Part 2 Book Review: REBUILT: The Story of a Catholic Parish
Frank DeSiano, CSP
In this report, I want to further present some of the powerful ideas that Fr. Michael White and Mr. Tom Corcoran have given us in their stirring book Rebuilt: The Story of a Catholic Parish. As I have gone around the country this past month, I find many priests and parish staffs discussing this book. It is being read by staffs and by priests in deaneries. People almost always tell me why they like this book so much: “It’s the only way I can begin conceiving doing parish differently. We have to stop doing parish a business-as-usual. We are missing so many people. This book is getting me to think.”We owe, then, a huge debt to White and Corcoran for stating the issue in such an accessible way for parish leaders to make use of it.
When the authors realized how much of their ministerial energy in their parish was bringing them to a dead end, they decided they had to do something different. Instead of running a parish for a smaller number of “demanding consumer” Catholics who saw church as something primarily for them, they started articulating a notion of parish that was primarily for the people who were not church-goers. How does one design a church experience that would make the typical dechurched person want to come and, even more, stay?
White and Corcoran are quite open about where this search took them—to some of the larger Evangelical churches and gatherings of Protestant evangelizers. Expressing their sheepishness at being present at these trainings, as virtually the only Catholics, they go on to relate how they were warmly welcomed and received. They learned some of the basic attitudes and approaches of these congregations which have been growing in modern society—probably the only religious segment that has consistently shown growth (if one looks at statistics of mainline Protestant and most Catholic congregations).
Here is where it gets interesting: the first committees they challenged their Catholic parishioners to form were those that addressed visitors. In pp. 110-114, they describe the four committees they formed as the first step in the turn-around of their parish: parking, hosting, information, and café. How many Catholics would ever come up with a list like this, let alone implement the list through ongoing committees and ministries? Each committee was designed to address the assumption that there are, indeed, people in modern society who are seekers, and that parishes need to be shaped in a way so as to meet the needs of seekers. Most of our parish parking lots are disasters (my private theory of why most people leave Mass early—so they don’t have to get caught in our dreadful parking lots). Nativity parish developed a ministry to help visitors park and make it to the church building. Then the hosting people took over, helping people get oriented to the community and to the worship space. Just the word “hosting” runs circles around those few Catholic parishes that do “greeting” or “welcoming.” Hosting speaks to an entire experience of welcome and presence.
The information committee provides all the people need to know about the parish—at a table, on electronic boards, and through texting and e-mails. This replaces the dreaded announcements that usually eviscerate our Sunday Masses—with ever diminishing results as we know; people just shut down their ears after one or two announcements. It acknowledges two important aspects of information in a parish: that most people (especially those not going to church) live electronically, and that a ministry like this also invites people to participate (more than just giving information).
The Café will seem like the most novel committee. Where do people feel comfortable, particularly when visiting a church, or getting familiar with a church service, or wanting to know new people? The authors talk about the café they opened as part of their church experience, a place of welcome, hanging out, and inquiry. The café says, in itself, that there’s a place for you at Nativity parish.
The authors challenge us to think concretely about the dechurched people in our areas, most of whom we are totally missing. They get us to stretch our brains and pastoral hearts. They help us see ways in which we can do church beyond the business-as-usual model which is slipping in terms of maintenance, and totally anemic in terms of mission.
Note: Rebuilt is available from Ave Maria Press