Parish Registration That’s a Conversation

Let’s face it–joining or registering at a Catholic parish can be one of the most non-relational experiences a person can have. What does it typically entail? A form to collect information. Reading or being told of “policies.” Being asked personal information, i.e. the dates of a child’s first Eucharist, something that might feel a bit like “judging” if one is unfamiliar with the terms of didn’t do it at the “right time.”

The “Problems” of Registration for Catholics

Many Americans who self-identify as Catholic carry baggage related to parish registration. That relative they remember who couldn’t get married at a certain parish because they weren’t registered. Not being able to join a youth sports team because of being registered in a different parish. Calling to request Anointing of the Sick for an aging relative and being told they cannot receive it because they are not registered or in “good standing.” The litany of ways people have taken offense during the process of “registration” is long, complex, and an exercise in empathy to hear! Now, as many familiar with the Code of Canon Law or liturgical books know, many of the situations I mentioned are filled with error/miscommunication. Yet, that factual reality does not change the actually experience of offense taken by that person who (without the benefit of an understanding of Canon Law or liturgical rites) felt excluded or unhelped in a time of need.

The “Problems” of Joining a Parish for Non-Catholics

For non-Catholics, whether they be seekers, “nones,” or our separated brothers and sisters, the experience of registering in a parish can be even more confusing. As an “outsider” to some of our unique language, what does “registering” even mean?

  • Is it like a mini-application? Will I get in?!? What if I’m a single parent? Will my kids get in if they’re not baptized yet? If I check a box that they have special needs?
  • What do you mean I’m not “registered”? I’ve been coming here for years and get email newsletters from the parish all the time?
  • I’ve been told only Catholics can register. So, I basically don’t really belong at this parish.

The Root Problem is That It’s Non-Relational

In any situation, the real problem is when parish registration is a non-relational experience, which I’ll define as an experience that does not form a personal connection between the person registering and a person in the parish. A kind secretary who “helps” someone fill out a form can be slightly more relational 🙂 [shout out to all of the amazing administrative personnel in parishes who are gifted enough to show love amidst ringing phones, fixing copy machines, and helping a young parent with a crying infant fill out a registration form!] however, these situations aren’t ideal for a conversation that allows a person to experience being known in a way our society doesn’t typically make space for. A conversation where a person experiences being welcomed unconditionally and listened to for the unique story and beauty they bring to the world!

From Here to There: Introducing Conversation to Your Parish Registration Process

  1. Identify people (clergy or lay, staff or volunteer, etc.) to be part of this conversation ministry. Organizationally, this might fall under the guidance of a parish Director of Evangelization, Director of Engagement, or a Welcome/Hospitality Committee.
  2. Train the leaders.
  3. Have the trained leaders then start to slowly expand the pool. Emphasis on slowly because you’ll need to tailor conversation guides/ideas for your unique local setting! By doing this first, your leaders will improve the concept as they do it, and then pass that on to others. This needs to be done well before it’s done “big” because of what a critical moment this conversation is for welcome, hospitality, and evangelization for those checking out your parish. [For those keeping track, 😉 you’d be doing what’s called “lean experimentation” with this style of growth/learning.]
  4. Decide the when/where. Be expansive. Remember, people work all sorts of hours, may not live close to your parish, etc. The advantage of having both staff and volunteers trained, is that staff can cover meeting with people for whom typical “office” hours and the parish office are convenient, and volunteers can cover evenings, weekends, off-campus meeting spots like libraries or cafes near their homes.
  5. Publicize to your parish! Parishioners are on the “front lines” of helping people move from “maybe I want to join St. Mary’s…” to making it happen. Parishioners are always hoping a friend or family member decides to give their beloved parish a try! When that person says to them, “our family wants to join St. Mary’s,” you want to empower your parishioners to have a ready and joyful answer (i.e. who to call or email) rather than a nervous “um, I think there’s a form” or worse, “no, just keep coming, no need to register” [because they want to shield others from their own negative experience registering!]  
  6. Once you know it’s functional [enough!] remove the printed registration forms from your welcome brochure racks, front office, website, anywhere they exist.
  7. As you’ve raised the level of engagement necessary to register, make sure there’s a low-risk/low-engagement way interested people can be in the communications loop at your parish. This might mean an online sign up for an electronic newsletter, a way anyone can join a parish smartphone app, etc. As Carey Nieuwhof writes, “the online world is the biggest front door the church has ever seen, suddenly we’re all connected.” Translate this for your local setting, even if online communications aren’t the “biggest front door” for your church, what is? The sign out front? Your bulletin? etc. Whatever it is, make sure that door to communications stays wide open for those who want to get in touch for months, years, or even decades, before they take the step to engage more and join/register.
  8. Continue to assess and improve this essential pre-evangelistic and evangelistic ministry, and how it flows into follow-up moments for connection.

