How well is your parish doing? How can you know? To undertake a study, one church developed an instrument called a “Spiritual Vitality Index.” It has three components that measure the following aspects of the people in the congregation:
- Personal Spiritual Practices: Scripture reading and study, liturgy, prayer, reflection, retreats, spiritual reading.
- Faith In Action: Serving those in need, talking about your faith, the church, spirituality, etc…
- Church/Parish Role: How well does the church provide spiritual challenges, in-depth Scripture study, doors and windows through which others are invited and really feel welcomed.
They ran this study across 1,000 churches, all denominations, all socioeconomic demographics. The result:
- A parish is considered a “best practice church” if it receives an SVI score of 86 or higher out of a possible 100.
- In all of the churches where the study had been conducted, out of 1,000 churches, whichever considered “best practice churches?” 50 = 5%. That meant that 950 were not.
Consider that there are currently 219 parishes in the archdiocese. If we apply these statistics to the Philadelphia parishes, that means that probably 11 are “best practice churches” – vibrant, actively engaged, parishioners who are spiritually mature across the entire congregation. There are 27 parishes in Chester County. That means that only 2 are really vibrant “best practices” parishes.
Is St. Monica one of those?
The resulting numbers gleaned from the SVI can identify problems and opportunities and track progress. It can’t make that progress happen nor can it help church leaders ramp up their numbers. It does not measure the entire parish health as much as it measures the spiritual hearts of the individual members.
Some other factors to consider:
- Traditional activities like Youth programs, Youth Directors, Bible study programs, parish social events, vibrant liturgies, etc…. have no bearing on the Spiritual Vitality Index.
- Organizational factors (church finances, staffing, infrastructure) play no role in a SVI assessment.
- Even Mass attendance or congregation satisfaction with organized church activities—like small groups and retreats—also have no impact on the SVI.
A SVI puts more weight on things that happen outside the church building than inside its walls— outside actions like personal spiritual practices and faith in action and sharing the faith with others show spiritual maturity and spiritual vitality. A SVI may have little to do with the church you are currently attending. Because it takes into account, and puts more weight on, people’s attitudes and activities that occur outside of the parish setting. In other words, we’re focusing on the attitude, not the activities. We’re measuring the heart.
Now why is this important?
Look at today’s Scripture Readings especially at what Elisha does after receiving the call from Elijah. He goes back to say goodbye to his mother and his father. Now examine what the man mentioned in the Gospel wants to do. He wants to go back and say goodbye to his mother and his father. In one case, one is chastised for his action. In the other case, the action seems to be supported.
What’s the difference? It’s about intention and motivation. It’s about heart.
Soren Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher, theologian, poet and social critic who lived in the early-to-late 1800s. He once said that what Jesus wants is followers – not admirers. About this statement, Oblate Father Ronald Rolheiser says that,
He’s right. To admire Jesus without trying to change our lives does nothing for Jesus, nothing for us and certainly nothing for anyone else. Yet how exactly does one follow Jesus? Classically we have said that we do this by trying to imitate him. But that posits a further question: How do we imitate Jesus? Let’s look at three examples
Remember the “Jesus people” of the late 1960s, with their rather raw, literal approach to following Jesus: They tried to imitate his appearance. They put on flowing white robes, grew beards, walked bare-foot, and tried, in appearance and dress, to imitate the Jesus that centuries of Western artists painted for us. Obviously this is not what discipleship means.
A more subtle approach to follow Jesus would be to imitate his actions. Jesus did certain things, so we should do them too. He taught, healed, consoled the downtrodden, went off into the desert by himself, stayed up all night occasionally and prayed, and visited the homes of sinners. So we should do the same things: become teachers, nurses, preachers, counselors, monks, social workers, and non-judgmental friends to the less-than-pious. In this view, imitation is carrying on the actions of Jesus. This kind of imitation, however valuable as ministry, still is not quite what is required in terms of real discipleship. In the end, it too misses the point because one can be preacher of the gospel and not really be imitating Jesus. One can be a truck driver (not something Jesus did) and actually be imitating him. True imitation is not a question of trying to look like Jesus, nor of trying to duplicate his actions.
What is it?
Let’s look at the writings of John of the Cross, the great Spanish mystic. In his view, we imitate Jesus when we try to imitate his motivation, when we try to do things for the same reason he did, that is how one “puts on Christ.” We enter real discipleship when, like Jesus, we have as our motivation the desire to draw all aspects of our life things into one unity of heart with Christ. Again, it’s not about activity or appearance – it’s about attitude. It’s about heart.
Like Cortez burning the ships in Mexico, Elisha killed the plow animals and destroyed the equipment. He was COMMITTED whereas the man mentioned in the Gospel wanted to say goodbye to the family was different. Jesus knew that he wasn’t committed – his heart wasn’t in it.
If we are not committed to growing our faith, if we don’t mature in our relationship to Christ and merely focus on the activity and appearance, we’re in danger of becoming spiritually “stalled.” This is an especially huge issue in the secular lives of our young people and the issue of “elongated adolescence.” Former Professor Father John Kavanaugh, S.J. once commented on this phenomenon. He said that young people today presume that freedom is a state of being loose and unattached. They think they lose their freedom when they commit themselves. So they don’t commit – to anything. St. Paul says that such a notion of freedom is “giving free rein to the flesh.” We only begin to be free when we start the process of self-definition called commitment. And our freedom is only realized when we give ourselves away in love.
It’s also reflected in spiritual maturity. They say church is boring, or its not relevant. The real reason is that Church is HARD! A commitment to Christ means a commitment to The Cross which means sticking it out when it’s tough and boring and you’re not “feeling it.” So we see people with no – or very weak – faith. They’re stalled.
What are the characteristics of people with a “stalled faith?”
Characteristic 1: They Invest Little Effort in Their Faith. Even taking into account their lack of spiritual maturity, they invest much less personal time and effort in their faith than those who are not stalled.
Characteristic 2: They’re Less Connected to the Church. Across the board, they don’t participate in church activities as often as others. Small groups or regular, informal, social, casual connections with other believers seem to be particularly important to the growth process. They are the primary resource where people form friendships and mentoring relationships that provide support, provide accountability, challenge them and help them grow in faith. When people are “stalled” in their faith, these relational connections are not being made. And this absence has real consequences for spiritual growth.
Characteristic 3: They Say They’re Too Busy. This is THE #1 reason for their low faith investment and church connection. Busy with what? Many of the spiritually stalled are simply overwhelmed by normal life. Not by the things that turn life upside down, like grief or depression or anything big or spectacular or tragic or demanding. It’s simply the normal daily grind of life.
Characteristic 4: They Believe in the Trinity and Salvation and Grace, but Struggle to Believe in a Personal God.
To be stalled is to be disillusioned. But most of those who are stalled seem less less disillusioned with the church or in God than they are with their own lives. Most recognize the connection between their life circumstances and their lack of spiritual traction. They just have no idea what to do.
What works in getting un-stuck:
- Begin simple spiritual practices
- Deal with your own personal issues
- Switch churches
- Attend church more regularly
- Change life situations
- Join some type of small group
- Share struggles with friend / mentor
- Spiritually moving experience
- Personal crisis
- Inspired by someone
I close with a prayer:
Elisha left his fields to follow the prophet.
James and John let go of their nets so they could follow you, Lord.
When you call us, in our normal, day to day lives,
help us leave plowing & fishing
and come follow you.
Audio version of the homily is here: