Young people. How do you reach them? How do you get them excited or even interested about God and Church? What role do they themselves play? I’ve become convinced of the following: young people come and stay in any given Church Community on account of its culture. And this means practically, that, after prayer, Church leadership’s top priority must be the proactive shaping of its culture. Culture is the strongest force of change, but also of non-change. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” (John Maxwell). Any pastoral planning and effort needs to get the culture problem under control. If a parish community or Church institution doesn’t, it wont be around for long.
“The problem of the church today is a problem of culture.”(Michael White)
A question of culture and values
A culture can greatly inspire and build up, but also poison and destroy. Every group of people, every organization has a culture, even if no one in that organization has ever thought about it. It’s the question of how things are done around here, what atmosphere prevails. Culture is largely made up of actually lived values. Not the values one would like to have, but those values that are lived out in the day to day. “If you want to change your culture, you have to change your values.” (Craig Groeschel) The discussion about values is so extremely important because everything really depends on them.
What we are working on
I do not know how culture could be shaped in your context. However, I would like to share with you how we are trying to do it in ours. And I would like to do it based on one of our core values. Our context is the John Paul II. Center in Vienna (a Catholich Church Community focused on discipling unchurched young people). The core value I am using here as an example is the value of “empowerment”. This value is extremely important for a church that wants to reach Millennial’s and Generation Z. Ok, here we go, we start from two preliminary considerations:
- Focus on the individual: We are people focused, not programs and events focused. The vision is to form missionary disciples. The path is flexibly adapted to situations and individuals – each program and each event has to serve the individual on his path of discipleship, not the other way around.
- We find ourselves involved in evermore complicated and accelerated processes in an ever faster changing world . This means that the future is becoming less and less predictable. This means that there is a growing need to come to the table without fixed expectations regarding results. A diocesan management consultant told me that 20 years ago “change management” was about clarifying vision and then implementing clear measures to get from A to B. But this is increasingly ineffective. The number of possible roads leading to the goal are constantly increasing. Often enough even the goal itself remains open ended, one has to invent oneself on the go.
Let me give you an example. Seven years ago we started a project here in Vienna called “Theologie vom Fass”. We stopped running TvF last year. Ufff. That was a tough decision. It was so mainly because we had been the initiators of the whole idea, it was our baby. TvFass had very humble beginnings, but grew rapidly. TvF was soon spread by fellow Legionary Priests and Consecrated Women to as well as other members of Regnum Christi to 7 cities in Austria and Germany. It had been our biggest apostolate (outreach) for a long time and a lot of what we have now would not exist if we had not run it. But we realized in the course of the last couple of years, that it was not helping us in the way that it used to. It was becoming increasingly hard to mobilize volunteers. Add on the fact that we were doing another project that was reaching more people, with greater fruits for evangelization and discipleship. So we stopped it and are enjoying the recuperation of all that side-way energy. In Catholic circles there is a tendency to start a whole bunch of things but little apparent courage to actually stop doing something. This is unfortunate. We also have a ton of initiative, try new things out, but also change them if necessary or stop them altogether. You cant do that every 5 minutes. But you cant allow your structures and your projects to lock you onto a train track that is heading head on into disaster. Structures tend to become inflexible with time and can make you make you serve them, instead of having them serve you to fulfill your vision and your mission.
Another example is our Adventure & Faith program. It started out with certain principles in place. Nevertheless, there were a ton of open questions. A&F continues to invent itself on the run. This does not mean that one should constantly throw things overboard and everything is just arbitrary. But it does mean that a lot of flexibility is needed – a flexibility, which maybe 50 years ago would have been a sign of dysfunction.
- That priests or church leaders can have a feeling that they are no longer completely in control of things and are no longer sure of where the journey will take them to. And that’s good. Pope Francis would say, “Time is more important than space.” It’s about getting processes going, which lead over a longer period of time lead to life change. It is easy to create spaces in which we feel safe. However, the danger with “safe spaces” is that they can make you resistant to change. That makes you grow old faster than you can think. I have in mind a great Church organization here in the City of Vienna. They went from being the biggest and greatest example of how to reach youth to water under the bridge within a time span of just 15 years. That makes me think, or rather, that revolutionizes my world. And it seems to me, if we love the Church and love young people, it ought to. I say that with all the conviction of someone who loves his Charism as a Legionary of Christ and of a Regnum Christi member. I don’t want to see Our Lord’s plan for us thwarted. And that will happen if we fall in love with our model of doing ministry instead of with our mission. As Andy Stanley says: “One of the primary reasons churches are empty is because church leaders love their models more then they love people.”
