Things are certainly abuzz around the Catholic Church in America these days. With less than a week until Pope Francis’ historic first visit to the United States, some heavy theological debates on the table, and a whirlwind year of intense political change and debate, it’s hard to stay focused on our parish ministry.
On the other hand, our basic parish mission of evangelization and discipleship have never been more critical. A recent Pew Research Center survey indicates that 45% of Americans either identify as Catholic or report being connected to Catholicism in some way. In the same survey, another finding indicates that among adults who say they were raised Catholic, just over half (52%) have left the church at some point in their life (although about 11% of those who left later returned at some point).
It’s painful and demoralizing for church leaders to face this kind of data. The best thing we can do is to decide not to hide, but to learn from this information. Here are a few simple principles I think can be gleaned from the Pew data.
Small Groups Matter
While the official Church cannot affirm the equal value of every family arrangement, we need to have a place where every individual will feel welcome and have room to grow spiritually, including the divorced and remarried. Parish based small group fellowship programs are a great place to engage adults with one another to provide needed support and on-going faith formation.
Children & Student Ministry Matter
Everyone wants the best for their children, and churches need to show they do too. Moreover, parents nowadays often follow their children, so creating an engaging children’s ministry will keep parents connected with your church. When you can successfully engage teens parents are even more impressed.
In the survey many people indicate work with the poor is essential to their expression of faith. Although we want to avoid faith that’s just masked social activism, various service opportunities can be a really approachable entry point for unchurched people.
In our action-oriented society, a broad array of well-done ministries can be excellent opportunities for incorporating the personalities and gifts of those who would otherwise avoid church interaction.
From the data, you might be tempted to think these things don’t matter. To some people they might not, but most people feel strongly about what they do believe. Even holding strong to orthodox Catholic beliefs, as we do at Nativity, we find what really keeps many people away isn’t doctrine, but when we do church as if it doesn’t matter.