What’s at Stake? Not Much, it Would Seem, in Many Parishes.

In the West we are living through times where the Church seems largely irrelevant to most people. And we, the leaders and members of the Church have largely made it that. We have reduced the Gospel to a cheerful call that all are welcome and recast our parishes as cruise liners rather than lifeboats or battleships.

Largely gone are the urgent words of Jesus that we should repent of our sins and believe in the Gospel. Jesus warned of endless hellfire, of wailing and grinding of teeth and every sorrow if we did not accept his invitation or departed from him. “If you do not come to believe that I AM, you will die in your sins.” (John 8:24) Most can hardly imagine Jesus speaking like this, and yet it is an exact quote, as are countless other quotes and parables such as “depart from Me, I know you not.” The true impact of so many of the parables is lost on many, and yet they warn that there are sheep and goats, those on the right, those on the left. There are wheat and tares, wise virgins and foolish ones, those who accept the invitation to the wedding feast and those who don’t.

And yet, few today have any practical belief in the dogma of Hell and have largely dismissed it as a remote possibility for themselves or anyone they know. As the Church, this is our doing, starting with those who preach and teach but it does not exclude individuals among the faithful who have been more than willing to surround themselves with teachers who say what their itching ears want to hear (see 2 Timothy 4:3-4).

Without understanding the real possibility that our sinful and disordered appetites and wills may well reject God’s offer of salvation not much else makes sense or impels effort on our part to enter the dramatic battle necessary for salvation. If all is well, who needs Sacraments, prayer, or to adhere to the truth of God’s Words? Who needs to cling to a Catholic family or parish that provides them with all that is most essential to save their souls and the souls of their family members? Who needs saving? Who needs sacraments like confession or the Holy Eucharist? Who needs to be taught the faith? Who needs to muster for a battle when there is no real threat?  What’s so wrong with living together outside of marriage. If there is a God, he won’t care about such things. All that matters is if you’re nice and tolerant.

So what is at is a stake? Nothing, it would appear. No drama in the valley of decision (see Joel 3:14). Nothing to see here, just move on. No wonder people do move on, or drive by our parishes on Sunday mornings. We have preached ourselves into irrelevance by jettisoning the Scriptures for a mish mash of niceness that sounds more like Barney the Purple Dinosaur. We are deeply afraid of offending anyone and our message has devolved to vague abstractions and generalities that are little more than suggestions that we learn to be kind and nice and that all must feel welcome. It’s hardly a summons to a battle for souls, starting with our own. Hardly a call to engage an implacable foe with the weapons of righteousness, holiness, and courage. In such a climate of nearly universal salvation, reinforced by our silence in the face grave moral evils, why should anyone bother to come, or care at all.

In a recent book, Why They Follow, Matthew Warner has some important reflections to help understand the emptying pews. Let’s consider some quotes. He begins with the modern sense that most people are basically in good shape and will most likely attain heaven:

 It’s very difficult to break through and communicate with somebody who just doesn’t seem to care. The modern attitude seems to be that everything in [most] humans is basically in order and that all is well. If that’s true, Jesus becomes merely a great spiritual teacher, and no longer a savior, and our churches, become just nice groups of people to do things with rather than lifeboats. (Page 26).

Yes, who needs a savior if heaven is already in the bag? So Jesus and his message get reduced to kind advice that can improve your life and foster greater kindness. Parishes are reduced to meeting halls where nice people do nice things together. It is a cruise ship not a battleship out fighting for souls. Has it occurred that most of what we offer in this vision can also be supplied by a bowling league or bridge club?  What do we offer that is special or necessary? He continues:

CS Lewis wisely pointed out that “Christianity if false, is of no importance, and if true, it is of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.” Unfortunately, in many churches, it feels a bit moderately important and they no longer act as if there’s something big at stake. (Page 27)

And there it is, most don’t think there is anything big at stake if they go or don’t go to Mass. Long gone are the days for most that missing Mass was a serious sin, that sacraments were an essential medicine, that knowing the faith and living it was essential to keep you out of hell. There was, not so long ago, a sense that the stakes were high. It mattered if you went to Mass or not, if you prayed or not, if you got married and stay married or not, if you were chaste, generous, and obedient, or not. Heaven or hell were in the balance, and saying yes to God and repenting when we fell was absolutely essential. Few today of the of the 83% of Catholics who no longer attend Mass think there is anything at stake. And only a slightly higher number of the 17% who do go grasp how much is at stake.

