We can see it. Church attendance is down. We view people who attend Mass monthly as our “engaged Catholics.” Those who attended out of habit and lukewarm faith fell out of the practice of coming to church when we closed parishes for the Covid-19 pandemic. Do we even need to go to church? 63% of ACST’s most recent American Beliefs Study respondents say “No.” If we look at Catholic responses, an astonishing 69% say believing in Jesus does not require participating in a church!
This is especially troublesome for Catholics. Mass is the celebration of the sacrament of the Eucharist, the most treasured gift of the Church. This sacrament, where we receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, is the source and summit of our faith.
Section 3 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes it clear that we should participate in the communal celebration of the Eucharist and why it is important:
“2182 Participation in the communal celebration of the Sunday Eucharist is a testimony of belonging and of being faithful to Christ and his Church. The faithful give witness by this to their communion in faith and charity. Together they testify to God’s holiness and their hope of salvation. They strengthen one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
Yet our mission is to bring others into a relationship. One that provides an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to act in their hearts and minds. So how or why have Christians lost the connection to participating in church? Some challenges result from technological and societal shifts. They allow us to be more independent and therefore lose some of our perceived need for community. And some of it is our church community!
Reasons we are not attending
People may respond that “believing in Jesus does not require participation in a church” because the church is not inspiring or helping them in their belief. Respondents to the recent American Beliefs study are more likely to say they have a relationship with one God and that Jesus was both divine and human. Despite higher agreement with beliefs, the percentage who do not think they need to participate in church increased from 50% to 64% overall. People have left the church but not the faith. The top three reasons respondents use for not participating in church, according to the American Beliefs study, are:
- Religious people are too judgmental.
- They don’t trust organized religion.
- Religion is too focused on money.
These, along with the other top reasons, infer that our parishes and churches have become accustomed to doing things a certain way and no longer works for large numbers of people. In From Christendom to Apostolic Mission: Pastoral Strategies for an Apostolic Age, Msgr. Shea writes: “In a Christendom culture the Church as a whole is tempted to lose its spiritual and otherworldly character and to become merely a this-worldly body, a department of state or a promising career path, a center of civilized activities rather than the mystical body of Christ…Attending to the moral and ritual life of the church can become perfunctory, valued only for immediately tangible effects.”
Programs of programs
Not only our churches but our parish communities have become a program of programs, losing the messiness of caring for people as individuals who are all in different states of belief and participation.
The mix of factors has left us lonely and disconnected. In their research on 13-25-year-olds, Springtide Research found that “one in three of our young people feel completely alone much of the time,” and “nearly 40% have no one to talk to and feel completely left out.” As the number of trusted adults in a young person’s life increases, the feelings of loneliness and isolation dramatically decrease.
The importance of belonging has also been established by Gallup. And the research by Al Winesman in Growing an Engaged Church. People experience a higher degree of engagement in church when they feel they belong as part of the community, which leads them to even more profound belief.
When asked what we seek in a church, the top response is “warm and friendly encounters.” For Catholics responding to the American Beliefs Study, the top three responses were:
- Warm and friendly encounters
- Celebration of the sacraments
- Quality sermons
These responses provide our parish’s insight into priorities for the parish community and the celebration of Mass.
Three actions for Parish Leaders to inspire attendance:
In addition to serving and inspiring parishioners, make visitors a priority. Assign a team of people at every Mass and celebration to look for people they don’t recognize. Engage with them, gather their contact information, and follow up. The next step is to create ways for people to do activities other than Mass. As a starting point to get to know you and your community. Foster opportunities to build trust by allowing people to move at their own pace. Father Mallon proposes Alpha in Divine Renovation as a program that can help you make this initial start.
Excellence in Mass and Sacraments.
Place high importance and priority on every aspect of Mass, starting with welcome and hospitality, through the appearance of the sanctuary, to the music and liturgy, so the experience is mystical and inspiring. Our celebration of the sacrament of the Eucharist should be special, mystical, beautiful, and awe-inspiring. Take time for the candles and bells and the overall reverence of the atmosphere. Both for traditional and highly contemporary celebrations. Referring to the first point, look for opportunities to celebrate Mass in styles accessible to the full community. Fr. White and Tom Corcoran continue to refine these concepts through the coaching apostolate Rebuilt Parish.
Even if you consider yourself a good homilist, please get people to review your homilies. Get refresher training on speaking, organizing a talk, and defining your message. The homily/sermon is one opportunity to teach, guide, challenge, and inspire!
Jesus without Church
Belief in Jesus may not require church participation, but it quickly becomes a lonely belief without sustenance. Our church must create opportunities for the experience of a community that provides that sustenance. As Fr. Mallon says in Divine Renovation: Beyond the Parish, “… in the twenty-first century, it is difficult for people to believe in Jesus without first experiencing the sense of acceptance and love that comes with belonging to a community rooted in Jesus.”
Terry Poplava is a multi-disciplined executive with extensive sales, product marketing, strategy, and leadership experience in supporting faith organizations. Terry’s professional experience includes organizational leadership, corporate development, and growth. Consulting with and training church leaders and leading strategic and priority planning for churches and dioceses. He currently serves on the advisory board for the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche in St. Augustine, FL. As cantor at St. Andrew parish in Myrtle Beach, SC. And as Chairman of the Finance Council at St. Mary the Virgin Mother parish in Hartsville, SC.