Finding a Local Church to Call Home

From the Pew Research Center comes a new study ripe with implications for how we think about hospitality, evangelization, and growing disciples in our local churches.

Question #1: What to Americans look for in a new congregation? 


Question #2: Why do Americans look for a new church home to begin with? 


Let’s dig into each of these areas further to flesh out implications for how we share Jesus’ love with the world…

Becoming a Parish Ad Gentes

  1. For Americans with kids, 65% say that education/programs for children age greatly valued. How are your children/student programs? Do they run year round? Are they convenient? Are they high-quality enough that parents would choose to place their children there? Would they appeal to outsiders (not just those feeling an “obligation” to attend)? As the leaders of Church of the Nativity (Timonium, MD) often say “when you do something for my kids, you do something for me” is an important societal, parental value to respond to.
  2. When Americans go looking for a new church home, roughly half consider switching denominations (note: while this isn’t a term we use in Catholic theology, it’s common in vernacular conversation, so I use it in that sense here). This is a huge opportunity! Talk about opennessAs Catholic parishes we should ask ourselves, what kind of impression or perception would someone from a different faith background take away from setting foot on our campus or at our programs? 
  3. We may think that the unaffiliated don’t visit our parishes. But this would be a mistaken assumption. Almost “about three-in-ten current religious “nones” (29%) indicate they have searched for a new congregation at some point in their lives.” What’s for them at your parish? What would their experience be like? 
  4. How do typical Americans find a new church home? More than eight-in-ten adults who have ever looked for a new house of worship say they attended a service during their search (85%). And roughly seven-in-ten talked to members of the congregation (69%) or to friends or colleagues (68%) about the house of worship they were considering. What kind of recommendations or comments would your typical parishioners make about your parish? Would they be enthusiastic? Resigned? Unsure what to say? 
  5. Though it’s not the most important method for learning about potential local church homes, 59% of adults under 30 say they have incorporated online searches when looking for a new congregation. Your online presence matters. And, it should resonate with Millennials. 

Becoming a Parish for Catholic-Seekers

  1. What’s most important when choosing a new parish for Catholics? “nothing is more important than location. Fully three-quarters of Catholics who have looked for a new church (76%) say location was an important factor in their choice of parish.” Our first reaction might be to think (with relief or discouragement) there’s not much we can do then. But this misses something more significant–if Catholics are most likely to select a parish based on location, then it’s vitally important that every parish have a discipleship pathway, that every parish be intentional about ministering to people at every step of a disciple’s journey. We can’t be content to have some “powerhouse” parishes where intentional discipleship and fruits of the Holy Spirit are typical and then “maintenance” parishes for the rest. Taking this reality seriously might force us to think about collaborative organizational structures, networks or associations, and other ways to move more parishes from maintenance to mission. 
  2. Not convinced of the need for every parish to have pathways for intentional discipleship? Here’s another perspective: of affiliated Christians, Catholics are the least likely to ever look for a new congregation. Most Catholics will stay in the parish they’re at, unless the geography (location of household or parish) changes. What’s this mean? Our expectation must be that every parish be fully alive in the Holy Spirit, offering robust pathways for disciples to grow–otherwise, many Catholics will continue to exist in “maintenance” parishes.
  3. When Catholics are looking for a new parish, after location (76% rate as important), the next most important values are “feeling welcomed by leaders” (71%) and sermons (67%). This data supports the pitch made by Amazing ParishRebuilt, and Divine Renovation in recent years as to the importance of the “Sunday Experience.” Authentic welcome from leaders and good preaching aren’t accidents or “bonus” attributes of charismatic leaders–no, these are essential parts of ministry that must be planned, cultivated, and assessed for effectiveness.
  4. Though Catholics are less likely than other Christians to look for a new local congregation, when Catholics do go seeking, about one-in-three report exploring changing denominations or religions. This might come as a surprise to many of us–but it’s a reality we can’t ignore. The question becomes what’s going on in your parish, so that when parishioners do move or go looking for a new congregation, they seek out a Catholic one? 

Okay, so those are my takeaways from this study. What are yours? How might this data impact how you do ministry? 

Guest Gifts, Hospitality, and Getting More Visitor Cards

Getting a visitor or guest to attend Mass (or anything) at your parish is a big deal. But discipleship takes relationship. How to get to know your guests?

A visitor/guest card is usually the first step to attaining the concrete information for follow up.

Image: CC BY NC ND 2.0, Dazegg via Flickr

Some churches will provide a small gift as a thank-you to those filling out and returning cards. And this is good. It’s not bribery. It’s being hospitable. If you come
visit me at my house, I’d probably offer you a beverage and snack (or at least I should!). Likewise, a gift of a $5 gift card to a local coffee shop for visitors who take the time to stop by a Welcome Table after Mass isn’t a sin.

