When our parish was founded 50 years ago, there was an established way in which a parish was a parish. Just follow the playbook and all will be well. Looking back, it was probably that very year of 1968 that served as a threshold to cataclysmic cultural and social changes that have changed everything, including the way we need to do church…though many parishes insist on operating out of the old play book. Here are just five things (and there are many more) that no longer work.
1. Build It and They Will Come.
When Nativity was built it was correctly assumed that most Catholics who lived in our 21093 zip code would come to
their assigned parish most Sundays. That is no longer true.
As Carey Nieuwhof says “The average unchurched person doesn’t think about going to church anymore than the average Christian thinks about going to synagogue. It just doesn’t cross their mind.” Just opening the front doors on Sunday morning and expecting a crowd is not even a strategy for survival, much less growth. Parishes need a plan for reaching the unchurched in their community and it needs to be driven through their entire culture.
2. Guilt Them and They Will Obey.
In the Catholic Church Lent is the season, above every other season, when the old school appeal to guilt and obligation kicks into high gear. But it’s a favorite tool in the toolbox throughout the year too. There are very few people who respond positively to this approach, which wasn’t even especially well received back when people accepted and respected the authority of the Church. Today guilt and obligation about church attendance and religious rule keeping appeals only to the people who are already keeping the rules, because it validates their choice and incriminates everyone else. But it’s not changing any hearts.
To announce from the pulpit, “Catholics are forbidden to eat meat on Fridays,” is not growing disciples who appreciate the spiritual value of abstinence, and it’s not convincing anyone to pass on the cheeseburger.
3. Make It All About Them.
The flip side of the guilt approach also no longer works. Parishes easily become self-centered, comforting and coddling insiders (and inevitably become inaccessible to outsiders). Their mission becomes all about service to their members. Nothing is less attractive to the unchurched than a self-centered church.
4. Give Them Random Programs and Fundraisers.
Parishes that are self-centered, and not mission driven, become boring, even the self-serving parishioners are bored. To ward off the boredom these churches throw in seasonal or even random programs or better yet fundraisers (so you can mix it up and make a little extra cash). Here at Nativity they had bull roasts, bingo nights, fashion shows (fashion shows!).
Many parishes have one seasonal fundraiser after another: a Halloween haunted house, Christmas Tree sale, Mardi Gras, a Spring Carnival. Too often this is what churches do while they’re not making disciples.
5. Let Them Do What We’ve Always Done.
It is amazing to me how this one won’t go away, even when nearly everyone would admit it needs to. It is a default for church world, our go to position when we’re not vigilant. I readily admit that it can be true around here, even now. Parishes have got to be honestly evaluating programs and services, as well as underlying strategy, with a constant commitment to go with what God is blessing and letting go of the rest.
For another, and more complete, take on this check out careynieuwhof.com