Optional: Caveat on Canon Law and Parish “Registration”

Parish registration is such a commonly used term in the United States, it’s easy to think that it’s part of Church teaching–something that makes Catholics, Catholic. But it’s not.

The Church teaches that a parish includes all Catholics living within a certain defined geographic area [note: in some cases, non-geographic parishes exist] (Code of Canon LawCan. 518). By living in that defined geographic area, a Catholic officially belongs to the respective parish–no form, online registration, live here six months and start tithing, etc. as necessary to canonically be a part of that parish. [For more background, see the “Canon Law Made Easy” blog.]

I would love for someone to do a historical study on the rise and history of “registration” in parishes in the United States, as it’s a cultural custom that has become widespread and oft-appealed to here, in contrast to other parts of the world. My layperson’s hypotheses is that it has something to do with our  culture of registration and membership in societies/organizations in the U.S. in general and general cultural tendencies toward “order”  (i.e. compare a communion “line” in the U.S. to places where it’s a free-for-all mass movement to the front of a church to receive the Eucharist).

Depending on your local setting, it might make more sense to avoid using the word “registration” and talk about joining, connecting to, becoming a part of, or being a member at such-and-such parish–especially if you have a large number of non-Catholics who (when it comes to Canon Law) are simply “outside” of a canonical definition of “parish.” In order to have an accurate understanding of people in your parish who are under Canon Law and those who are not, you may need to add this in your parish database, or simply understand this difference by noting a person’s religion (i.e. Catholics would be Canonical members of the parish, non-Catholics are not). But 🙂 this isn’t a big deal, because of course you’d want to know those who’ve reached out and connected to you who are not Catholic! A wonderful blessing of those who already have trust and curiosity in knowing and worshiping the Lord with us!

Everything I’ve suggested above with regards to making the process of joining/registering in a parish more relational, does not in anyway suggest or intend to change our Canonical definition of a “parish.” Being more relational is about taking an American custom of “registering” via forms and allowing it to be filled with a spirit of pre-evangelization and evangelization, so that people experience authentic love and human connection when they reach out to us.

Registration is like a front door. How warm and welcoming is yours?

Front DoorImage: “Front Door” via LuxuryLuke (Flickr)

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Lent: Rooted in Belonging

What is belonging?

When we belong, we experience fitting in, just as we are, right now. We experience being a part of something bigger than ourselves. We are able to share and give of our unique gifts, and know that these actions are welcomed and needed. We have a home, a place of acceptance, warmth, and love. The origins of the season of Lent indeed reveal the depth and power of belonging for Christians.

Lent: Not Just Individual Piety

Now, in our modern culture, many (if not most!) think of Lent as a season of individual piety for the most devout Catholic believers. Yet, the ancient origins of Lent lie in the practices of those preparing for baptism or to publicly reconcile with the Church.* These ones on the “outside” of the wider Christian community would prepare for full communion at Easter in symbolic imitation of the “40 days” of Jesus in the wilderness–an event with ties to both Moses and Elijah’s “40 days” (Mt 4:1–11, Mk 1:12-13, Luke 4:1–13, Ex 34:28, 1 Kgs 19:8). 

The Christian community implicitly grasped the profound significance of belonging. Instead of allowing those on the “outside”–the unbaptized, the un-reconciled–to engage in a Lenten preparatory period of spiritual growth alone, the entire Christian community entered into the same journey. The circle of belonging was not merely for those who were already baptized, for those who believed and behaved in ways that left no need for public reconciliation–it was for everyone. The actions of the early Church say, “We’re all in Lent together. We all belong here.” Joining the unbaptized in preparing for baptism shows that we are all sinners in need of God’s grace–we’re all imperfect yet being made perfect in love by the one who is Love.

