Designed For (Not Merely Accommodating) Families

According to 2016 U.S. Census data, roughly 42% of American households include children age 18 or younger. Depending on where exactly you live, the number may be higher or lower, but even with variation, this is a significant proportion of the population that many local churches would love to serve and retain as growing members of a church community.

Design
Credit: Leonid Mamchenkov

Yet, in many churches, things aren’t designed with parents (single or married) in mind. We aim to accommodate families of all shapes and sizes–but even best accommodation can feel just like that, an exception or compromise that still doesn’t leave families with children feeling like this was really designed for them, that they belong here.

 

What might designing for parents look like?

Some visioning…

In a Parent-Friendly Church…

Preparation for Baptism of Infants

is an opportunity to connect parents, especially new parents, to a community for belonging. It’s not a one-time “instruction” of information for parents to passively listen to, with few intentional opportunities on-going connection to others.

Mass

is a privileged place of formation and encounter with the Lord for parents–something parents can be richly nourished from so that they can be the primary catechists and witnesses within their own families. Parents can choose to have children worship with them at Mass or be engaged in an age-appropriate way elsewhere. No parent should experience Mass with children as a burden that requires them to focus so much on keeping young toddlers quiet in the pew that they cannot first and foremost be taken up fully into the liturgy themselves. Mass is also not something that parents need to drag older children to or placate them about Mass being “boring” because homilies are designed for adults, not older children. Mass is a joy and refreshment for the entire family.

Places for Families During Worship

are inviting, child-friendly spaces–not “cry rooms” where visibility for young [=short] children is limited, seating is designed for adults, and the means for a child to be engaged are oftenfewer than in the pews.  

Scheduling

is designed to give families maximum time together, so that parents can be witnesses to a joyful Christian life and have the time to pray and engage in catechesis within their families. This means offering opportunities at a lower frequency, in ways that involve parents/family, on multiple days per week, and with intentional overlap of offerings for different ages to minimize disruption.

The Entire Parish (Not Just Parents) Serves Children

In this, parents feel the love of the Christian community surrounding them with support, rather feeling that they must be the VBS, catechesis, and childcare volunteers all the time (simply because they have children). 

Parents Have Real Ownership in Children’s Initiation

A parent’s discernment of a child’s readiness to receive a sacrament of initiation or participate in the sacrament of reconciliation has an ordinary place in parent life. This cultivates a perception of partnership and emphasizes the empowerment given uniquely to parents through the sacrament of marriage and the Holy Spirit.

Major Parish Events

are designed from the start with the outlook a large proportion of the target audience has children, and that these families want to attend. Design includes content, location, and scheduling.

Service Opportunities

are offered not only for adults, but for families–both internal and external to the parish.

Ongoing Discipleship Paths

are as obvious and convenient for adults with children as they are for others. Adult discipleship paths are designed to synchronize with the schedules and needs of parents with children.

Catechesis for Children

doesn’t feel like something parents have to force reluctant children to attend because it feels like another school classroom to them.

Locations Matter

Driving takes time. Families in many parts of the U.S. don’t all live near the parish. In a parent-friendly parish, off-campus locations near where families live are utilized to reduce transportation time/burden on families.

Okay, this is just the start of painting a vivid picture of designing for families, in contrast to merely “accommodating” families as an afterthought to our events, schedules, and parish systems. What would you add to the list? 

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Love Seeing This on a Parish Website

I was doing some scouting for an upcoming vacation and saw this on a parish webpage:

Whether you were raised CatholicProtestantatheistagnostic, or have never even considered church, religion, and spirituality, there is a place for you here.

Love it. Thanks Church of Saint Patrick!

Alpha Recipe Deep Dive: Meal and Conversation

Don’t mess with the Alpha recipe. 

If you’re gearing up to run Alpha, I hope you’ve heard that message. It’s an important one. Don’t tinker with the Alpha recipe. Don’t think that your situation is “special” and people don’t need open conversation, time for a meal, or shallow-entry music, etc.

But why? What’s so special about a meal? About open conversation without “teaching”?

  • A meal is hospitality, plain and simple: whether catered or home-cooked it’s giving of one’s own resources to others, requiring nothing in return.
  • For many in the U.S., meals are inconvenient…a burden of time and coordination that seems a bridge too far for many or an implied pressure. By providing this, we’re giving nourishment beyond the physical.
  • A meal and conversation is credibility…it’s saying I’m willing to sacrifice time (something of peak value in our culture!) to simply be with you.
  • It’s face-to-face. It’s a level playing field. Many people, due to past hurts and barriers, will never experience the sanctuary or Mass this way [at least at first!]
  • Teaching says, “I know” (and you don’t). Conversation says, all of our experiences matter. And this isn’t fake. To God, all of our experiences do matter. God wants to gather up and redeem them all in Him!
Dinner party table decoration
by Elin via Flickr (https://flic.kr/p/8ZFQAR)

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? 

pf_16-08-23_churchesreport_whychange310px

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

pf_2016_08_23-overview-00

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.

coffee
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.”

 

Credentials
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