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. Believers may not be able to do much to influence the mega-world of trends and public opinion, fads and news cycles, but they can do a lot to influence the micro-world of people through direct contact with them.
Part 2 – Inviting Families
All the studies of demographics show that younger generations tend to be less invested in parish—or in organized religion—than older generations. Unfortunately, this includes one of the most important constituencies of any parish—families. These people, whether younger Gen X-ers, or older Millennials, have grown up with very different relationships to all organizations (and not just church).
Yet parishes must bring more of this generation into relationship with the parish. These parents are transmitting attitudes about faith to their children—even as they are reflecting attitudes of their Baby Boomer parents. No matter how many children make First Holy Communion, or First Confession, if these families do not evolve a consistent involvement in parish life—in patterns of discipleship—then what they pass on to their children will be watered down even more.
- Parishes should look at those points when they naturally intersect with families and inventory them for ways to offer deeper connections. Obviously enrollment in a Catholic school is a major point, but so is enrollment in parish religious education for children. How can these moments be maximized in terms of building relationships with families?
- Parishes should develop some programming specifically for families and parents. It could be parent-help workshops, or discussions of neighborhood concerns; but parents naturally want to do what is best for their children, and they appreciate the opportunities to share with other parents.
- Religious education programs should think of ways to involve parents in the formation of the children, and into peer sharing groups. On the one hand, one hears horror stories of parents dropping off children, then going for coffee instead of going to Mass, and then picking children up. On the other hand, one hears, more and more, delightful stories about parishes that have offered some kind of formation to parents and the parents appreciated it enormously.
- You can’t lose with family events in the parish. Whether it’s a certain Mass on Sunday, or holiday-inspired events for children and parents, or children’s choir, or some other cultural event, parents will come with other children to be part of events like this. It helps fortify the connection parents have with worship and other parish activities.
- Internet might provide ways for parents in the parish to share information about sports, children’s activities, cultural opportunities, or even common concerns through some message system on the parish’s website. Of course, someone will have to monitor the conversation, but to have parents sharing their interests and concerns on the parish website can only be something good.
Parishes that extend an inviting hand to families have to be aware of the diversity of families. Rarer today are families headed by two Catholic parents. When there are two parents, one of which does not belong to the Catholic Church, parishes need to help them integrate the values from the different religious traditions, even as the child is raised in the Catholic faith; the parents who belongs to another faith tradition needs to be made to feel welcomed and included. Some two-parent families will have non-believers as one of the parties; again, these people are supporting the raising of their child in the faith and merit gratitude and consideration.
More and more we find single-parents families. How the Church supports these parents, understands the often-heroic efforts they make, and helps them see how faith resources can lessen their burden—this will be crucial in helping single-parents pass on faith to their children. Often these parents have to contend with the trauma of divorce or separation; they, in particular, might be disposed to seeing the Church as unwelcoming or even hostile to them. Hospitality and welcome has to be part of the effort to reach out and inviting all families to relate to the Church as much as they can.
(For further reflection on this issue, see my little book “Faith and Education in the Catholic Church,” Paulist Press, 2012)