Lent for Early Christians

What would the unbaptized, joined by the entire Christian community, actually do to prepare for baptism? Like Jesus during his post-baptismal time in the desert wilderness, Christians were encouraged to “satisfy themselves with the Word of God [more] than with bodily food,” in “bountiful benevolence” a “hunger and thirst for righteousness” to be “be filled with those kinds of food which feed us for eternity” (St. Leo, Sermon 40; Mt 5:6). Forgiving, living virtuously, caring for the poor and marginalized, and prayer become part of Lent. Acts of penance that are internal and individual, as well as external and social are encouraged (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 110). And, of special emphasis, fasting that reminds us our lives are not our own, we depend on God and others for life’s most basic needs. This culminates at Easter with a common font of the true water of life, where we all experience home–both those who are baptized and the wider community who renews baptismal vows with the same water. Jesus begins his desert time “filled with the Holy Spirit,” and at the end of his “40 days” overflows in the “power of the Spirit,” proclaiming in the words of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to announce the Good News” (Lk 4:1,14,18). We too can confidently expect the Spirit to lead us during Lent, and empower all of us who are anointed in baptism (even the most newly baptized) to announce the Good News.

In a 5th century Lenten sermon, Pope St. Leo the Great rallied believers:

“let us all together, without difference of rank, without distinction of desert, with pious eagerness pursue our race from what we have attained to what we yet aspire to.” (Sermon 40)

Becoming a church community where all experience belonging means putting aside “differences of rank”–of assuming that certain religious backgrounds, relationship statuses, family sizes, occupations, or types of people fit in the Church, your parish, or ministry, more than others. It means ensuring that we live out St. Leo’s exhortation to avoid making “distinctions of deserts”–implicitly judging or looking down on the spiritual and practical struggles of another. As St. Paul writes, “all have sinned and continue to fall short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23).   

Lent: Icon of the Entire Year

If the baptismal character and roots of Lent seem a bit lost or murky in your practical and lived experiences of Lent, then this is something to address–a wonderful opportunity for your church community! As the bishops explained at the Second Vatican Council:

The season of Lent has a twofold character: primarily by recalling or preparing for baptism and by penance, it disposes the faithful, who more diligently hear the word of God and devote themselves to prayer, to celebrate the paschal mystery. This twofold character is to be brought into greater prominence both in the liturgy and by liturgical catechesis. (Sacrosanctum Concilium [Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy], para. 109)

How to do this is left to your discernment, but the important part is to do it–allow Lent to be not merely individualistic penance, but also a powerful recalling and preparation for baptism, a solidarity among all rooted in our common need for God’s forgiveness, an authentic belonging.

This belonging embodied in Lent is what we are called to be at all times during the year. Just as the Prodigal Father runs out to meet his Prodigal, Older Son, our Lenten practices call us out of individualism and self-centeredness in our walk with Jesus to a deep solidarity with the unbaptized–a true experience of belonging for all (Lk 15:11-32). For each and every one of us, the roots of Lent reveal a call to be more humbly open to others, more open to belonging as we pursue “what we yet aspire to,” together in Jesus our Lord.  

Belong
Duncan Rawlinson @ Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

*Note The practice of imitating Jesus’ “40 days” symbolically (it was not universally precisely 40 days) was preparation for Baptism. After the Council of Nicea (325 AD), the Paschal Triduum (Easter) emerged as the ideal and preferred day for baptisms. With this, the “40 days” became more commonly located immediately prior to Easter, and the Paschal Fast that already was practiced during the 2 to 7 days prior to Easter. For those interested in the documentary evidence for this historical evolution, I recommend Paul Bradshaw and Max Johnson’s The Origins of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity (2011). 

Why Is It Hard to Make Friends After 30? And What it Has to Do with the Church

 

Friendship
Image: Kleinefotografie

A few years ago the Alex Williams of The New York Times shared a story mixing anecdote and research called “Friends of a Certain Age.” The basic question is why is it so hard for American to make [good] friends after age 30? What did he find?

 

Sociologists consider these three conditions crucial to making close friends:

  1. proximity
  2. repeated, unplanned interactions
  3. a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in one another

By one’s 30s and beyond,

“you have been through your share of wearying or failed relationships. You have come to grips with the responsibilities of juggling work, families, and existing friends, so you may become more wary about making yourself emotionally available to new people. ‘You’re more keenly aware of the downside…You’re also more keenly aware of your own capacity to disappoint.” (Williams)

Friendship and Church?

