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    A View from the Pew
    Friday
    Aug022013

    REBUILT - a book review

    When a friend recommended Rebuilt: The Story of a Catholic Parish by Michael White and Tom Corcoran, I agreed to read the new book published by Ave Maria Press. I bought the Kindle version (thank you Amazon.com) and promised myself that I would get around to Rebuilt in a while. To be honest, I anticipated a dry and mechanical read and not a summer sizzler. After my recent abdominal surgery and a somewhat rocky post-op recovery, I was ready for lighter fare. I deserve a break today under some blue sky and pool time with some fiction fun, I reasoned. When I feel better, I'll read a 'work' book. I actually forgot that I had purchased Rebuilt until my friend texted me. 

     "Have you read Rebuilt yet?" his message read. "Incredible." My friend's enthusiasm for the book piqued my curiosity. I fired up my Kindle and opened to the first page of Rebuilt.

     I cannot stop reading this book.

    Credible, down to earth, painfully honest (the truth hurts) and often laugh-out-loud funny, White and Corcoran draw from the own experiences as pastor and lay associate in their Catholic parish, Church of the Nativity in their book Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter. Their story begins at the point of their own arrival at Church of the Nativity as the ordained pastor and lay married youth minister.

    They discovered a once-thriving parish had hit the unseen iceberg of cultural entitlement and quickly sinking into the sea of apathy and empty pews. Nativity parish was flailing like a crane with a broken wing. The church was dirty, the grounds untended, the community was entitled and languid, the ministries insular, the parish music "painfully, ear-achingly, 'please, please, please, for the love of God stop bad,' the preaching disjointed because of the rotation of unplugged clergy, the liturgical celebrations 'moribund and depressing' and the staff 'divided and dysfuntional'. Teenagers and young adults were missing in action from worship. The parishioners treated the staff with indifference or hostility (whatever came first) in this smug and financially comfortable parish community that could not pay its bills (what's wrong with this picture?).

    The non-denominational neighboring church met in a warehouse and drew approximately sixty percent of former Nativity parishioners who had flown the Catholic coop. White and Corcoran admit that they considered their stay as pastor and associate at Church of the Nativity a temporary one. "At best we assumed our tenure here would be a brief transition to bigger or, at least, better things. Who really wants to be stuck in a little parish in the woods? Not us." (Rebuilt, page 5)

    Despite their multiple efforts to revive the parish through exhaustive and futile programming like Family Friendly Fridays in Lent, which included FREE dinners served by the pastor and staff (people still complained about the FREE food), feature speakers on a variety of topics, youth and faith formation programs, ladies club fashion shows and the usual bake sales by one group and another as fundraising events. Nativity parish also served as a rent-a-church, acting as hosts for off campus groups because the fees could help pay the bills to make up for what the parishioners did not tithe. Church of the Nativity remained a house of what the authors call demanding consumers. Rather than a home of missionary disciples on fire with the Gospel, the parish housed a languid, placid community who identified 'convenient parking' as their principle reason for their attendance on Sunday.

     

    Burned out and drained, White and Corcoran knew that hit a brick wall. The authors prayed, fasted and discerned where God may be leading the parish. They left their comfort zone and explored other ways and means with an open mind. They participated in events offered by thriving non-Catholic churches that helped both pastor and associate garner a harvest of information and ideas that could potentially move Church of the Nativity from its sandbar into the deep unchartered waters of discipleship and mission.

    Armed with new vision, spirit and fresh insight, they turned all of their attention to Sunday morning worship. What ensued turned a sinking parish ship into what is now a thriving, vibrant and full to overflowing capacity parish community. Active parishioners became disciples in mission, going after the prize of dechurched Catholics who are returning in droves. They cannot stay away; they find Nativity's celebration of Sunday Eucharist irresistible. From that place of discipleship, mission follows as its natural outcome. What's the first thing you want to do when you find something so wonderful that you cannot wait to experience it again? You share with someone else. Therein lies a big part of Nativity's success. The focal point of the strategic plan is anchored within Sunday Eucharist as the center of Catholic faith. As a result, Church of the Nativity is busting at the seams. The town isn't growing but their parish is over capacity, full of active members, robust ministries and disciples in mission who invite the dechurched population and lost people to come and see. They are welcomed with joy and hospitable welcome.

