Part 3 of Fr Martin Sirju’s 4-part pastoral reflection on how he sees the Church today.
I have observed the development of Evangelical Christianity (Pentecostal, Open Bible and like congregations) over the last 40 years. Sitting on our thrones of triumphalism, we laughed and called them names—“small church”, “fly-by-night church”, “Johnny come lately”.
Well, 40 years later they are no longer small and even if they are, not for long. They have been flying all over the globe planning and strategising while we remained on the ground; and they are well on their way to becoming the leading Church of tomorrow.
We laughed at their open-air preaching; grunted at their house-to-house visitation, perhaps angrier at the fact we could not answer their questions than the untimeliness of their visit; made fun of their singing and clapping with tambourines; and the loudness of their praises.
You hardly hear Catholics celebrating Evangelicals for their shrewdness—surveying a particular area; finding out its needs; visiting the sick and shut ins; creating daycare centres which, by the way, have many Catholic children; excellent sound systems; A/C churches; LCD screens; vibrant youth and children ministries; well landscaped compounds; pristine toilets; and an amazing sense of hospitality.
Of course, I do know some of their shortcomings as well—anti-Catholic preaching and proselytising; taking advantage of people in their vulnerable moments (can you blame them when we failed to minister to our own?); a sense of superiority over Catholics; disrespect of the worship of other churches with their hyped-up loudspeakers; disproportionate focus on the devil; an emphasis on personal salvation; antipathetic to interfaith dialogue; and the prosperity gospel mentality to name a few.
But let’s not forget many in the Vatican have a prosperity gospel mentality too as Pope Francis tries to clean up all the corrupt financial dealings. And add to that the bishops of some South American and African countries who are warning their priests about a developing practice within the Catholic Church – “the liturgy of money”.
While we were safely ensconced in Zion, the Evangelicals were blazing the trail. By 2050, they may well be the leading Christian denomination and we would have no choice but to dialogue with them in a serious way. We should admit to ourselves that songbooks are a thing of the past, as Evangelicals long discovered.
The annoyingly weak response we hear at Mass is due to the absence of a catechesis suited to the age. They do much better preparation for sermons than we do. We pay little attention to diction, intonation, drama and delivery. We will not catch up with them anytime soon in the way they package things. They beat us at almost every turn.
John J, an English evangelical pastor, once creatively explained to a passenger on the way to Singapore what his ministry is all about: “I work for a global enterprise. We have outlets in nearly every country of the world; we have hospices and hospitals and homeless shelters; we do marriage work; we have orphanages; we have feeding programmes, educational programmes; we do all sorts of justice and reconciliation things. Basically, we look after people from birth to death and we deal in the area of behavioural alteration.”
The passenger exclaimed: “Wow! What’s it called?” John J said: “It’s called the Church.” Do we think like that? Express things with such a catchy twist? Wake up and smell the coffee! The Evangelicals take the social mission of the Church seriously.
Today thousands of our citizens are getting wisdom and theological messages from various sources. Wisdom sayings are coming from people as diverse as Sadhguru, Gaur Gopal Das, Sean Buranahiran and many others.
The theological resources seem to be more evangelical. We see them in posts like: “The first ever Cordless Phone was invented by God. He named it Prayer. It never loses its Signal and u never have to Recharge it. Use it Anywhere. Good morning” or “Faith is like a small lamp in a dark forest. It does not show everything at once but gives enough light for the next step to be safe.”
In messages like these the evangelicals command the market. We cannot catch up right now. It is not only where the general population is, it is where our Catholic teachers are. So, renewing Catholic identity and culture means integrating other wisdom and theological strands into our arsenal.
Liturgical music is another area where things are lamentable. Good choirs are hard to find, and when we do find them, we think they are singing Catholic songs but they are not. Many of them are Evangelical songs brought into the Church.
Most are Spirit- or Jesus-centred and appear to me at first glance to have no major theological obstacles. ‘Here I Am to Worship’, ‘Holy Spirit Come Fill this Place’, ‘In Christ Alone’, ‘Days of Elijah’, ‘Imela’ and tons of others are all evangelical.
We have lost the battle for liturgical music which almost all experts have said is in a lamentable state since Vatican II. If you want vibrant youth ministry, know young people’s music; these are the songs that will capture them. We just don’t have the music it takes to draw them right now.
In the Old Testament, there are times when the Israelites felt as if God had hidden his face from them e.g. the Exodus through the wilderness; the Exile of the 6th century BCE; and the collapse of the Temple in 70 CE— never to be rebuilt again.
It took a long time before they felt that that face was with them again. Similarly, in contemporary Catholicism, we feel as if God has hidden his face from us and shone it on the Evangelicals. Have they been given the better part for now? If so, it is not to be taken from them.