John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard Church (and movement), observed: “People come to church for a variety of reasons, but they stay for only one—friendship.” This principle drives the ambiance and culture of Alpha, but it can mean so much more for churches.

I’m in my 30s right now and it’s an interesting* decade of life. Many Americans are starting families, highly engaged with the bustle of school-aged children, or entering a new realm of parenting teenagers. Many of us have relocated, are relocating, or will relocate for jobs or family. Many consider changes in life style or career in their 30s, or struggle with questions of purpose, ambition, and vision (Miller, “The Ambition Collision”). Some go through a divorce/separation, or end a long-term dating relationship. For those who identify as no particular religion, it can be a time of completing a process of “adulthood” by forming some personal conclusions about the meaning of life, human nature, and more. For all these reasons and more, it’s a time when deepening or developing friendships can be a practical challenge, yet when the fruit of friendship is profoundly needed. 

Proximity, Repeated Interactions, and Openness

When churches can offer settings where adults can let their guard down, and engage in many, repeat, unplanned interactions, then friendships are born. Unfortunately, a lot of what many of our churches do well is exactly the opposite of this–classes, lectures, coffee/donuts, structured small group discussion, prayer, worship, etc. These things are good without doubt, but they are not the most fertile ground for forming new friendships.

Settings for being, not doing or accomplishing a certain task/learning are key. But they must be inviting. For decades, Youth Ministries have grasped the importance of informal socialization among teens. This human desire doesn’t disappear when teens become adults. It takes more creativity though to envision what this might look like for your specific setting–maybe it’s centered around certain career interests, maybe it involves hobbies or maker-spaces (note: many public libraries have evolved into offering these types of public gatherings–check out yours for ideas!), maybe it’s an appealing environment for families to gather and play, maybe it’s appealing food/drink. Many studies have shown Americans becoming less and less social. This is a challenge (because we work against this tide by cultivating opportunities for this through churches), but also an opportunity to help adults experience connection to each other, to develop friendships that will keep them coming back, maybe coming to something more overtly “spiritual.”

God is a communion of divine persons, the closest, most perfect friendship imaginable–something we can never completely experience on this earth. This longing for communion is written into us as human beings, created in His image and likeness. Our intentionality in helping adults cultivate friendship helps them experience God, even if in a very small way–something especially valuable for adults in their 30s, and more broadly, for all of us!

* = note, I’m only half-way through…so maybe the rest will be boring 😉 just saying…it’s always a possibility 🙂

A Glimpse of Parish Life as a “None” Parent via”Losing Our Religion”

9781479883202_fullFor the past week, we’ve been diving into key points and applications from Christel Manning’s “Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children”. In closing, I’m sharing her own personal experience encountering a Catholic parish as a “None” parent. I’m thankful to Manning for incorporating her own personal experiences into her valuable work of sociology.

Manning, like many other parents who identify as “None,” experienced new questions during the “early childhood” stage of her daughter, Sheila. Embodying the diversity of her framework for understanding the beliefs of Nones and range of options to offer worldview formation for their children, Manning took up the recommendation of a Catholic friend, and enrolled her daughter in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd at her local parish. Here’s her reflection:

The teacher leading the program was a lovely woman, gentle and non-dogmatic and so good with kids. My husband was initially opposed to any kind of church-based education, but I convinced him to give it a try…I enrolled Sheila for the first year. She loved it…When we went to England for Christmas, my husband’s family was duly impressed with Sheila’s knowledge of religion…At the end of the school year, however, the doctrinal basis of the program became more clear. The first year curriculum, geared to very young children, was centered on the idea that God is a good shepherd who will take care of you–a fairly generic concept that I could accept. By contrast, the second-year curriculum involved teaching children the Catholic creed and preparing them for first communion. I did not feel comfortable with that. Parents were encouraged to attend church with their children, and in talking to other parents I realized that everybody else was actually doing that. I felt like a fraud. So the next Sunday, I went to mass and I took Sheila with me…There were rousing hymns singing glory to God, prayers, a reading from the Bible, a homily on a topic I cannot remember people lined up to receive communion. The hymns struck me as militaristic, the Bible reading felt irrelevant to my life,and the prayers reminded me that I do not believe in God. Sheila was bored and fidgety. I was bored and alienated. It was clear this was not the right path for us. I was disappointed, but also relieved. (192)

