meaning our "Daddy"), and learning to love him as Our Daddy. Jesus said if you've seen me, you've seen the Father. So we learn to know the Father by learning to know the Son. Yes, it really is that simple. And yes, it just doesn't get any more Catholic than that!
Yet for some reason, this core of our Catholic Christian faith, this essential kernel of what makes us Catholic, is so neglected in our parishes, that when young Catholics today are asked about their personal relationship with God the Father, they just look at you with a blank stare. They have no idea what you're talking about.
How could this have happened? How could we have so carefully prepared them for a relationship with the Father, in both sacrament and catechises, and then forgot to tell them what it's all in preparation for?
Personal is not Private
Now I should stop here and clarify something. Personal does not mean private. Evangelicals often fail to differentiate on that. So much so, that many Evangelicals believe having a personal relationship with God is the same as a private relationship with God. In other words, they see no need for being part of a community. This is why a growing number of Evangelicals have stopped going to church entirely, and are now "worshipping God in their own way" outside of a traditional church setting. The apostles specifically commanded the early Christians to meet together, and not forsake their weekly gatherings to break bread (celebrate the Eucharist). Some of our misguided Evangelical brethren have taken their ideology too far here, and have become popes and bishops unto themselves, having created a "religion" of their own making, far more ritualistic than anything in Catholicism. It is, in their case, a religion of one.
You see, the New Covenant in Jesus Christ is not made with individuals. Rather, it is made with a group, or a community, specifically the Church. So our relationship with God the Father comes about because of, and through, our relationship with the Church. We must be active members within the Church, in order to realise and receive the full relationship that God intends to have with us. Those who have cut themselves off from the Church have put themselves in an impaired state. They cannot fully realise, nor fully receive, the entire relationship God wants to have with them.
Still also, a number of Evangelicals equate the word "relationship" with anti-religion. Under this false and ridiculous pretence, they assert that you can't have a relationship with God if you're involved in any kind of religion. Case in point; many of these Evangelicals would claim that Catholicism is too ritualistic, and therefore too religious. Thus, they would pontificate, that it's impossible to have a relationship with God when you're a Catholic, because Catholicism has too much religion. This of course is preposterous. God is the inventor of the most complex religion in the world -- Judaism -- with 613 commandments to follow. By making the assertion that God opposes religion, they are effectively claiming that God opposes himself. Jesus never opposed religion in the gospels, nor did he oppose ritual. Rather, he commanded his apostles to follow the rules of the scribes and pharisees. He just instructed them not to follow their hypocrisy. That, you see, was Jesus' biggest problem with the religion of his day. It wasn't the religion of Judaism itself. He was, after all, a good Jew. Rather it was the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his time, who made an outward appearance of religion, but obviously didn't believe or practise it. All throughout the New Testament, we are instructed to follow the "traditions" of the apostles, and yes, that means religious traditions. You see, religion (true religion that is) and relationship, are not opposed to one another, as some misguided Evangelicals assert. Both religion and relationship are actually complementary to each other.
Because of these abuses, within Evangelicalism, Catholics have a tendency to react in the opposite direction, rejecting the Evangelical message outright. They say it's about a relationship not religion, and then we react without thinking, saying "No! It's about religion stupid!" as we ignore the relationship part.
The Catholic message is simple. It's not an either/or thing. Catholic Christianity is about having a personal relationship with God the Father, made possible by the Son, through the Holy Spirit. Our Catholic religion is complementary to this, and in fact, it strengthens this relationship and facilitates it. In turn, our personal relationship with God strengthens our religious practise, and gives it more meaning and purpose. Relationship and religion are not an "either/or" thing. Rather, they are a "both/and" thing. Our Catholic religion complements our personal relationship with God, and likewise our personal relationship with God complements our Catholic religion.
Having a personal relationship with God the Father means becoming an intentional disciple of Jesus Christ. Now exactly what does that mean? - "intentional disciple?" It means making a conscious choice, daily, by your own free will, to learn everything you can about Jesus of Nazareth and his teachings, for the purpose of applying these things in your life, all for LOVE of him.
A disciple is more than just a student. A student is merely a learner, meaning somebody who goes to school, learns something, and then goes home to carry on with his life. A disciple, on the other hand, is much more than that. A disciple is somebody who lives with his teacher, talks to him daily. Shares meals with him regularly. Sleeps in the same house as him, and spends every waking hour with him. A disciple is one who is totally dedicated, 100%, to learning and living everything he can about his teacher, to the point of becoming just like his teacher, in the very spitting image! That's a disciple! Far too many Catholics are students and not disciples.
This is what we must do as Catholics. This is how we beat the Evangelical juggernaut at it's own game, because you see, it was never really their game to begin with. It was our game all along. We just forgot how to play it. The Catholic Church is the Church of monasteries and convents. It's the Church of clerical celibacy and religious vocations. It's the ultimate in having a personal relationship with God through intentional discipleship.
What does this mean for the average lay Catholic today? It's simple really. We don't need to join a monastery or convent. We don't even need to join the priesthood, and we don't need to take a vow of celibacy, unless of course these things are one's individual calling! Rather, what we need to do is simply CHOOSE to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. We need to CHOOSE daily, on a daily basis, to learn everything we can about Jesus and try to become like him in every way we can, within our own limited means, and station of life of course.
Obviously, if we're married, we need to stay married and love our spouse. Obviously, if we're employed and holding down a job, we need to do that to support our families. Gallivanting off into the wilderness to pray is not what I'm talking about here. Rather, I'm talking about making a conscious choice to spend the rest of our days learning about our Master, and trying to emulate the virtues he taught us. All the while, like anyone in a relationship, we need to talk to our Master regularly and personally. This is where Catholics have a hard time. We're very comfortable reciting the "Our Father" prayer and saying the prayers of the Holy Rosary, but we seem to have a hard time just talking to God one-on-one in a very honest and personable way. Yet it is necessary.
Here's a suggestion. Open your daily prayer time with God by reciting one Our Father, one Hail Mary, and one Glory Be. Then just start talking to God. Tell him about your day. Tell him about your trials, worries and frustrations. Then tell him about all the good things that happened too and what you're thankful for. Granted, he knows all this stuff already, but the truth is, he likes hearing it from you. He wants to know your perspective. He likes hearing your voice! After all, he made your voice. Right?
Uniting the Catholic Factions
Today, the Catholic Church is more divided than its been in centuries, and as I've said many times, it is in real danger of schism. The Moderns would like to take the Church in one direction, while the Traditionals would like to go back to the way it was. While I personally tend to lean toward the Traditional mindset, I am forced to admit that some Modern innovations aren't necessarily bad, and might even be helpful.
However, bickering between the two main factions isn't going to solve anything. What will solve a whole lot of things is if we all get back to what Catholic Christianity is really all about. It's about having a personal relationship with God the Father, because Jesus Christ made that possible, and allowing the hierarchy and sacraments of the Church (the Church Jesus created) to lead us deeper into that relationship with the Father. That's what it's all about! I believe if we all started focusing on that, we could unite the Catholic factions, fulfil the lost intentions of Vatican II, and show the Evangelicals what it REALLY MEANS to have a relationship with God.