By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
“What would you do if you had three years to evangelize?” Speaker Tyler Wheeler posed this question at a breakout session, “Evangelization in Small Parishes: One Size Fits All.”
His answer? Do as Jesus did and form missionary disciples.
Tyler Wheeler is the pastoral associate for St. Benedict Parish in Decorah, Iowa, with 11 years of ministry experience in parishes of varying sizes, including a six-cluster parish that is “as rural as you can get.”
Small parishes may not be able to draw people in with “coffee bars or big speakers,” but they do have “the same three things the church has always had … the good news of Christ, the Holy Spirit and people.” Small parishes have advantages, too: in general, the sense of community is already present. “You have to elevate it and orient it to the Lord,” Wheeler said.
For a small parish, the focus of evangelization won’t be reaching new people; generally, in a small town, everyone already knows everyone. It’s about changing the hearts of people who are already in the community. Doing this can be challenging and involves growing the faith of the people in parishioners’ lives. People who have fallen away or are not interested in joining the Catholic Church are more likely to be influenced by a trusted friend than by someone they don’t know as well.
Forming missionary disciples who will take the Good News beyond church walls starts by instilling a strong personal faith that burns brightly, like a fire. “When we love the Lord and are daily connected to him, we will naturally give off the heat of evangelization. We have to grow it into a bonfire within ourselves. We are evangelizers, but only as much as Christ lives in us.”
This starts by forming a core group of parishioners who want to first focus on growing their own faith so they can take the warmth of their faith “to the cold and dark nooks and crannies of the world they operate in.” Wheeler suggests these groups meet weekly for several weeks in a row, with breaks between to avoid burn-out. He urges people not to worry so much about being perfect; often faith can grow by sharing struggles and weaknesses and working through them. Incorporating Scripture is a must.
From there, core group members can do one of three things: Separate and form their own groups to increase community outreach; continue to meet and help hold each other accountable; the group leader leaves to form another group while remaining members continue to meet.
Wheeler urged breakout session participants to think of people in their parish who might make good missionary disciples for the first core group. “This isn’t a Bible study,” he said, adding that rejection is common. Telling someone why they’d make a good missionary disciple helps them to say “yes.”
Wheeler said being a missionary disciple isn’t about perfection. “Don’t disqualify what the Lord can do. You are enough. We are all enough. God has made you, he wants to work through you and he can work through you. You are the instrument he created to work in this time and place … You are enough to reach the people around you.”