Take Aways

  1. What appealed to Manning?
    • the recommendation of her Catholic friend, who did not hesitate to share an experience that was positive for her child with her “None” friend —> personal endorsement/invitation is the most powerful marketing
    • about Catechesis of the Good Shepherd? We see it in her own layperson’s description, “a Montessori-based two-year program for preschoolers and kindergarten age children that allows children to choose from various religion-themed play activities rather than imposing a unified curriculum on them” (192). While this is incomplete in a technical sense (i.e. Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is in Catholic language a “systematic” catechesis and stretches to age 12) it reveals what resonated with a “None” parent —> our marketing “key words” for outsiders do not need to be what’s most theologically important to us “church folks”
    • the Level 1 (ages 3-6) emphasis that “God is a good shepherd who will take care of you” was experienced by Manning as pre-evangelistic, it connected to her existing values –> the Church’s teaching on the role of pre-evangelization should not be overlooked 🙂
  2. As described in her research, it was her interest that convinced her husband to allow the “testing the water” in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. After the child’s interests/needs, spouses exert the second most powerful “push” to explore religious worldviews. And it’s usually the woman. –> #MarketToMoms #ConnectWithMoms

  3. Those familiar with Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) will notice that Manning’s perceptive description isn’t quite accurate, i.e. our “insider” understanding of different “Levels” each spanning approximately three years is not clear to her. And this isn’t her fault, she’s not trying to be a catechetical expert (and yes, the parish mentioned runs typical Level 1 and 2 CGS programs). This impacts her expectations and understanding. –> When describing catechetical programs to parents, let’s remember that they don’t have the time to research or prepare to be familiar with our “insider” language.

  4. Manning takes her daughter to Mass. (!!!) Did you catch that? How blessed are we to receive such seekers in our midst! Remember, Manning is a “None,” her husband initially opposed the idea of having their daughter attend Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, Manning herself already feels “uncomfortable,” and yet, she still goes. This is a huge leap on her part. –> Our attitude toward seekers should respect and honor the risks they’ve already taken to encounter us on “our turf,” rather than veil a disdainful or critical, “where have you been all these years?” We rejoice (note Jesus’ 3 parables in Lk 15) that the Holy Spirit has led them this far.
  5. Manning finds the Eucharistic homily at Mass to be forgettable. –> #AlwaysBeEvangelizing. While Mass isn’t “for” seekers, seekers are present. Preaching matters–it’s worth spending the time, bringing in the team, and preparing for the sake of those who might only be giving Mass one try.

  6. The music and lectors didn’t captivate Manning either –> Movements like Amazing ParishRebuilt, and Divine Renovation all emphasize the importance of the “Sunday Experience.” They’re right. (Other evidence supports this too).
  7. Manning’s daughter was bored and fidgety. –> While liturgically oriented Catholics may love having their young children with them at Mass, it’s unlikely a seeker or “None” will find that experience life-giving. We shouldn’t force them to by failing to care enough to offer a memorable and engaging experience for their children. It was Sheila who indirectly “brought” her mother to Mass this time–imagine if Sheila had spent the car-ride home telling her mom about the kids she met, how much she loved the singing, how fun it was–many parents would come back a second time (or more!) simply because their child had a great experience. That’s how us parents work 🙂

Again, I’m grateful to Christel Manning for sharing so personally in the conclusion of her book. Rarely do we get such a detailed description of how a “None” parent/child can go from non-attending, to catechesis, and even make it to Mass. 

Having concluded this series on Losing Our Religion, what new thoughts are you thinking about “Nones” as parents?

“Losing Our Religion” — Key Point #5, Nobody Likes a Seemingly “Forced” Religious Identity

9781479883202_fullParents who identify as “None” worry about their kids just as much as religious folks.

Key Point #5: “None” Parents Worry. But Nobody Likes a Forced Identity

As Christel Manning observes in,  “Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children”:

“Unchurched Believer* parents often worried when their children showed no interest in religion.” (164)

At the same time:

“Another parent, a Philosophical Secularist whose teenagers had become born-again Christians, worried about their future while trying hard to remain true to his commitment world view choice. The hardest thing as a parent was, as he remarked, ‘not to criticize them when they became Christian.’ Instead, he hoped ‘the children will find their way back [to something closer to the parent’s worldview] when they go off to college.” (164)

Parenting is not for the feign of heart! Regardless of whether or not a parent identifies with a religion, parents worry about what worldviews their children absorb and identify with.

