Why Do People Start Attending Church More?

One more intriguing tidbit from the Pew Research Center in this  new study: insight into the factors common among those who now attend religious services more regularly than they used to. 

First off, how common is it for a person to increase their rate of religious attendance? 27% of Americans fall into this category–a reminder that, despite some popular perceptions, we actually live in a very open and curious society, where many are experiencing changes in their religious practices toward the positive.

pf_2016_08_23-ch2-01So how do these Americans explain the reasons for changes? 

  • 49% mention changes in their personal religious beliefs as the main reason for attending more often
  • 23% mention social factors, including changes in family structure (such as marriage or the birth of a child), entering different phases of life (e.g., going to college, joining the military, etc.) or a desire for fellowship or community
  • 20%  mention practical changes, such as having a work schedule that permits them to attend church more often now than in the past

Implications for Ministry:

  1. Changes in belief matter more than anything else. What beliefs are adults learning and entering into more deeply in your parish life? Is what’s emphasized the most something that would inspire increases in practice?
  2. Times of social transition are opportunities. This means thinking beyond sacramental preparation for baptism and marriage as “the” coming back moments. How are we aware and responding to these transitional life stages?
  3. Practical things–like transportation, universal accessibility, times of Mass/programs, childcare, etc.– matter, a not-insignificant 20% of the time. How can we remove practical barriers to increased participation, not as an afterthought, but as an intentional part of our local strategies.
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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? 

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

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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? 

Tradition and “That”

Can you imagine a culture and circumstances that might compel a person to exclaim: “If that happens, it’s the end of our faith”

What might the “that” be?

If you’re scratching your head, coming up with a blank–then good.

Here’s the thing though, someone did utter that quote earlier this year, and the “that” of discussion was the closing of Catholic schools in a particular city. The comment points to something we’re all prone to–and that’s viewing some organizational structure, custom, or way of doing things as somehow essential to living a life in the Holy Spirit, as disciples of Jesus Christ in his Church.

The Church reminds us that we’re not to think of everything we see before our eyes in parish life, in recent centuries, in North America as “the faith” or “the Tradition.” As the Catechism explains:

Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s Magisterium. (para. 83)

Tradition is a “living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit” (CCC para. 73). It’s not specifically something we merely “stick to” or a scapegoating target that “prevents us” from a certain choice. Though those phrases may apply in some situations, they are ultimately a shallow and incomplete understanding of the living dynamism of authentic Tradition. 

Yet, we’re human beings. Made in God’s image, but still finite in our capacities to see, envision, imagine, and think outside of ourselves at times. And this is why any of us might, at some point, say or think: Oh no! If that happens…

This human response can monopolize our thinking. Make us scared. Hinder our abilities to apply reason and judgement to the situations we face in our parishes and dioceses. And most detrimentally, distract us from the eternal beauty of God’s Revelation.

As many parishes enter a “new year” of faith formation, evangelization, and discipleship initiatives, we can each as a leader or follower, ask ourselves: where am I called to discern Tradition from traditions more clearly? Is there an “if that happens…” that I need to prayerfully understand more fully? 

a version of this post originally appeared at NewEvangelizers.Com

 

Budgeting with Disciples

Giving financially as a spiritual act of discipleship is part of our growth as disciples–not an optional, extra add on for those who are “rich” or do “financial planning” to make major gifts to charities and the like. If you’ve decided that percentage giving (sometimes called tithing, though historically this would specifically refer to 10%) is the form of giving most likely to go hand-in-hand with discipleship, implementation can be a tough road.

A first question (especially this time of year, as Fiscal Years for churches come to an end) is how do we set the budget?

If percentage giving is about disciples discerning a call to sacrifice and participate in God’s work financially, how can a parish staff (or finance council, parish council, etc.) tell them what the total of their giving should be?

Two main techniques for setting the “revenue” part of a budget:

  • Incremental Increases — Using this technique, a parish or ministry takes giving from the previous year and simply increases it. How to do this realistically? Look at other indicators in your area, i.e. Cost of Living Adjustments calculated by government agencies, inflation, wage growth, etc. While these can’t tell you how the Holy Spirit will lead the disciples in your parish 🙂 these indicators can help keep you in the “ballpark” of the economic realities your givers likely reside in. Beware, it’s easy to be too optimistic in incremental increases, i.e. a 3-5% increase is considered (in secular studies) to be “aggressive” and anything more than 8-10% really requires additional staff, initiatives, etc. to be implemented successfully.
  • Committee/Commission/Department Driven — Here, all of the departments, programs, committees, and/or commissions of a parish are consulted and asked for an expense prediction for the next fiscal year. Then, whatever is above last year’s revenue becomes the new revenue goal for the next Fiscal Year. This can work well in parishes where the needs aren’t changing, or a parish in “maintenance” mode. [But should any parishes be in maintenance mode today? I think not!]