But, some parishes just don’t like doing gifts. Period.

Here’s an awesome alternative idea from Life Point Ohio, from their website:

After our church service is over, please visit Guest Central outside the main auditorium doors to get your questions answered. Do you want to hear a fast and easy way to do a good deed? If you bring us a completed Guest Info Card (inside your listening guide that you’ll receive before the church service) we’ll make a $5.00 donation to a local or international charity.  It’s our way saying, “Thanks for joining us!”

A parish could even give visitors who come to return or fill out a card a choice of 2-3 places to make a donation (just look at the success of “Donors Choose” and other initiatives).

What does your parish do to boost or increase the # of visitor cards or contacts you make at parish events?  Share your successes and failures here, since it’s great to have visitor cards, but without guests returning them or a follow-up strategy, the value for growing disciples seems limited.


Preparing for Parish Visitors

From a recent podcast episode, pastoral researcher Thom Rainer offers eight tips to offer your best to potential guests/visitors on Easter Sunday:

  1. Prepare to reach out to the dechurched
  2. Enlist extra volunteers
  3. Consider service or venue
  4. Promote small groups
  5. Take the opportunity to improve the facility
  6. Reconsider welcome cards
  7. Get your website ready
  8. Consider Facebook ads

While each of these tips is important, #6 brings us to a critical conversation about the logic behind actions in ministry.

Think back to the last time you were at one of those annual “big” Masses at your parish, say Christmas, Easter, Ash Wednesday, a First Communion celebration, etc. There were probably lots of guests and visitors, right? Yes. With all the extra commotion and crowds in the narthex after Mass, possible absences of the “usual” greeters due to holidays, etc. was it an ideal time to introduce a visitor to your community? To have a conversation and get to know them? To discern their spiritual needs? Probably not.

This means that in order to follow-up with visitors, there needs to be a way to make an introduction, to keep in touch. Of course not all visitors want to keep in touch–but (especially with some incentive, like a small gift) many will.

How will you identify and follow-up with visitors to your parish this Easter? Remember, it’s a blessing to have this challenge 😀

p.s. Want to have lots of visitors this Easter? Start inviting! Become an Easter Evangelist.



Grace Over “Good Standing”

If you travel around enough as a visitor to different Catholic parishes–especially for Christmas, Easter, funerals, or weddings–you’ll hear a range of different announcements given just prior to Mass or (more jarringly) just before communion distribution pertaining to who should or should not receive the Eucharist. There’s one that always strikes me as odd, if you are a Catholic in good standing you may receive communion.

As far as I can tell, the phrase “good standing” is not in the Code of Canon Law, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or the USCCB’s official Guidelines for the Reception of Communion. It seems that the verbiage of “good standing” isn’t drawn from our faith tradition. In fact, it sounds more akin to civic organizational culture, i.e. “I’m a member in good standing of the local Lions club.” “Standing” in a club is something we earn. The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, a Holy Temple–we’re incorporated into it through our response to grace–not by attaining “good standing.”


Image: “Credentials” by davidd via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0 license)

As Pope Francis explained in a General Audience:

our taking part in the Church is not an exterior or formal fact, it is not filling out a form they give us; it is an interior and vital act; one does not belong to the Church as one belongs to a society, to a party or to any other organization. (Sep 11, 2013).

Talking about “Catholics in good standing” gives the impression that Church is about filling out a form or meeting some man-made organizational standards. As a baptized believer I share in Christ’s anointing as prophet, priest, and king. I’m God’s beloved, adopted child. And, as Pope Francis so concisely put it, “I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.”

No amount of “good standing” can make me worthy to receive the deepest essence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist–it’s only having my soul healed by the Word that makes communion possible. “State of grace” is far more awe-inspiring (and accurate) than “good standing.” I’m not able to stand alone before God and worship Him, except for the power of the Holy Spirit, uniting me to the perfect prayers and praise of Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior. Good standing doesn’t tell the half of it. How sad to think that the divine life God so wants to share with us could be spoken of, publicly to the unevnagelized, with such a paltry phrase as “good standing.”

I believe, especially in this Jubilee Year of Mercy, we can live boldly the vision in Acts 2:42 of worship (“breaking the bread” and “prayers”) in the context of devotion to the “teaching of the apostles and to the communal life” we call the Church, while finding more precise, theologically sound, Tradition-filled, and evangelistic ways to counsel against partaking in the Eucharist “unworthily” (1 Cor 11:27).

In Part 2 (tomorrow), I’ll offer some concrete alternatives to cautioning-without-an-opportunity-for-response.