None parents especially value what sociologists call an “achieved identity”–meaning a person’s act of choosing beliefs/worldview–rather than an “ascribed identity” where a worldview is embodied simply because someone was raised that way (58).

*Note: for descriptions of Unchurched Believer Nones, Philosophical Secularist Nones, and more check out my series on “Losing Our Religion”  here.

Ministry Applications

What’s the “so what” for us?

  • We can think of ourselves as partners with None parents, even if we do not share the same beliefs. The None parent who laments their child’s lack of interest in religion is someone we can empathize with, without an attitude of, “well, what did you expect?!? not having faith yourself!” Likewise, the Secularist parent who is shocked that their teen is attending parish LifeTeen with friends can still be invited to be part of the community in a way that doesn’t force belief (i.e. invitations to potlucks, etc.)–this shows love. They’ll appreciate knowing that you care for them and their child, regardless of beliefs.
  • None parents value the idea of choice (“achieved identity” not “ascribed identity”). Offering opportunities to explore the rationality of Christian belief resonate with those seeking to make an “informed” decision.
  • That our contemporary culture places a positive value on “achieved identity” isn’t a bad thing! It’s the cultural context that allows non-Catholics to perceive a freedom to come explore Catholic Christianity. Historically, the normative experience of Christians in the early Church was indeed a “believer’s” baptism and profession of faith. It was a choice during the centuries when the # of “born Christians” was fewer than the number of “convert Christians.” We need not fear elements from our Tradition that emphasize this.
  • Given this cultural context, it’s important that we emphasize opportunities for those who were “raised in the faith” (aka “ascribed identity”) to also experience “achieved identity” without “switching” to a new religion. Talking about Baptism in the Holy Spirit, deliberately preparing for and reflecting on the meaning of renewing one’s baptismal vows at Easter, and more from our Catholic faith are ready-made for this! 🙂
  • We can also explore how to avoid giving children, teens, or parents the perceptive experience having been “forced” into an initiation sacrament–something that would “feel” like “ascribed identity.” Catechesis of the Good Shepherd models this with regards to a child receiving Eucharist, explaining, “at the annual announcement of the celebration of first communion, the children respond according to the desire for the sacrament and their personal maturity, which is discerned with the help of the family, the catechists and the priest.” With regards to Confirmation, check out these reflections from Fr. Gareth Leyshon of St. Philip Evans,  Chris Wesley of St. Joseph Parish & Marathon Youth Ministry, and Fr. Peter Dugandzic of Blessed Sacrament Parish. Interestingly, our Tradition does not mandate a precise age for sacraments of initiation, instead offering guidepost-based ranges and language that include parental insight into discernment, for example:
    • on Confirmation, the Code of Canon Law (CIC) states, “Parents and pastors of souls…are to take care that the faithful are properly instructed to receive the sacrament and come to it at the appropriate time” (can. 890)
    • on Reconciliation and Eucharist, the CIC explains, “It is primarily the duty of parents and those who take the place of parents, as well as the duty of pastors, to take care that children who have reached the use of reason are prepared properly and, after they have made sacramental confession, are refreshed with this divine food as soon as possible” (can. 914)

Feel free to offer your own insights, observations, and applications of Manning’s book in the Comment box. 

 

“Losing Our Religion” — Key Point #4, None Doesn’t Mean Nothing [When It Comes to Worldview Formation]

9781479883202_fullKnowing that Nones are the fastest growing “religious group” in the United States, it’s natural to wonder–so what exactly do “Nones” teach their children when it comes to religion or other worldview questions?

Christel Manning’s  “Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children” offers new insight into the diversity within this growing population of parents in the U.S. (If interested, check out other key takeaways from her book here).

