Moving Catholic Churches from Maintenance to Mission

by Father James Mallon

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When I was 16 years old, I encountered Jesus Christ. I had always gone to church and said my prayers. I believed in God and Jesus. But my experience in the spring of 1986 changed my life forever.

I soon discovered that people in my home church were not as excited as I was when I told them what had happened to me. Some even seemed a little uncomfortable hearing about this newfound relationship I had with the Lord. The vast majority of churchgoers were like me; they did not know that an intimate walk with God is possible.

Eventually I found community in a ‘movement’ within the Catholic Church. The equivalent of a parachurch ministry, young Catholics like me would gather on Tuesday nights with a dynamic young priest. We grew together, worshipped together, evangelised together and served together.

Transforming Church Culture 

As wonderful as this was I remain haunted by one question. “Why can’t the essential dynamics of a vibrant Christian life be considered a normal way of life in the church?”

Through the years, I met many Catholics like me, who are awakened spiritually and could not find basic community in their local churches. Similarly most of the disciple-making was done through parachurch movements instead of the local church.

What if it was different? What if the hundreds of thousands of local churches worldwide actually took responsibility of the mission that Jesus gave – to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). What if the sleeping giant that is the Catholic Church actually woke up and embraced its true identity?

My quest for answers was a driving force in my early years of following Jesus. It was also what drove me when I first became a pastor of a small church in 2000.

I set out to find a tool that would begin the “waking” process and found the Alpha Course. I introduced it to my church in 2001. To this day, I continue to use and recommend Alpha as I have seen no other tool that consistently produces fruit in proportion to the investment of time and energy. It is not only an amazing resource to help people encounter and come into relationship with Jesus, it also enables them to experience the power of the Holy Spirit and an authentic Christian community.

I saw people come alive: people who were life-long churchgoers and people who were not connected with the church. I saw them fall in love with Jesus and His mission. The church of living stones began to grow and mobilise.

Father James Mallon celebrating the Eucharist at Saint Benedict Parish, Halifax, Canada, June 2016

I was invited in 2010 by my bishop to take over the leadership of a newly formed parish in my city – Saint Benedict Parish. It was the result of amalgamating three smaller churches and building a new facility. I became the pastor within months of the building being opened. There was great excitement among the churchgoers and they had every reason to be.

Before accepting the role as the pastor at Saint Benedict Parish, I had asked my bishop for permission to make Saint Benedict a pastoral laboratory and he was very supportive. We immediately started casting vision to church members, investing in new leaders, and running the Alpha Course.

In that first year, dozens of people had life-changing experiences with Jesus Christ. We increased the number of staff, upgraded our music ministry and featured testimonies of transformation at every opportunity.

What will stop the decline of our churches, if all we do is come into this new place and do everything exactly the same as we did before? – James Mallon

By the third year of pastoring Saint Benedict Parish, hundreds had come alive in their faith. Over the next two years, we began to focus on programmes that really mattered and centred all ministries around our purpose – “to form disciples who joyfully live out the mission of Jesus Christ.”

Reaching the World 

In the midst of change, two things happened. The first was that on 15 May 2012, I experienced a powerful call from the Lord to minister to priests and pastors. The second was that I wrote a book called Divine Renovation: From a Maintenance to a Missional Parish. These two developments, combined with the transformation of Saint Benedict Parish, opened doors we never imagined.

We received inquiries from around the world within months of the book being published. And what was first exciting soon became exhausting. To manage all the incoming interest we decided to host a conference at Saint Benedict Parish. We had no idea how many would come; but we estimated 200 to 300. In June 2016, 600 people from 11 countries travelled to Halifax. The event had completely sold out!

Divine Renovation is now an established ministry. We have published two more books (with a third on its way). Thousands are following our weekly podcasts. We have also launched an online coaching network with over 30 churches from the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and Portugal.

Our vision over the next 10 years is to inspire and equip 35,000 churches to become missional and to bring two million people to Jesus every year. Through God’s grace and mercy we are well on our way to seeing this goal a reality.

I believe that as we continue to equip local churches and Catholics to live out a commitment towards evangelism, the best leadership principles and empowerment by the Holy Spirit, the sleeping giant is beginning to awaken.

This article has been adapted from
Champions 2018.