He goes on to write:

People today passionately follow leaders who have communicated that something they care about is at stake: “If the other party wins, America will be set back 100 years!” “If you give us $20 a month, a whole village will get clean water for a year!” “Buy now, before tickets sell out!“ (Page 27)

So there is urgency and action is essential since so much is at stake. It is rare that any Catholic hears or says similar things about holding the faith and remaining faithful until death. When was the last time most Catholics heard a priest warn them of the probability of hell if they remain unrepentant or defiant about certain sinful acts? When was the last time Catholic parents warned their children of the tragedy that the loss of heaven could be if they defy the very virtues that are celebrated in heaven?  Our author continues:

People have to be summoned to something great, beyond their wildest imaginations;  something wonderful that compels them to engage, to act, to commit, to rearrange their lives, to sacrifice to become saints. (Page 36)

So, warning about Hell is not enough. We must also preach and teach of heaven, inspire a longing for it and a passion so compelling that everything we do is ordered to it. Jesus said, Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all things will be added unto you. (Mat 7:33). Heaven is so glorious and wonderful it cannot even be described. It is joys unspeakable and glories untold. It is What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor 2:9) St. Paul said, This one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize of God’s heavenly calling in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:14-15).

When was the last time you heard a sermon on heaven? When was the Last time you even thought of heaven? Do you really think this limited world can fully satisfy us? No, we were made to be in heaven with God forever. Don’t blow it by foolishly rejecting what God is offering. Every and any sacrifice is more than worth it to attain the glory that waits.

But, since most people are not inspired by the prize and have largely diverted their attention to worldly trinkets, there is little to lose in their minds. Hence, little is at stake, either because it can’t be easily lost, or because its no big prize in the first place. Previous generations longed for an end to worldly woes and for the glory of heaven. They sang of it: When I die, Hallelujah by and By, I’ll fly away…. Soon I will be done with he troubles of this world, goin’ home to love with God…. Oh by and by, when the morning comes and all the saints of God are gathered home, we’ll tell the story of how we’ve overcome, and we’ll understand it better by and by! But for us, our world of comfort dulls our senses and longings for a world where joys will never end. What’s on T.V. tonight is our real passion.

He continues:

Every group needs a big Why – the big vision. It is something worth sacrificing everything else for.… The question is what big things are you leading your people to do? …. In other words, how much does it matter if you succeed?… Be bold. Create tension. Give them a clear choice that compels them into meaningful action…. Jesus asked for everything… Because living the Christian life, at some point always becomes inconvenient, impractical, hard to understand, strange, and messy. And if you want your flock to make it through those times, rather than drift away, they need a very big reason to stick around. It’s got to be worth it.  (Pages 28, 33, 35)

It is sad but true that, in most of our parishes we have steadily removed any sense that what we do in the Liturgy, our prayer, our teaching and obedience to the truth really matters. Largely the message is that it doesn’t matter that much since most will be saved even if they skip all that. Further it doesn’t really seem to matter if a spouse a sibling or children go to Mass or live chastely and morally. All that seems to matter is that we be vaguely nice and pleasant, and even if not, God will surely understand. 

There are big things at stake. Does what you’re doing at your church feel that way?

In the next installment, lets look at the Kerygma, (the preaching of the early Church) that emphasized that the Gospel is absolutely essential for salvation, without we perish.

3 Replies to “What’s at Stake? Not Much, it Would Seem, in Many Parishes.”

  1. What is the book and who wrote it?

    “In a recent book, has some important reflections to help understand the emptying pews.”

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