Key Point #4: How Nones Form Their Children’s Worldviews

When it Comes to Worldview, What Do Nones Do To Raise Their Children? (Table 5.1)

Characteristics (across)

Options for Incorporating Worldview into Upbringing of Child (below)

Intentionally incorporate worldview into home life Enroll child in institution that transmits worldview Change in parent affiliation
conventional Yes (Judaism, Christianity) Yes (CCD, Sunday School, Hebrew School, etc.) From None to Christian or Jewish denomination
alternative Yes (secular philosophy or seeker spirituality) Yes (plural worldview education) Yes (from None to UU or AHA)
self-provider Yes No No
outsourcing No Yes (CCD, Sunday school, Hebrew School) No
non-provider No No No

What we see in the chart is that Manning identified five general “types” of how None parents seek to transmit worldviews to their children–conventional, alternative, self-provider, outsourcing, non-provider.  She concludes:

There is more variety in how Nones raise their children than existing research would imply. It is not just a choice between doing nothing and going back to church (136).

And on top of this, contemporary American religious life has a general “fluidity,” so Nones (like all Americans) are likely to shift between methods (whether deliberately or not). 

Ministry Applications

What to think?

  • Manning suggests, “These five options for incorporating worldviews into the upbringing of a child could, theoretically, be applied to churched parents as well” (p. 186) –> Yes! In Children’s Ministries we can grow in awareness that even our faithful churched parents have different methods for sharing the faith at home. Since in Catholic teachings the parent is the primary catechist, how we in ministry empower and support parents is critical.
  • Many Nones take a “conventional” approach, which means they come to church programs and often even change their affiliation as a result, this is a significant opportunity!
  • “Outsourcing” parents represent a more challenging opportunity–the kids are at church, but nothing at home. Capturing the interest of these parents is likely the special task for our discernment and on-going consideration. It’s not easy in a busy world, but there’s a point of trust with their child to build on.
  • There’s a place for marketing children’s ministry outside of parish communities. None parents are clearly in the marketplace for “institutions” and organizations to offer formation for their children. They might select your program for completely non-religious reasons (i.e. the environment is engaging, the schedule works, etc.) — this is an opportunity for outreach.

As always, feel free to offer your own insights, observations, and applications in the Comment box. 

 

“Losing Our Religion” — Key Point #3, Your Local Mission Field Matters

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How Nones perceive your church and ministry varies tremendously depending on your location. Understanding that perception–what it’s like to be an Unaffiliated person in your community–increases our ability to empathize and connect with Nones.

In  “Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children”, Christel Manning’s interviews with parents who identify as “None” reveal distinct differences between how these parents perceive religious people and communities depending on the local/regional culture.

Key Point #3: Knowing Your Local Mission Field Matters

Here’s what Manning observed, None parents in two cities with high religious affiliation rates, Colorado Springs and Jacksonville:

believe that the majority of people in their communities disapprove of having no religion….[while] I found no evidence of Nones being persecuted or discriminated against…these narratives must stand as expressions of subjective parent experience…Nones in these cities expressed a sense of being embattled (80-81). 

On the flip side, in New England:

The presumed privacy of religion had a clear impact on how parents think about its role in the lives of their children….[Nones] tended to see local churches and synagogues as benign, a kind of useful resource that you can draw on when you need it (i.e. Jewish Community Center day care, the Catholic high school with a great hockey team)…religion or secularity for New England parents was not a source of cultural embattlement and social tension (87).

Ministry Applications

What to make of these differences?

  • Never discount the perceptive reality of others, especially outsiders. While it might not be accurate (Manning noted there was no actual discrimination in the cities of high religious affiliation), the accuracy isn’t the central point. A perceptive/experience is not to be debated. “Perception becomes reality” as the conventional wisdom goes.
  • It’s our job to be more accommodating and loving of those who are wounded, or perceive being isolated or not belonging in a religious community. In a community setting where a None family might feel “embattled,” this unconditional love is greatly needed. We can surprise them with acceptance, non-judgemental friendship, listening, and openess.
  • In a community where religious “privacy” is the norm, churches and ministries can expect None families to show up at programs/events that seem “benign” to them–this is an opportunity to be ready for.
  • There aren’t going to be in-depth studies on every region and sub-region in the U.S., so as churches it’s up to us to do some reconnaissance, do scouting, do focus groups, get out of our “comfortable” circles to listen/learn what the None experience is like and what perceptions they may have of religious organizations.

Stay tuned in the coming days for more key points and applications from this study! And, as always, feel free to offer your own insights, observations, and applications in the Comment box.