    Rebuilt's inspiring story will resonate with anyone who ministers in a parish and with people who participate in parish life in large or minimal ways. Rebuilt will ring true (and without judgment) with intermittent Catholics who only come to church on Christmas and Easter, maybe Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday and when they need to initiate their young, marry and bury the dead. Father White and Mr. Corcoran give special and compassionate attention to lost people. Whether the population of dechurched Catholics - those folks who consider sacramental life part of their past, or people with little or no faith life whatsoever, the authors remind us that lost people are who Jesus sought out in his earthly ministry. Christ left his disciples with a mandate to go out to all the world, to baptize and preach the good news of the Gospel. That means extending ourselves to people who aren't sitting under our noses.

    This intentional disposition toward lost people demands our rigorous and intentional effort toward church members registered on the parish books (or not) but missing in action from the church pews. Rebuilt reminds us that the Church's mission is to welcome and serve all people in Christ's name - not just those folks who come to us. The Church must go to them.

    Rebuilt offers practical strategies for all Catholic leaders seeking ways to restore their own parishes to good health. The authors repeatedly say that although their strategies and ideas worked for them in their particular context and culture, each parish must develop its own strategic plan based on its own history and cultural context if they wish to rebuild parishes whose rudders may be stuck in the mud and whose whose structure and its people may be in need of life preservers.

     

    Lay pastoral associate Tom Corcoran, a married man with five children under the age of 10 writes that in his early tenure at Nativty parish, he began to evaluate his youth ministry programs that did little more than exhaust and frustrate him. He prioritized five biblical purposes that serve as the vision for how to carry out Gospel mission: worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry and evangelization. This chronology affirms what the the Second Vatican Council envisioned in its sequence of conciliar constitutions. Beginning with the celebration of Sunday Eucharist, excellent worship (sound presidential leadership, robust ministry, beautiful music that serves the liturgy, sterling preaching, welcoming hospitality, etc.) catapults a nurtured and grace filled faith community from worship to the natural outcomes of koinonia, service and sharing the good news of the Gospel for the lost.

    I've worked in myriad pastoral settings throughout 47 years of ministry and education. Reading Rebuilt resonated in a way that other books on the subject of ministry can not. Rebuilt is written out of an experience that integrates pastoral theology in a non-esoteric style. The humorous truims will surely hit a home run with many, many people who participate (or not!) in the life of the Church. I admire the authors' narratives and experiences, their admitted fail attempts and their valiant efforts to return to the proverbial drawing board to start again. Mostly, I admire their committed discipleship to not throw in the towel when the going got tough and cheered their success when they discovered new strategies that awakened an entire Catholic faith community.

    When you read Rebuilt, maybe you find will yourself and your own stories within its pages. Perhaps the suggestions will encourage you to pray, think and act, to be honest and really take a good long look at how and why you do (or do not) worship God in your parish, the way in which you lead and minister and the kind of disposition you treat the lost and dechurched populations. Maybe you'll recognize where you need to change and grow to be a better disciple of Jesus Christ in whatever way you've been called, however that may be. And maybe you'll be affirmed in something wonderful that you can add to Rebuilt's strategy that will work in your own pastoral context. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened. Ask and it shall be given. You never know what's in store from the treasure chest of God's bunker until you seek, knock and ask.

    For church leaders, Rebuilt may be a starting point for you to consider, but copying someone else's model is not what this book is about. Rebuilt inspires you to find what strategies will work best within your own context. Copycatting is a recipe failure. Rely on the creative Spirit of God to rejuvenate your ministry to adapt to your own cultural context.

    Many of the strategies employed by Church of the Nativity are the same strategies that led to successful ministry in the contexts where I served over the years. I did not work alone; a lot of wonderful people contributed their labor and gifts to produce a rich harvest in the Lord's vineyard. I believe that a big key to Church of the Nativity's success and its subsequently story of Rebuilt may be found in the work of a like-minded community of faith, including the staff who leads. That kind of cultural change takes time, prayer and effort on everyone's part, not just a percentage or a portion of the people. Will change produce conflict? Take a look at Jesus on the cross. There’s your answer.

    Read Rebuilt. Check out Church of the Nativity's website. The site's Rebuilt section offers specific bullet point chapter by chapter assistance  with videos by members of the pastoral team. Technology has officially entered the world of ministry as a major player and this parish makes full use of its breadth as a missionary device for outreach. In the third millennium, Rebuilt's practical, humorous and honest approach offers its readers a fresh approach to the new evangelization that both pastoral teams and parish communities will find exhilarating and irresistible - just the way every experience of Church should be.