A few years ago I was at a softball tournament with one of my daughters. While there I saw a sign recruiting girls for a new travel-ball team. The organizers made clear that girls who joined this team would be making a major commitment: many practices, a difficult playing schedule, and demanding coaches. But the payoff was also evident: if you joined this team, it was promised, you would become a much better softball player.
Since we were out of town for this tournament, the next day we attended Mass at the closest parish to the fields. Leaving the church, I saw a sign recruiting young people to become altar servers. The organizers made clear that no real commitment was needed: they would hold few practices and would ask little of the young people—just be at Mass once or twice a month.
The contrast between the two signs was striking. In the first, the organizers took their activity (playing softball) seriously and demanded all participants to do the same. In the second, the organizers treated their activity (altar serving) as a burden that they hoped a few people would accept if they could find the time. The expectations of the first group were high; the second, low.
Settling for Second Best
Such low expectations are all too common in the Catholic Church, and they have a dramatic impact on our ability to evangelize.
When I was a diocesan director of evangelization, I often met with parish representatives to encourage them to evangelize. Usually my efforts focused on training parish staff and volunteers on how to spread the Faith, but sometimes I brought up topics that surprised them. I often encouraged parishes to establish regular adoration, even advocating that they establish perpetual adoration if possible. A typical response was, “Oh, no one will come.” And from their perspective, that was the end of the discussion.
Low expectations in the Church aren’t limited to the turnout for adoration. They impact almost every area of Church life:
- “Why have more confession times? The line is short during the half hour we have it on Saturdays.”
- “If we celebrate the Ascension on Thursday, most Catholics will miss Mass, so let’s move it to Sunday.”
- “I can’t encourage my homosexual friend to live chastely; that’s too hard. Being monogamous is good enough.”
- “My sister has been married to her second husband for twenty years; it’s ridiculous to say that’s not a ‘real marriage.’ I can’t exhort her to live as ‘brother and sister’ with her husband while she gets her first marriage straightened out.”
The reasons behind these low expectations can be sincere and well-meaning. In fact, they can be born from a desire to spread the Faith. A common assumption is that if you call people to a higher ideal, they will react negatively and walk away. This mentality is widespread; in fact, it’s the modus operandi of most mainline Protestant denominations.
But, as we saw with the example of the softball team, the mentality that so infects our religious actions doesn’t seem to be prevalent in other areas of life. We push ourselves when we want to lose weight, or get a promotion, or succeed in a sport. When we want to achieve something, we demand only the best from ourselves, and from those around us. But when it comes to religious obligations and demands, we settle for second-best.
The Transforming Power of God
In my book The Old Evangelization: How to Spread the Faith Like Jesus Did, I call this attitude the heresy of low expectations. How could such a thing as low expectations be like a heresy?
First, because it denies, whether knowingly or unknowingly, that God’s grace is capable of transforming lives. When we see someone who is far from living the gospel, we assume it’s impossible for him to change. But what is impossible for the One who rose from the dead? We can’t comprehend the “how,” so we simply change the expectation to make it more palatable for the other person and for ourselves.
The heresy of low expectations also forgets the call of Christ for everyone to “be perfect, as [our] heavenly father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). This call wasn’t restricted to a subset of his followers; it was for everyone. Yes, we know that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), but that does not change the call. It should be our goal—and the goal of every person—to strive for perfection in Christ. To lower that bar, for any reason, denies essential truths of our faith.
Having low expectations in religious matters for others also reflects a certain arrogance on our part. It assumes that some people can live up to the gospel, but others can’t. We may go to Mass and confession regularly, strive to follow God’s moral laws, and seek more profound conversion, but for others it’s just too hard.
Why do we think this? Are we able to do these things because we have innate abilities others don’t? Has God given us some special grace? That is the implication when we set up two different standards for living as a Catholic: one for ourselves, and one for “others.”
Expect More—Receive More
We incorrectly believe that lower demands will make more people interested in our message, because it will be easier to follow. But when does that actually happen? Think of the great leaders of history—did they ask for little, or did they demand great things from their followers? When England was faced with the threat of a Nazi invasion, Winston Churchill rallied his people by demanding great things from them, famously proclaiming:
We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
This inspirational call to arms inspired the people of the United Kingdom to rise to the occasion. Had Churchill demanded less from his people, perhaps today German would be spoken on the streets of London. He had high expectations, and they were met. People usually live up to—or down to—the expectations set for them. Paradoxically, it seems, calling people to a higher standard results in a more attractive message.
Our call to evangelization is no less important than Churchill’s call to arms. For we are trying to save souls from eternal damnation. If we are to be successful in evangelization, attracting true disciples for Christ, then we need to follow the example of Jesus and urge all people to the highest—and thus the most compelling—calling possible: complete conformity to Jesus Christ.