Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Newman Center at Boston University Needs to Serve Gourmet Food Fast

Although it is July and most of the students are gone, now is the time when we began planning for the coming year at the Newman Center at Boston University.  Where are we strong and where do we need to grow?  I think for the students who walk through the door at our Newman House, we are strong.  If you come to our community, we have good formation, solid prayer, and a strong community.  But, there are probably about another 17,000 or so undergrads who do not come through our door.  Reaching them and getting them through our door is not so easy.

That having been said, I think one of the weak spots in recent talk about evangelization is that it is all about the people who aren't here.  Don't get me wrong!  They're important and we want them to come to know Christ and to live the life of the Church.  But, if our parishes and communities are not strong to begin with, none of our people will want to invite others to come, and others will certainly not be inclined to come and stay.  It's like going out to restaurant and then telling somebody how good the food is and that they have to try it.  If they show up at the restaurant and the food is awful, it is unreasonable to think that the person is going to go out now and tell everyone else how great the food is.  

Right now, a lot of evangelization efforts seem directed at teaching people how to advertise the restaurant, how to make the entry way of the restaurant look good, and how to be pleasant to the customers  All of that is great stuff.  But, I'm not sure that we are doing a lot to make the food good.  What will build strong parishes and communities is if they are providing good food to the people.  Are the sacraments celebrated with dignity? Is the preaching authentic, scripturally based, and doctrinally solid?  Do the people here really love Christ and love each other?  Quite honestly, I think that if the food is good, people will overlook the ambiance, the quirkiness of the staff, the lack of good parking, and a lot of other externals.  This is not to say that the externals aren't worth effort, but the food is what is most important.

I am still learning the differences between a Newman Center and a parish.  One big difference here is that you basically have four years to reach somebody and then they're gone.  Another difference is that every year 25% of your community leaves and 25% is new.  Then there is the fact that the entire population is roughly 18-22 years old.  It is a very defined culture.  This population is in a very formative moment in life and will likely make long-lasting faith decisions during this time.  They are also in an environment that is radically secular.

One of the most valuable things that a parish has to offer is a stable community.  It is terrible for a parish if its priests constantly change and people come and go in significant numbers.  Stability helps a place to grow and to deepen.  On a college campus, stability is a different type of thing.  For us, I think that stability involves our graduates and their families remaining committed to the mission of the Newman Center.  In this way, there exists a lived memory in the community.  But, this stability also means a stability of good food.  It means that good food is always on the menu.

On a college campus, things are more fast-paced.  We need to reach people quickly, form them intensely, and get them on mission.  Parishes, by their nature, are not meant to be frenetic.  One thing that people like about a parish is its familiarity.  They don't want to show up each week and find that another familiar thing has changed.  On a campus, that is not so much of a concern because people aren't here long enough to get too comfortable with the way things are.  To use a military analogy, parishes are like bases and Newman Centers are like being forwardly deployed.  What's great about a base is that it is secure, stable, and usually well provided for.  What's weak about a base is that you can't easily dismantle it and turn it into something else.  What's great about a Newman Center is that it is lightweight, flexible, and constantly adapting to the current situation.  But that means that its work has to be done quickly and intensely.

As I think about the new year approaching at our Newman Center, I know that our priority must be about good food: Sacraments, Prayer, Scripture, Doctrine, and living the Friendship of the Church.  We have to be gourmet food but delivered fast!  The temptation could be to become a fast food joint, serving low quality food to as many people as possible.  But, that won't sustain anyone.  No, we have to use every opportunity we are given to share the full joy of the Gospel smartly.  This is a constant challenge.  It requires constant evaluation and adaptation.  It requires a constant exchange of ideas and a willingness to try things and fail.  It requires a well-formed and dedicated community who are willing and ready to go out and invite others.

When we eat a great meal, we want to share that news with others.  The job of the Newman Center, I think, is to provide the greatest of feasts--Christ himself--and then to go out and invite others to the Banquet of the Lamb. 

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