Thursday, May 1, 2014

Clearinghouse Catholicism: Why the Church Is Struggling to Evangelize

Why is the church struggling to evangelize today? It’s a complex question but lurking in the shadows of the “usual suspects” (conservatives decrying relativism while the liberals bemoan virulent strains of fundamentalism), there may be something else at play here, something that doesn’t exactly sport horns and a pitchfork but may very well be the devil in the details of our ministry work.

The question for today is, “What is our operating image for the church?”

The Apostle Paul called the church “God’s field”, “the pillar and bulwark of the truth”, and (his personal favorite) “the body of Christ.”[1] Jesus is the head of this body, the activating agent and cohesive center of the church.[2] Vatican II’s primary image of the Church was the “people of God”, proclaiming the Gospel and advancing the redemptive missio Dei (mission of God) in the world.[3]

But what happens when the church becomes something very different? What happens to mission and ministry when the church becomes a clearinghouse? By definition, a clearinghouse is an agency that collects and distributes something, be it goods, services, or information. A clearinghouse is a third-party player, one that doesn’t actually produce goods, provide services or publish information. It merely connects pre-fabricated goods, ready-made services and packaged information with the consumers who desire them.

In many ways I worry that this is what the Church is becoming today. How do we catechize? We find ourselves scouring the publishing venues for just the right materials. How do we get encounter and conversion? We search for the perfect retreat, conference or DVD series. Parish staff and diocesan directors, caught in the crossfire of a highly pressurized “produce-or-perish” culture, line up an endless litany of programs and events, hoping that this new program or that event (or the perfect constellation of programs and events) will unlock the mysterious doors of ministry success.

The tragic effect of this paradigm is that the catechist isn’t necessarily encouraged to catechize. He merely provides the right materials that will catechize for him. The pastoral minister isn’t asked to personally evangelize. Her role is to promote the right conference or retreat experience that will hopefully foster a life-changing encounter with the Lord. In this scenario, parish and diocesan staff become event-planners, program-promoters and resourcing outlets that market the products and facilitate the ministerial exchange. In a word, they become a clearinghouse while the hopes and dreams of their original call into ministry slither away over a mountaintop of promotional materials and registration forms.

While good events and resources are incredibly helpful, I worry about the hidden consequences of an approach that overplays the promise of program.  I call it the “tyranny of the expert.” We no longer call on our own personal encounters with God as the primary resources for our ministry. We have materials for that. We no longer attune our ears to the voice of God, trusting in the power of the Lord to truly speak to us, guide us and send us out as ambassadors. We have national speakers and professional evangelists for that. We no longer spend our time investing in relationships and building a culture of discipleship. We have DVDs for that.

 “Who am I?” we ask ourselves, “to discern God’s nudges, to read the signs of the times and proclaim the Good News in bold and powerful ways?” In the church-as-clearinghouse model, the pastoral leader unwittingly exchanges his/her God-given calling as a divine image-bearer for the vaunted insights of the latest author or speaker, some “professional” who (we feel) really gets it.

Are we locked in this interminable system? Is this simply the lot we’ve been given? Pope Francis, the servant-leader of the Church universal, speaks to all of us, giving us permission to break out of this clearinghouse gridlock that undermines our true vocation and spins us mindlessly on the hamster-wheel of programmatical promise:

 When the Church summons Christians to take up the task of evangelization she is simply pointing to the source of authentic personal fulfillment. . . May the world of our time, which is searching, receive the good news not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervor, who have first received the joy of Christ.[4]

That glow is not just in the latest circuit speaker, it’s in you. That spiritual insight and conviction doesn’t just reside in the new DVD series, it’s in you. God wants to reveal himself in an unrepeatable, unmistakable, utterly unique way – in you. “Whenever we make the effort to return to the source and recover the original freshness of the Gospel, new avenues arise, new paths of creativity open up, with different forms of expression, more eloquent signs and words with new meaning for today’s world.”[5]

Return to the Source. Go back to your calling. Revisit your Galilee. Vocation is not just for the “experts”, it’s for all of us. Open your heart and let the joy of the Gospel flow through you. Let us embrace this new phase of Catholic evangelization with enthusiasm and vigor. God is calling.

Without new life and an authentic evangelical spirit,
without the Church’s “fidelity to her own calling,”
any new structure [or program] will soon prove ineffective.
~ Pope Francis, EG, 26

[1] 1 Cor 3:9, 1 Tim 3:15, Eph 5:22-23.
[2] Col 1:18.
[3] Lumen Gentium, 9-17.
[4] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), 10.
[5] Ibid, 11.


  1. This is so painfully accurate Michael. The image of a clearinghouse is a great way to summarize the common approach that mistakes a wealth of great resources (and many are indeed great) for the primary call to be "missionary disciples," to use a phrase from Pope Francis. I sat on an evangelization committee at my parish this past year, and with all due respect to the people and the parish, a clearinghouse mentality seemed like the default to which the group constantly gravitated. How can we get more and better information out to people - through websites, postcards, pamphlets, bulletins, videos, books, speakers, events? Instead of the much more personal and challenging: What individuals is the Lord putting on my heart to share the love of God with? How am I reaching out and loving them - not through programs but as a Christian, a missionary disciple, in the midst of my real life? Who are we praying incessantly for? How does the Lord want to move in and through us? It's much easier to do a little event planning and marketing and call it a night.

    1. And you're not alone Andre. The clearinghouse default is nearly universal, not only in the Catholic world but in many Protestant communities as well. When I think about postmoderns today, I can't think of any who are just waiting to be invited to an event or a program. What they're waiting for is an authentic witness. What they're looking for is a meaningful relationship. They're yearning for genuine care, the kind that is willing to walk into the grit of their lives and not flinch. They're looking for a love that is unwavering yet dynamic, steadfast but not stale, personal and not programmed. Evangelization is about putting people over programs. It's about listening to the subtle voice of the Spirit calling us into the lives of others, inviting us into relationships through which we can live out the joy of the Gospel day in and day out. I wonder when we are going to start being who we really are again - (like you said) missionary disciples of Jesus Christ?

  2. There are some great points here, good to keep in mind. Please consider a follow-up post to outline ways in which a community might put these ideas into practice and bring about the kind of culture discussed here. In other words, what does this look like in practice?


Thanks so much for your input. I pray that this dialogue may be a blessing to you personally and to the ministry you exercise in Christ.