Let's Fix the Engine

By the Most Reverend Albert H. Ottenweller

A Roman Catholic Bishop reflects on how the institutional church can be creatively "overhauled" by small faith groups.

I've been hooked on small communities ever since I went to a workshop by Richard Currier twenty years ago. At that time, I was a new pastor at St. John's of Delphos, Ohio, and things weren't going well at all. We were so rutted in doing things "by the book" that we weren't meeting people's needs.

We were also having trouble putting life into the Sunday liturgy. There seemed to be little participation. The overall picture, like the collective face of the congregation, was grim.

So our staff decided to improve the situation. We ordered new hymn books; we trained lectors and cantors; we planned more exciting liturgies. We gave liturgy a major push. The result: 400 fewer people attended Sunday Mass that year than the year before.

Where did we go wrong?

We erred by doing "the institutional thing." We tried to put out a "better product." We missed because the people were looking, not for a better product, but for a community.

About this time, a young man from our parish came to see me. He said, "Father, I'm confused. Once in a while I go to my wife's church (Assembly of God). You just can't believe the excitement there. People sing so loud the roof almost comes off the church. Parishioners stand up and witness to what God has done in their lives during the past week. The service lasts two hours, but nobody leaves. I can't understand it.

"All they've got is the Holy Spirit and the Bible, while we've got the Holy Spirit, the Bible, Baptism, Holy Eucharist, and the Blessed Virgin. But, Father, when I come to Sunday Mass in our church, it's dullsville."

An Obvious Need

Isn't it odd? What we need in the church is so obvious we can't see it because we are so into our present structures. When we hear "church" we think "task." When I give talks, I draw a truck on newsprint. I'm no artist, but I try to illustrate a point. The truck is the parish. On the back of it we pile a big box of evangelization, a carton of family life, a barrel of youth ministry, and a big load of social services. Everything's ready, but we can't get the truck moving because the engine isn't working. The funny thing is that, rather than overhaul the engine, we think if we put more programs in the back of the truck we can get it going.

Members Come Alive

The Currier workshop taught me about the value of small communities. In a community, people nourish and support one another, and become aware of the possibilities of collectively building the Kingdom of God. Members come alive. They discover giftedness; they grow in a sense of being bonded to one another; they begin to see God as a loving parent. They hunger to share the treasure they have found with others.

In the twenty years since that workshop, I have been a part of the developing small communities at St. John's. I've known the sublime joy of loving and being loved in the bosom of a community. Through community, I have experienced a new relationship with God, who, I better realize now, is my loving Father.

What John said in his epistle, "those who have no love for the brother (or sister) they have see, cannot love the God they have not see," is obversely true. by sharing our own fears, joys, dreams, and weaknesses with our brothers and sisters, we find God in a Whole new way. Make no mistake about it, there is pain in community, but there is also a joy in community, a foretaste of heaven.

A Lesson Of History

Until 1968, the Swiss were watchmakers for the world. When you though "watch," you thought "Swiss." Switzerland produced 85% of all the watches sold worldwide. In 1968, however, something happened to change all that. In their laboratories, Swiss technicians developed a new concept in time pieces. It was the digital watch. They showed it to their own boards of directors. The directors laughed. this new idea would never work, the scoffed. There were no springs, no wheels. They thought it was ridiculous, and didn't even seek to patent the invention. The inventors, however, exhibited their digital watch at a world trade show. The Japanese saw the exhibit and its potential and the rest, as they say, is history. Today, the Japanese dominate the watchmaking industry, while Swiss watchmaking is in decline.

Could this story hold a lesson for us?

Albert H. Ottenweller is Bishop of the Diocese of Stuebenville, Ohio.

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