Part 3 Book Review
REBUILT: The Story of a Catholic Parish
Frank DeSiano, CSP
As I travel around the country, I find more and more priests are reading, Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, Making Church Matter by Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran. People are always smiling when they talk about the book because it raises some fundamental questions about Catholic parishes today. How can parishes escape the syndrome of mostly serving the folks who come (often with a demanding consumer attitude) and begin serving those who do not come.
As I’ve noted in my past two reports, Fr. While and Mr. Corcoran have transformed Nativity Parish, Timonium, MD, just north of Baltimore, into a instrument of outreach. In my last report, I mentioned the committees Nativity set up to engage people-parking, hosting, information, and the café. This report explores a bit more what the Nativity team does in a bit more detail.
Basically, think of your regular parish, strip away those things that drag on people (boring, predictable music; lack-luster attitudes of ministers; church-centered preaching; an implicit set of expectations of the congregation; ignoring of visitors), and start emphasizing things that would make anyone who showed up feel that she or he has a place in the congregation-that’s what the Nativity formula looks like. “We like to say that music is the water on which the experience sails,” they state (p. 94), offering contemporary Christian music led by a range of musicians. This contemporary music alternates with some simple Gregorian chants through the liturgy, creating a sense of novelty and familiarity.
They also diversify the meeting space. They have the main nave of the Church (a rather drab brick with dark stained-glass along one wall, very early sixties), now replete with large monitors so that the congregation is not struggling to see an altar, but has produced images beaming before them). In addition to the nave, they have other spaces people can use. The café is always open, of course, with volunteer staffing that. There’s a “kids’ corner” where parents can leave children or, if they wish, stay with them. There’s also a youth area where teens can explore the Word of God among their peers. Monitors bring the worship of the main space around to these other areas, so that everyone has a sense of contact with the main liturgy. The liturgy, by the way, has none of the off-handedness that often accompanies parish liturgies. Everything is planned; everyone is prepared. It is designed to go an hour.
The “Message” (what they call their homily) is a key emphasis of the liturgy. These talks are planned months ahead of time, designed to engage people in the questions of their everyday life. The messages have thematic components that extend over a number of Sundays; so, for example, a theme like trusting in God would be emphasized for four or six weeks. At one service that I attended, the application of the message was the opening and extended body of the Message; the scriptural basis came near the end of the Message. Continuity of the preacher and the message helps cohere the congregation.
Nativity is keen not only on invitation; it is also strong on involvement. It asks every member to sign up to do service. While much of the service components go into the various ministries they do on Sunday (parking, greeting, café, kid’s corner, etc.), other ministries take place beyond the parish in service of a variety of human needs. The parish really highlights communication, welcome, and involvement—in a way that is accessible to everyone.
White and Corcoran make no secret of their debt to Evangelical and non-denominational Churches. They describe their presence at conferences for these kinds of churches, and their admiration for the way these congregations reach others in contemporary American society. In this way, they challenge the rest of us to think about what these congregations are able to achieve while our own Catholic parishes often attract fewer people. It certainly is crucial for Catholic leaders today to examine what is happening with our Catholic parishes and how we need to adapt what we are doing to make them more effective instruments of outreach. As a general rule, our parishes are not succeeding; they are failing—even to reach Catholics, let alone the broader range of seekers.
Fr. White and Mr. Corcoran are coming out with another book offering tools for a rebuilt parish. They offer a website with the URL www.rebuiltparish.com. They invite the rest of us to explore what they have put up there, how different committees can be organized, and how to go about rebuilding Catholic parishes. Wherever we are, and whatever our role in Catholic parishes, it’s surely worth grappling with the issues Nativity has put on the table.
Note: Rebuilt is available from Ave Maria Press