Updated to preface the comments below with responses to two readers who scrupled in various directions.
1. For a clear understanding of what it is we humans actually do 99% of the time, read Simcha Fisher’s seminal work on the topic, “Go Forth and Get Me Butter, Says the Lord.”
2. When you get down to the reality-check paragraph, here’s the expansion pack comment:
There are a lot of reasons a ministry might not “succeed,” and one of them is that you are doing exactly what God asked you to do. When you take up your cross, sooner or later you end up in the grave for a bit. That’s how it works.
The hour is coming when everyone who kills you will think he is offering worship to God. -Jesus.
I had a short conversation this morning concerning a corner of the Catholic Church that is imploding. Struggling to stay afloat. The leaders are, I’m told, abuzz with a desire to reach out, connect with the wider church, shore things up. They are using words like “evangelization” and “discipleship” and wondering how they might make themselves relevant again. Improve participation.
So let’s clear something up: If you are struggling to improve participation, it is because you don’t have the faintest idea what evangelization and discipleship are.
We live in a commercial culture. Americans are so wealthy that 99% of what we acquire is absolutely unnecessary. Therefore, the bulk of us make our living persuading our neighbors to purchase things they do not need. (Fortunately people like shiny new things, myself included, so this is a pretty easy sell). As products of such a marketing-oriented culture, it is no surprise that when our ministries struggle, our first instinct is to work on our marketing.
Here’s the stark reality: If you have a marketing problem, you can fix your problem in six months with a little improved PR.
If you are seeing a decades-long decline in the reach and effectiveness of your work, despite multiple efforts at reaching out, communicating more effectively, and connecting with your target audience . . . marketing is not your problem.
There are many reasons your ministry or apostolate might be small. Perhaps you serve a narrow audience, nothing wrong with that. Perhaps you’re a doubtful administrator — it happens. Perhaps you are working in a territory that is very closed to the Gospel, and the Spirit hasn’t broken down the walls yet. Perhaps you are facing an active persecution because others are jealous of your success. But if your work is shrinking while others in the field are flourishing, the reason is never, ever, that you’re doing everything right but that people who long to know, love, and serve God “just won’t listen!!”
Dear friends in the field: If that last paragraph has you shaking your head in confusion, please stop all your efforts at “fixing” things until you can read it and it makes perfect sense.
The problem with your ministry is not that competitors are cannibalizing your work. The problem is not that you need to figure out how to coerce people into participation with just the right combination of carrot and stick.
The problem is not that “nobody cares” — it’s that you are doing a work that is not worth caring about. Jesus is worth dying for. If your ministry is not completely, absolutely, totally about Jesus, it just isn’t worth anyone’s time.
Artwork: Stories of life and passion of Christ, fresco, 1513, Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, and Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees, JamesTissot, both via Wikimedia and found by Googling “Jesus and the Pharisees” and clicking on this Wikipedia article on the Woes of the Pharisees. Ministry tip of the day: You will probably not win many people to the cause of Christ by making their lives more difficult. That’s Our Lord’s job, not yours.