March Evangelization Exchange – DeSiano

Becoming an Inviting Church

This series presents directions to stimulate the thinking of pastoral leaders, helping them focus on the important ministry of inviting. Parishes may, to a greater or lesser extent, greet and welcome. But few parishes consciously invite–and this at a time when participation in church is falling across all the religious spectrum.

Part 1 – Inviting our Parishioners
Part 2 – Inviting Families
Part 3 – Inviting Young Adults
Part 4 – Inviting Seekers

Part 5 – Inviting Inactive Catholics

By Fr. Frank DeSiano, CSP

 I do not think there is any area that receives more discussion than that of “inactive Catholics.” Just about every sociological research book goes through the numbers from different angles, but they all tell the same story: if you use sociological and statistical methods, you see nothing but erosion in church attendance among non-Latino Catholics, particularly in the younger generations. Latinos themselves, by the way, are no sure bet because other studies show erosion, and potential erosion, among their identity with the Church–but more about them in a future Evangelization Exchange.

Christian Smith surveyed “emerging Catholics” between 18 and 25, a cohort he has been following with his other researchers for years (Young Adult Catholics, Oxford, 2014). William D’Antonio continued his periodic (every 5 years) study of Catholics and sees the decline in church attendance, particularly among younger cohorts, but the level of drop appears to have slowed down (American Catholics in Transition, Rowman & Littlefield, 2013). These studies confirm what Robert Putnam and David Campbell pointed out in their wonderful book, American Grace (Simon and Shuster, 2010), about the significant decline in attendance among European-derived Catholics in the United States.

What seems very clear to me is this: if we use the yardstick of considering an active Catholic as one who goes to Mass with some frequency, then numbers will inevitably look bad. We hear it said that “monthly is the new weekly” in Mass attendance, and there’s probably a lot of truth in this. It’s safe to say that on a regular basis, a parish sees 40% of its parishioners-“regular” meaning once or month or more. So, evidently, on a regular basis Catholic parishes do not see 60% of their parishioners.

One implicit attitude that comes from this way of posing the question is this: concluding that people who do not regularly go to church have no faith life. This, however, would be a mistake. Studies show that, by other standards, Catholics have various and regular religious activity, particularly praying, upholding Catholic social teachings, and a solid core of belief. As D’Antonio and his associates put it, in their chapter on Conclusions, “. . . [W]e think it is important to point out that there is a solid socio-theological basis to how Catholics construe what it means to be Catholic. (153)” In other words, attending liturgy remains fundamental to Catholic life, but we cannot let this importance lead us to define the whole picture.

Another immediate conclusion is that in future years we will be dealing more and more with people who have what I call “episodic” involvement with coming to church–a few weeks present, a few weeks away, then back again. People bring their worship life into an environment of constant pressure and much travel. We are less and less in neighborhoods within walking distance of a church; we are more and more suburbanites or new urbanites with options galore in front of us. An important strategy, long term, is increasing the likelihood of people to attend Mass until it becomes an ingrained behavior–not in the “I-have-to-go” model of former days, but in the “I-want-to-go” model which probably is the only effective one in the decades ahead.

Apart from all these considerations, it is almost scandalous how terribly little parishes do to reach out to less-than-active Catholics. Operating with the assumption that “if we get enough people to pay the bills” is how we look at parish success will only lead to smaller congregations. We have to convert our paradigm: we need to be reaching every Catholic, and every potential inquirer. This is the least that Jesus, and our Church, is asking of parish leadership.

So what might parishes do?

  1. Inventory your own registered parishioners. Try to find out who is very active, who is little active. See if there are patterns. Pay particular attention to families that seem to be quite inactive. Get a sense of who your parish regularly reaches, and how.
  2. You can design a specific outreach to the names you actually have registered who seem not to be active. Think here of general communication but also of particular events you might design to connect with these people. Of course, should you be able to develop a visiting team to drop in on some of these folks, then you would have hit the jackpot. Parishes actually do these and find it successful.
  3. You can try to “cast the net a little further out.” Using social media, email blasts, and other channels that are effective in your neighborhood, inviting people to “come and see.” Some neighborhoods have local papers that everyone reads. Others have storefronts where owners let organizations put up fliers. Talk to parishioners in real estate and other heavily public relations kinds of businesses to get ideas.
  4. At least once, but preferably more, run a particular program to reach inactive Catholics. Parishes do this and feel that, if they’ve reached only 6 or 8 people, they then worked hard for small pickings. But this kind of ministry is cumulative. Not only the 6 or 8 people each time (which can add up over 5 years), but the way people notice that inactive Catholics are being welcomed. You create a buzz. People are drawn by that. We can see this from those parishes in almost every diocese that seem to draw young adults.

Awakening Faith, AFAt Paulist Evangelization Ministries, we have “Awakening Faith” which over a thousand parishes have ordered. The Paulists also offer Landings International as another approach to less-than-active Catholics. Another program that has been used for years is Catholics Returning Home. And Mr. Tom Peterson has developed diocesan outreach program called Catholics Come Home.

Nothing is clearer from the profile of Pope Francis than this: to be a less self-centered church, hanging on to past positions and privileges, and a more other-focused Church of welcome is a key part of our being the Church that Jesus called us to be. Certainly, building bridges with our own people through outreach has to be high on the list of what Christ is calling us to do.