The key to effective adult faith formation can be found in church basements all over the country.
And what, exactly, can be found in church basements? Twelve Step meetings. People do not go to Twelve Step meetings because they like the music. They don’t go because of how the space is decorated. They don’t go because the seats are comfy or because of a big video screen. They don’t go because the food is good.
They go because they recognize that they are broken and that they cannot fix themselves through an act of their own will. They accept the fact that they need intervention. In order to get their lives in order, they must first admit powerlessness over their addiction and then come to believe that only a greater power can restore their sanity (steps 1 and 2).
Likewise, in order for adult faith formation to be effective today, it must focus on brokenness—the brokenness that is shared by all of us as part of the human condition. For many, this brokenness is subtle: a sense of incompleteness, boredom, or restlessness. For others, it is dramatic: the collapse of life as it was once known. In order for the Catholic Church to become a “Church on the move,” it must proclaim to the world that we all experience brokenness and that we are incapable of “fixing” ourselves.
Perhaps the first step toward making this happen is to revise all of our flowery parish mission statements—you know, the ones that say, “We, the people of St. Such-and-such, are dedicated to forming a loving community in Jesus Christ, in worshipping with joy and praise, and in sharing love with all we meet.” Yuk. This is what a parish mission statement should look like:
“We, the people of St. Such-and-such, recognize that we are broken and cannot fix ourselves. We embrace Jesus as the one who heals us. And we are committed to inviting other broken people to experience this healing.”
Everything we do then as a parish, including adult faith formation, would necessarily flow from the notion that we are broken and need fixing by someone other than ourselves. Maybe, just maybe, people would start to recognize the need for formation, the need for the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, and especially, the need for the Eucharist.
Think about it: no one ever wrote a hymn about how they have been transformed by the remodeling of a sanctuary or by the coffee and donuts served in the parish hall after Mass (something that I’m actually a big fan of, but more about that later). What we do have, however, in our treasury of hymns is one of the most moving testimonies about human brokenness and the power of God’s intervention:
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
Joe, as ever – you share so much wisdom with us out here. This is so well put. Your words align with those of Pope Francis… and of course, with the words of Jesus. Thank you!
Thanks for the feedback Fran!
Having worked in the field of adult faith formation for the past 20 years I could not agree more.
Wow! I would not be so eager to brand a mission statement “yuk” . I think a parish mission statement should come from the hearts and minds of the people who are living that parish life. There is a lot to be said about love and joy and praise. I personally need the positive as well as the realization of the need of healing. I need to see and accept the “divine” in others and me, as well as the “human”.
Dianna, point well taken.
I like your article but am sad to read you quoting from the Hymn “Amazing Grace”
that was written based on the teachings of Martin Luther.
Or… is just based on the Gospel, and just happens to be written by non-Catholics?
Kathleen, I find your criticism of the inclusion of Amazing Grace in my post to be perplexing at best and uncharitable at worst. While there may be some (what I consider “extremely thin”) argument for not singing Amazing Grace at Catholic liturgies, there is certainly no reason why a Catholic cannot quote from the hymn to make a single point about brokenness and grace.
thanks Joe, I agree with you about flowery mission statements, most of them just put you to sleep in two phrases. Yuk.
And the worst thing is that I helped write those kinds of things 20 years ago! Mea culpa!
Thanks for writing this. It is a great reflection and I’ve just shared it with our parish ministry team.
You’re welcome, Fr. Leo!
As a member of Al Anon for the last seven years, I would even go a step further and say that many of our churches could learn a number of lessons from twelve stepers. The first of which you mentioned–that we are cognizant of our brokenness. We work very hard on our awareness of our place in life and in our need for God. The short version of the first three steps of AA and AL Anon are 1. I can’t 2. God can 3. I’ll let him. It was Al Anon that taught me how to live my faith in a very practical way. But, for those who do not have faith or religion when they come into the rooms, the twelve steps will Often lead them back to church. And, remember Fatger Ed Dowling SJ felt that there was a lot in common between the twelve steps and the spiritual exercises of St Ignatius.
Well said, Hattie! Thanks
Yes. So often, adult faith formation wants to fling a program into what “we” think people need. I think as church our focus needs to be meeting people where they are, reaching out and saying welcome to the Broken Club. Sometimes evangelization happens one person at a time, because somebody took the time to listen to that brokenness. Thank you.
