If you’ve been talking to friends, family, or co-workers who’ve left the Church, you may have heard the explanation, “I just didn’t get anything out of Mass.” As believers set on knowing, loving, and sharing the faith, there are so many answers we could give to this—it’s sometimes hard to hold back! Many respond with the pithy phrase, “you get what you put into it.” Or, take a somewhat dismissive route, replying, “you’re not supposed to get anything out of Mass, it’s about worshiping God.” But the problem with these quick responses (which certainly contain theological truth) is that in many cases they totally miss the mark on addressing the real spiritual needs of the person we’re conversing with.
Take the first common reply—“you get what you put into it.” This way of thinking presumes that the person has everything they need to “put into it,” and is choosing not to. It assumes that the person has responded to and believed in the Lord Jesus Christ and been converted through encounter with Him. It assumes the person is yielding to the Holy Spirit and can truly pray in a way that enables them to “put something” into Mass so as to not leave Mass feeling empty.
While there’s no way to prove this empirically, I doubt that most people who leave the Church because they “didn’t get anything out of Mass” were at the same time experiencing a robust friendship with God, through his Son, in the Holy Spirit. Before any of us decides to utter, “you get what you put into it”—we’d better first get to know a little about the spiritual life of the person we’re speaking to. Who is Jesus to them as an individual? What is God like? These are questions we need to prudently ask before we jump to conclusions and give the chiding remark, “you get what you put into it.”
The second common reply—“you’re not supposed to get anything out of Mass,” also contains theological truth. But that doesn’t automatically mean it’s the best answer for many of the people we meet. For starters, it’s a dismissal of their experience—never a good first step in an evangelizing conversation! Secondly, reality is a bit more complicated. For example, while offering the worship that belongs to God at Mass is certainly not about us, what about the more temporal aspects of attending Mass? Take something as ubiquitous as the sound system—we are supposed to be able to hear the Word of God proclaimed at Mass. Take the homily—we are supposed to hear how God’s word is being fulfilled here and now (Congregation for Divine Worship, Homiletic Directory (2014) §6). These are things it is fair to expect to experience at Mass, and sometimes people don’t “get” them.
Or consider the experience of “Mass” that goes beyond the physical bounds of the liturgy itself. Did the person hope to find fellowship with Christians before or after in the form of a friendly conversation or handshake? Did he or she need prayer for an urgent situation and was hoping someone would ask, “how can I pray for you today?” Eastern Orthodox theologians have used the phrase “the liturgy after the liturgy” to describe everything else that makes up the tapestry of our lives as Christians beyond the Eucharistic liturgy. For many in need of evangelization who “don’t get anything out of Mass,” it’s not about the texts of the Mass being deficient—but about us as genuinely welcoming communities of believers before and after the weekend service.
Before we act too quickly in replying, “you’re not supposed to get anything out of Mass,” we should first look at our own faith communities and consider what everyone should “get” out of Mass, understood in a broad sense. Then we can ask those who “don’t get anything out of Mass” about their experiences—find out their hopes, expectations, and desires—a conversation that creates a much larger opening for sharing the Gospel than a quick dismissal.
The next time you hear, “I don’t get anything out of Mass,” resist the temptation to become frustrated. Temper the desire (that so many of us have!) to share every spiritual truth that “proves” the person is incorrect and tells them what they should be experiencing. Instead, pray for the Holy Spirit to carefully guide your words into an evangelizing conversation. Find out what the person’s faith life is like, and then share in a way that opens, rather than closes doors, in the conversation.