Many parishes also use a combination of these two methods. The most critical piece for discipleship, however, is to not allow the raw $ amounts to drive the reason for giving. We don’t give to the parish because the parish needs it. We give because God has revealed this to us as part of communio, part of living as a follower of Jesus Christ.

Practically, shifting to an emphasis on percentage giving means that parishioners need to have a greater understanding and ownership for the reason the parish exists, for the specific mission and vision of being Church in a concrete time/place–for what makes this community of disciples life-changing and essential. Percentage giving generally means that there’s an annual (or semi-annual) emphasis for disciples to discern and make a commitment. Logistically, this takes additional volunteer leaders/ministers to carry the message, create materials (like cards or websites so that the parish has an idea of what givers are committing to).

While this may seem like a burden, it’s actually a good thing. It’s good that the Pastor can’t do it alone. The Parish Council can’t do it alone. By striving for the widest participation, parishes can come to know the parishioners on the margins–those who aren’t experiencing the joy of discipleship, those who are facing financial difficulties, those who’ve never felt “needed” or a part of this local embodiment of the Body of Christ. And, by moving toward progressive giving as a spiritual sacrifice (rather than “extra money” given to “fundraising at the church”) we create the space for believers to experience discerning a tough issue, to experience what feels like a “risk” for God, to pray about something that matters personally to each and every one, to experience what it means to trust.

Real Leadership Teams

For decades (probably longer!) leadership gurus of all sorts have been talking about the importance of people. Now, this can seem a bit obvious to many in ministry–but in practice we often forget this. Crafting the “perfect” strategic plan or laboring over a new curriculum–all without the pivotal leadership team to implement anything fruitful, meaningful, or life-changing.

Catholic author and consultant, Patrick Lencioni, has become a leading modern-day voice for the importance of people, of crafting (as he calls it) a “real leadership team” as a foundation for leading anything. Especially anything as important as a local parish–the primary place an ordinary person will encounter God’s people as a concrete community.

Lencioni is part of the Amazing Parish conference series, meeting [here!] in Michigan today 🙂

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my own little photo of Detroit,from Belle Isle (May 2012)

If you’ve got an extra moment for prayer today, please join me in praying for the speakers, trainers, and leaders attending this conference. And, if you’re interested in growing a leadership team to help make your big ideas or needs a reality, I highly recommend Lencioni’s compilation book The Advantage and the awesome free resources (like this) available at Amazing Parish.

 

 

Renewing Ourselves Before “Fixing” Those Volunteers

The more I talk to parish ministry staff and volunteer leaders, the more I hear about how finding enough, quality volunteers is a challenge. Sometimes so much of a challenge that a leader can become overwhelmed by this–and only see this barrier. It can get discouraging. Plus, the wrong volunteers to continue planning, implementing, and assessing any new initiative in church-life can doom even the most brilliantly inspired and prayerfully discerned new direction. We’ve got a tag going here on this blog for Volunteer Management, and here’s the latest…some practical tips from experienced Children’s Ministers, that apply to us all:

Let’s start with ourselves (not the prospective volunteers), here’s what we need to stop doing…

  1. Making announcements (pulpit, bulletin, social media, etc.) in a vacuum and expecting to get the right volunteers.
  2. Feeling guilty about recruiting volunteers, and thus procrastinating (leading to all sorts of other problems in training, discernment, quality, etc.).
  3. Relying on leaders (or the dedicated few) as routine “substitutes”–it’s okay to substitute sometimes, but if this is routine, it really just means you’re avoiding the heart of the matter when it comes to formation and recruiting.
  4. Not having a clear plan, vision, and mission for your volunteers (and waiting until you “have some” to figure this out).
  5. Taking setbacks personally and leaving prayer out of the equation.


What to do instead?

  • Spiritual formation first! Set ministry volunteering within the proper context of stewardship as a disciple’s response to God’s love–a “get to,” not a “have to.”
  • Pray, pray, pray–for God’s guidance to give you eyes to see needs, others, etc.
  • Build relationships. All the time. With current volunteers and potential/future ones. Relationships, not announcements work.
  • Do more listening. As Tom McKee explains (in the interview this post is based on):

I often find that if I listen, that “no” actually means one of several things: “Not now — I’ve got too much on my plate;” “Not this position — I have other gifts I’d like to use;” “Not with this present leadership;” or “Not in your lifetime.” Listen carefully to the excuses.

  • Think of recruiting volunteers like dating–take the time to get to know the person, don’t force them to make a huge yes/no/forever commitment to serve once as part of discerning ministry, progressively build into greater responsibility, get to know the person’s strengths and don’t be afraid to use these strengths, know when it’s okay to prayerfully discern a “no” or “let me introduce you to another ministry…”

 

 

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.