Well said, Kris!
Thanks for this. It strikes me that you are echoing Pope Francis’s call for us to be a “field hospital” church. What do you see as the biggest impediments to this kind of reform in our parishes? What do you see (perhaps in addition to a revised mission statement) as the first parish level moves that are needed to accomplish such a reform?
Thanks John and yes this is certainly inspired by Pope Francis’ call for the church to be a “field hospital.” I think the biggest impediment is the fact that so many people do not recognize their brokenness or wish to share it with anyone. We certainly can’t go around telling people how broken they are (an approach that once was relied on: preaching “hellfire and brimstone”). What we need to do is get better at establishing relationships rather than offering programs. The more we get to know one another at the parish level (through small faith groups, etc.), the more we establish environments in which people are more comfortable sharing their brokenness. I think the first step is focusing on the relational aspect of parish gatherings/offerings. We tend to approach adult faith offerings with a focus on the content being delivered as opposed to the relationships that can be formed and then informed by that content. I also think that Parish pastoral councils should take a serious and sober look at what types of brokenness are prevalent in a community and then explore ways to reach out to those experiencing those realities. Adult faith formation and human concerns need to become dance partners.
Sorry to step in again, but I am so in tune with what you are saying. This is even true about RCIA. We get so caught up in trying to be “Catholic boot camp” that we don’t take the time to share our personal stories. People are drawn through their hearts not their heads. The more we touch on what really matters in our faith and our lives, the more deeply we want to enter into it. We meet Christ in each other.
Kris, you’re eloquently stating what should be Pastoral Ministry 101! Thanks
Joe, in addition to adult faith formation focusing on our brokenness I would add that adult faith formation needs to happen with people being in the same room. In my experience too many parishes and dioceses have turned to a dvd or an online program for adult faith formation. We need to be in the same room to see one another, to hear and break open God’s Word together, to give voice to our needs, to hear the teachings and pray together.
You are spot on, Catherine. Too many resources promise to deliver what can only be delivered in a mutual relationship. DVDs are inspiring and supplemental but they should never replace human interaction!
So happy to read this!! Having come into the 12 step rooms (Al Anon Adult Childten) almost 20 years ago I can tell you that’s where my relationship with God began. That is where it reached my heart instead of my head (for all the reasons you said!). Though I Had gone to church all my life it was sitting in those rooms that I truly “got it”. Today I have been given such a gift that the program and the church integrate and one feeds the other. Today I give healing retreats to certain groups and I find what comes spontaneously out of my mouth has as much program as church. The gift? People relate and respond! Thanks for writing this!!!
Thank you for sharing your story, Sharon!
Hello! I’m not sure why I just now received this in my inbox when all these comments are from a month ago. Anyway, I LOVE the article about twelve step programs. I used to envy people who were in those programs because they had such great support. But since I did not have an addiction, I thought I’d never find a group like that. Of course I’ve known for a while now that, as you said Joe, we are all in need of the knowledge that we cannot fix ourselves. Just like the AA folks; their first step is acknowledging that they are “powerless” over their addiction (just as we are powerless over sin) and need a “higher power” (as we need Jesus Christ). So yeah, this is a great article for adults. Not sure about using this conversation with children though. We have to tread carefully with them; there are many kids who don’t go to church, so if our own kids are told that they have to go because they are “broken,” that can lead to a couple of problems: First, they may think that everyone else they know who doesn’t go to Mass (probably the majority of their classmates and friends) are okay but that they themselves are defective in some way. Second: they can become judgmental about everyone who isn’t a member of their parish, thinking that “hey, I’m getting fixed at Mass every week, but all the rest of you are going to hell because you never go to get fixed.” Neither view is accurate, which is why we must be so careful about in what terminology we couch these truths. The kind of answer “we are broken,” is not an end-of-story answer (a “because-I-said-so” response), but a conversation starter in which to address the issues and misconceptions noted above. I often post your videos on our religious education Facebook group page, but I’m skipping this one, since many of the younger parents in our program are most likely unable to answer these kinds of questions at this point in their faith journey.
Thanks for your insights Teresa. I like what you said about this being a “conversation starter” – couldn’t agree more. I present it facetiously as “the answer” but it is definitely intended to provoke deeper thinking. I would encourage you to try it with some people in order to do just that…provoke conversation: that would be a good thing and a good way to entice people to go further/deeper in their faith journey!