A version of this post originally appeared at NewEvangelizers.Com


Being Intentional About Human Capital in Ministry

This is a question that most parishes, dioceses, and ministries don’t have a ready answer for. If one were to call around and ask parishes this question, you’d probably get answers like, “EMHC at Mass or to the homebound, usher, lector, etc.” But after that, awkward silence.

And here’s why it matters–when we talk “resources” in parishes or ministries, we often think of our facilities, equipment, books, curricula, technology, etc.–but the greatest resource of any ministry is people. This isn’t because we work on our own strengths, but because of the Holy Spirit. As baptized believers, God pours our the Holy Spirit in our lives so that we have gifts for building up the Church. For spreading the evangel to every strata of society, to the farthest, most marginalized people, places, and situations on earth.

While there’s nothing wrong with catechesis or serving in a liturgical capacity [there are the gifts of some and are essential and important]–those are not the end-all/be-all roles for using gifts in service of Christ and His Church.

Think about the diversity of gifts described in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, and Ephesians 4, for starters).

Envision all of the ways those gifts could be used in combination with natural/human skills and developed competencies to enrich the Church. Think about the professional experience many people in our pews (yes, even young adults) have.

But, as our starting-Tweet quoting Javier Bustamante pointed out, sometimes our stereotypes get in the way. Especially when it comes to age, social-class, race, or ethnicity. A few months ago, in a conversation with Jonathan Sullivan, I observed:

one of the struggles I’ve seen is trying to break the stereotypes of what a diocesan leader, parish pastoral associate or DRE looks like. In many places, it’s presumed that this person is someone older than 40, who has been around the area/parish a long time, etc. A highly qualified younger adult should probably stick to “Young Adult Ministry” or “Youth Minister” positions. Assessing based on church websites (not a scientific study by any means!), you’re much more likely to see under-40 leaders in ministry in other Christian traditions, rather than in the typical Catholic parish.

In the business world, there seems to be a much greater openness to (and even expectation) that someone can come out of business school in their late 20s or early 30s and be ready for serious leadership–in parishes, not as much (though there are many exceptions!). I’ve observed similar expectations and opportunities in the nonprofit sector, government/military, and many nondenominational Christian ministries/churches.

This applies to volunteers as well.

What to do? Changing culture takes time, but there are practical ways to intentionally build human capital in your parish:

1. Have a new members orientation/class/gathering. This can be a great opportunity for finding out what the natural gifts of new members of your community are [and laying the groundwork for a future conversation of spiritual gifts.]

2. Think about how your parish on-boards or does orientation for volunteers? Are volunteers empowered to take on unique, significant, and strategic roles? Or, are these solely reserved for staff. Are staff skilled in delegation and supervision, so that volunteers can be leveraged? In some situations, staff feel that if they use volunteers too much, they will be viewed as “lazy.” But this is not the case–managing volunteers is worth the effort in terms of the benefits for both the parish and individual as he/she is able to encounter God through the use of his/her gifts. As Tony Kriz writes, “Secular cooperatives manage to run with an expectation of full participation by the full community, so why not a church? Instead of having a select few who are paid to have faith, could everyone be invited into community participation.” Pastoral leadership sets the tone here.

3. Transparency. If your staff is worried about a trend or problem on the horizon, or enthusiastic about a new opportunity–do your parishioners know? Is the parish aware of what you’re thinking in terms of finances, growth, real estate, planned giving, etc? If the parish doesn’t know what the real world challenges and opportunities are, it’s less likely that individuals with the unique training and skills to effectively assist will know to step up.

4. Have a plan to build your bench. Here’s where staff management is key–in a faith community larger than a hundred families or so (aka most Catholic parishes) it would be hard for any staff member to be familiar with every person’s potential skills and/or spiritual gifts. Consider doing an annual (or bi-annual) survey with an expansive list so that parishioners can check-off what natural/developed talents they might have to share. When it comes to spiritual gifts, programs like “Called and Gifted” or home-grown programs like this one at my parish can help all of us identify how God might be calling us to serve. If you sense that cultural barriers may be preventing you from identifying and integrating all of the human capital in your parish, check out some of the USCCB’s resources to help build trust, cultural competency, and more effectively communicate.

5. Remember, multiplication trumps addition. If you’re able to incorporate others for the building up of the Church, then they too will follow your example and invite others. A multiplication of gifts. A multiplication that brings more diversity than any one person’s ability to “add” over time [since most of us tend to know, know the gifts of, and turn to those who are like us in age, ethnicity, etc.]. Leading others to identify and invite sharing of gifts in others is a valuable service. Without Barnabas, we wouldn’t have the Apostle Paul. And Paul was quite the outsider to the church at Jerusalem! Recruitment and encouragement mattered in the early Church and still do today.

