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Lay-led churches release the church from key limiting factors. When you don’t need a building and a stipend and long, costly college-based training for every leader of the church … then we can release new people to lead and new churches to form. It also releases the discipleship of people. In church planting, there are no passengers.
The need for expensively educated full-time (and therefore paid) clergy is a “limiting factor” on growth in the sense that for a given sum of money you can only staff a limited number of parishes or missions with them. Buildings are also a “limiting factor”, because they cost money and take time to build, but then so are doctrines, because they might put people off.
There is a grain of truth in this: ecclesial bodies which don’t have lengthy (or any) training for their leaders, or tiresome fixed teachings, can grow very fast. Saying “there are no passengers” means that every member of the congregation is expected to evangelize, maybe even become a “leader” and plant a new community: all you need is a bible, an appealing message, and a carrying voice — or an efficient sound system.
This raises the question of why the whole world hasn’t long since been effectively evangelized, by the kind of independent or loosely organized “preachers” who have roamed Protestant countries since the 16th century. Yes, they can spread like wild fire through a society, “planting churches” in town after town, but these communities can evaporate just as quickly. The part of England in which I live was once a hotbed of this kind of thing, and today their tiny churches can still be seen, often several in one village or small town, almost all of them converted into homes. The tide came in, and the tide went out again.
Not only has the Church of England failed to learn from the history of the last four centuries, which has seen one after another Protestant revival rise and then collapse like a soufflé, but it hasn’t learnt from its own history of the past four decades. Because all this has been tried before: lay leadership, “house churches”, doing without the Eucharist, doing without doctrine, and doing without anyone trained in theology.
The Catholic Church, alas, is not immune to these temptations. We too have seen a continuous series of slickly packaged initiatives, which involve closing down and selling off church buildings and calling 0n lay people with limited, or no, theological or pastoral training to take up the slack. The latest example in England is the lay “Synod” organized by the Archdiocese of Liverpool in 2020. I don’t doubt the good will of those involved, but the results were predictable. The most popular resolution of this exercise, which absorbed vast amounts of time and energy, and a certain amount of money as well, was that the Church should do more in the way of:
honouring the many vocations of all the baptised, women and men alike. This will also include a strong commitment to lay ministry including training employed ministers, supporting volunteer ministers, and coordinating their work alongside the clergy.
The next most popular one was practically the same. The Archdiocese was told to:
assist parishes in understanding, meeting, forming and welcoming young people and young adults, and developing locally employed and volunteer youth ministers to work with young people and young adults.
What this means in practice — and we know this because these things are have been happening, to some extent, for years — is “lay-led” parishes, lay-led “Communion services”, lay parish catechists wholly ignorant of or (or hostile to) the Faith being put in charge of sacramental preparation, and selling off church buildings.
In Britain and North America alike, the Church today is living off what it inherited from the great program of establishing or re-establishing the parish and school system, from practically nothing, in the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries. These buildings, now being flogged off, were mainly funded by the ordinary Catholics of the day, people who suffered real, not relative, poverty, and real, not imaginary, discrimination and hostility. It was common for building contracts to specify that the parishioners would be digging out the foundations by hand.
They built with confidence, because they believed in the power of the Church’s sacraments and doctrines to transform individuals, and ultimately society itself. The reason we are wasting our energy debating the merits of a Church with as few priests as possible, and which says as little about doctrine as possible, is that this power is no longer taken seriously. There can, however, be no evangelization without it.