- Get used to the chaos. It is much easier to create programs, to organize activities, to demand rules of Christian behavior, etc. – but ultimately, we do not really take on “the smell of the sheep” and are not preparing the way for the breakthrough of the Holy Spirit in the life of those around us. Please do not misunderstand: Jesus Christ invites us not to mediocrity, but to holiness. But I cannot prescribe holiness. Just reforming structures or demanding loyalty and fidelity to rules wont do it. I cannot ask people to just do what I tell them to do. I need to be in the trenches with them. I must accompany them on their journey, console, inspire, teach, admonish with love, encourage.
- What needs be a criterion of discernment and clarity is the vision / mission that God has given us. The vision determines the method and strategies, not the strategy the vision and mission. Vision/mission doesn’t change, strategy does, it should!!! Methods are not sacrosanct, the vision and the mission is. Sometimes looking around me at some organizations I get the impression that they have that backwards. We need to have clear what we want. For us it is this: we want to form apostles to transform the world. This vision is not complete, there are lot of nuances that you can explain afterward, like the fact that it is more God forming than us. But I think you can get the gist. In other words, we want to lead people into communion with Jesus Christ and among each other, form them and finally to send them out into the world again as apostles. An apostle is a missionary disciple, we want to ensure that their discipleship pathway develops well through a balanced life of five elements found in Acts 2:
- a) communion with God (“they broke the bread”, “they remained in prayer”),
- b) community among themselves (“they had everything in common”),
- d) deepening integral faith formation (“they persisted in the teaching of the apostles”),
- e) service to others (“they gave to each according to their need”) and,
- f) Evangelism (“3,000 people were added to their number”).
Beyond that: flexibility.
This has consequences in the way we want to shape our culture in terms of this values of “empowerment”:
- Servant leadership. Above all, the role of leadership is to create conditions in which people can “thrive” and develop. We also want to convey principles (core values that shape our culture as an organization) that are internalized and that provide the basis for people to decide for themselves and align themselves with the vision (rather than setting strong rules and structures that may lead to outward approval, but not lead to a changed life). Leadership’s function is above all one of service: “For even the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve” (Mk 10:45).
- Lead with the WHY and then with the HOW and then with the WHAT. Leading to personal responsibility. The goal is the goal. The means to the goal will necessarily vary from person to person. Let them act. Deciding to trust and letting go so others can act. When I recently asked a 19-year-old why he believed that young people came to the center, he said, “They come because of the living room atmosphere, but they stay on their own initiative because they are empowered to get involved. “It’s about empowerment, enabling others. Avoidance of micromanagement and clericalisation, where the priest or church leader decides everything himself. “Replace yourself,” that is, work in such a way that your are constantly investing in someone else. Here are a few thoughts that I’ve picked up from people like Craig Groeschel and of which I’m now very convinced: Most leaders are focused on finding the right strategy. The best leaders are “obsessed” with empowering the right people. Most leaders delegate tasks, the best leaders delegate responsibilities. When you delegate tasks, you create robots, when you delegate responsibility, you create leaders. You can have either control or growth. But both are not possible. Protect the values, but let go of controlling action. I think that’s extremely important, especially when working with young people. Trust them, believe in them, let them take the ball and run with it, inspire them, show them what they are capable of with God’s grace.
- Missionary mysticism and not just asceticism – the idea comes from Pope Francis. Asceticism alone tends to create safe spaces, to program and fix everything in advance. But if asceticism does not serve mysticism, then it leads to suffocating any movement of the Spirit. When this happens, to use an image from Rick Warren, we no longer discern where God is building his waves nor do we discern which waves we have to learn to surf. Rather, we start dictating to God, which waves he is to build and where he is to build them. This means:
- Maximum flexibility and adaptability what the mission regards. So, the attitude should not be: I want you to help me to do my project, but I want to help you to discover what God wants you to do and to help you with everything I have and can do, that God’s vision for your life is realized, that you find your vocational plenitude. Much changed here in the center when we have stopped prescribing all the things lay people could or should help us with. Rather, we started doing things the other way around. “Lead with the vision”, not with a minutely in all things already settled program.
- Priests need to be concerned with relationships. Of course, first and foremost is our own relationship with God, but then with each other and with the people. We have to be experts in relationships. Real love for one’s neighbor, to help him to become the best version of himself (holiness), to discover his gifts / talents, etc.
Making your own culture proactive is not an easy task. For us it continues to be a constant work in progress as well as a constant learning process. I would like to ask for your prayers that we can enable the young people who come here to become more and more what the Lord wanted for them, when he created them.
Photo: our own, during one of our events for young people.