New Members: Invite Them In

Awesomely detailed report out of Chicago on the potential of a new members gathering/class (h/t Gotta Sing Gotta Pray: Intentional Hospitality: Old Saint Pat’s: Wow).

Most parishes don’t have “new members” classes or gatherings, period. The best a “new member” (note: not a canonical term, but it’s American vernacular…so I’m running with it) could expect from a parish is to for the staff who help them to register to not be blatantly rude, or for the parish to have an easy online registration form.

Many of our Protestant brothers and sisters do utilize new member classes with some regularity–so maybe we should consider why it’s a good practice in all Christian communities (even Catholic parishes!)…

  • We live in a post-Christian/post-church age — we shouldn’t take it for granted that everyone who sets foot in the sanctuary has any idea how to live out their calling as a Christian in parish community
  • Americans move a lot. The Body of Christ isn’t just mystical. Someone coming to your parish might want to actually meet other believers.
  • So many Gospel narratives (lost coin, lost sheep, prodigal son, etc.) demonstrate the joy of God’s beloved returning home. This isn’t to say every new person at the parish has been “lost” for some time–but you never know. And there’s no sin in being too joyful and loving towards the “stranger.”
  • Opportunity to build trust. To converse and learn stories. A person who visits your parish and wants to join might be far from God. Simple and authentic acts of hospitality build trust. This is pre-evangelization–helping people experience the personal love of God through our actions.

As Dr. Jerry Galipeau explains,

That intentional hospitality is just that: intentional…[it] takes work but, more than that, it takes hearts and minds convinced that reaching out and throwing a banquet of welcome is worth every penny, every minute of time, and every ounce of energy.

Wonderfully challenging words!

Does your parish also have a great new members class/gathering/program? Please share!

p.s. Here’s another good example out of Nativity Church in Maryland.

Why People Leave or Join a Local Church: Getting Past Controversy to the Root Causes

A piece over at Crux by Margery Eagen, Grace Church: A spiritually richer worship, reveals quite a bit about the diversity of Catholic life in the United States today.

First off, I want to be clear that I don’t think the column/article/opinion-piece (genre was hard to gauge) was especially well done. It came across as a bit PR-ish and without much of the author’s voice to reveal her point in covering this or examples of balance. And some claims are simply myopic (i.e. Grace Church is “able to attract and grow a congregation in a way that’s nearly impossible for the American Catholic Church”–quick research would reveal many Catholic parishes growing at faster rates). However, the descriptions Eagen provides are still worth pondering.

Based on the column, here are some of the positives of Grace Church:

  • Sunday worship that inspires
  • Member having a relationship with Jesus
  • Members enthusiastic about Sunday worship service
  • An intimate, casual, friendly, and warm atmosphere and feeling between members
  • Fellowship after Sunday service
  • 30-minute sermons
  • Feeling of being spiritually fed; emphasis on spiritual growth

Now, if you’ve lived outside of the historically culturally Catholic parts of the United States, you’re probably thinking–What’s newsworthy about this? Isn’t this a just a relatively unimpressive, generic description of just about any congregation that’s not dying? And I’d agree with you. Though the exact details on fellowship and length of sermons vary, it’s not hard to find lots of congregations that do these things. And, there are in fact lots of Catholic parishes that have these characteristics as well, especially outside of the northeast.

Looking over Grace Church’s website confirmed this. Nothing extraordinary–it’s what one should expect to find in a congregation. What I do think is noteworthy, however, is that Grace Church very intentionally and specifically makes an appeal to Catholic Christians. The website uses the language of sacraments, it links to the USCCB’s daily lectionary, etc. It’s a nondenominational Christian congregation where many aspects of Catholicism’s language and liturgical structure are preserved.

Eagen uses many quotes from members of Grace Church that talk about perceptions (or real) differences with Church teaching, ministerial behaviors (many of which are not in accord with Canon Law to begin with), etc. But I think those complaints and justifications are not as important as she makes them out to be.

Instead, it comes down to the list of positives I mentioned above. People leave or drift from their Catholic parishes because the initial proclamation and offer of personal relationship with Jesus Christ isn’t clear enough or repeated enough for an authentic response. People leave because they don’t have friends or peers in the faith, fellow disciples to grow with. People drift because worship is perceived as an obligation, rather than a gifted opportunity for praise, hearing the Word of God, encounter with Jesus Christ, and communal prayer. These are all essential parts of living as a disciple of Jesus Christ in communion with his Church. Every Catholic parish can and should be a place where this is a reality.