As promised in yesterday’s post, here’s an email conversation I had with Peter Jesserer Smith of St. Alban’s Catholic Church, in Rochester, New York, on how one attracts those from low-church backgrounds.
I’ve never been what you’d describe as “low church,” but I think it’s worth learning from and appropriating good ideas and insights from “low church” Christian communities about how to “do church.” My impression is that when you get down to brass tacks, the low church aesthetic is motivated by a sincere desire to encounter Jesus Christ. This might surprise people, but honestly there’s plenty of precedent for this Christian current: the early Cistercians embraced a church aesthetic that emphasized light and stripped-down simplicity. (Not everyone’s cup of tea in the Middle Ages, but it was nonetheless there). Both examples of low-church Christians and Cistercians may in part have been a reaction against Christian communities with a “high church” aesthetic where Christ seemed absent, or his absence seemed obscured by high church pageantry.
To me, it seems how you invite a person from a low church background into a “high church” Catholic community is to be sincere and authentic in high church worship that manifests the deep and abiding love of Christ. How you worship and prayer must show we are truly coming here to encounter God made manifest in Jesus, and not putting on a pleasing concert performance. People can tell if what you offer is a deep encounter with the Living God who is Love, because the liturgy will increase the love (agape) of the brethren for each other united with Christ the head. But people will conclude the high church liturgy is about showmanship if either clergy or people manifest contempt for the brother and his mistakes, or if it makes no difference in how they live out the Christian life through the week. Jesus meant what he said, and there is no way around it: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35). It’s important to remember that low church aesthetic is not immune to what it originally may have reacted against: people still may ask, “is this an really encounter with Jesus, or is this just a high quality show without Jesus?”
So, if you’re high church, and feeding people Jesus, they will get that. The worship in the “beauty of holiness” will speak to their senses, because Jesus is speaking. Because Jesus is attractive. Give them Jesus. In Word. In Sacrament. In Fellowship.
The other reality is that a lot of “low church” groups are just doing church at subsidiary levels well. It’s nothing a Catholic church with “high church” worship cannot do. Parish priests just need to work with a core group of lay disciples, men and women, who will build the church throughout the week particularly through small gatherings of prayer and fellowship. For example, I’ve been intrigued by the “community groups” structure of one large Christian church in our area called Northridge Rochester. This church has a central campus, with three satellite locations — think of it as a kind of Protestant cathedral with three other branch churches — but they have dozens of small groups throughout the county (not just the immediate neighborhood) that the church’s members have formed. Even though the church is very large, it is these community groups that keep the experience of faith very personal and build relationships that are the bridge to inviting people to come to church and follow Jesus Christ.
Catholic churches and fellowships, esp. in the Ordianariate, could learn how to appropriate these ideas into their own context, particularly in the intervals between when their community meets. At St. Alban’s Catholic Church, we’re about to roll out our own take on Northridge Rochester’s community groups thanks to Flocknote. We’re smaller in numbers, so rather than have dedicated community groups, we’ll roll out in the next week or so a dedicated “St. Alban in the Community” Flocknote page / community board for St. Alban’s members to submit announcements for informal fellowship gatherings through the week, other Catholic activities, such as adoration, Mass, social ministry, etc. that our priest and parishioners are involved in. Parishioners who subscribe to the group will get an immediate heads up via text or email as they prefer.
We’ll see how it goes, but I think there’s real opportunity for Ordinariate communities to grow and for pre-Ordinariate Fellowships to establish themselves as it gives people an opportunity to see Jesus truly present and living among the members of this community. And when they experience Jesus among people, that will only solidify the connection to how they experience Jesus in an Ordinariate Catholic church’s worship.