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Evangelization Making Church Matter

What If They Don’t Come Back?

February 15, 2021

Recently a friend forwarded to me an “OSV Talk” (think Catholic “Ted Talk”) given by Dan Cellucci, with Catholic Leadership Institute. The piece, titled “What If They Don’t Come Back?”, is a candid look at the reality of the ever-shrinking population of church-going Americans and the effect the pandemic will have on this well-established trend. I highly recommend taking some time to listen to Cellucci and, if you’re working in a church, discussing it with your leadership team.

Bottom line for Cellucci: “they” are not coming back.

The long, steady decline in Mass attendance (and church giving and volunteering) that most Catholic parishes have experienced for the last 40 to 50 years is only being accelerated during the current crisis. In just months, we have arrived at a point it might otherwise have taken a decade to reach, presenting an immediate and existential threat to parishes across the country. The whole scenario is met by many in church world with a decided lack of imagination and overreliance on a church culture that values existing systems and established procedures over outcomes.

Cellucci argues this need not necessarily be the calamity it appears to be however. He acknowledges that the church culture that “they” would have been coming back to was already deeply dysfunctional and in steep decline. Why would we want to return to that?

What is needed instead is a dramatic paradigm shift to equip parishes for a new season of life post-COVID. In the new paradigm, healthy, growing parishes will:

  • Reject the insularity of programming and preaching for insiders, and focus on the unchurched
  • View emerging technologies as opportunities for evangelization rather than threats from a hostile culture
  • Embrace a dynamic orthodoxy that is deeply faithful to the Liturgy while seeking opportunities for new interpretations and expressions of timeless traditions

Personally, I believe that there are three major initiatives that need to be the foundation of this paradigm shift, which we are already committed to here at Nativity.

Embracing Online Church

I’ll say it upfront before the critics chime in: the Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith and the heartbeat of our parishes, and in-person attendance is required in order to enter into its fullness. But, let’s face the facts: the “obligation” was already largely ignored pre-COVID and for more than some of our regulars Mass attendance was mostly a habit. Now, the habit has been broken and the obligation lifted (currently) with little chance of ever again being (effectively) reimposed. Even after we can return to full capacity at our churches, I believe in-person Mass attendance will continue to be no more than a once or twice-a-month reality for our “regulars” and many more will transition to only occasional attendance.

Online church must be embraced as the “side door” of our church that these “regulars” and “occasionals” can come in and out of, staying connected to and engaged in the life of the parish. It’s also a wonderful destination for the homebound or those traveling for vacation to stay connected to worship.

But online church is also already the “front door” where visitors and newcomers will give your church a try. Under the old paradigm, we were likely to pay little attention to such “tourists.” Now we must see them as potential disciples and contributing members. Engagement will keep them on that path. Engagement, not obligation or attendance, is the new metric in this new paradigm.

In this COVID period, our online church has been the principal way/place where the parish gathers on the weekend. I believe that will also be the case post-COVID: online will be the principal way the parish gathers each week, where most of your parishioners will be.

Online church is already the “front door” where newcomers will give your church a try. Under the old paradigm, we were likely to pay little attention to such “tourists.” Now we must see them as potential disciples and contributors.

Parishes that will be successful moving forward (aside from small “boutique” churches with ready-made congregations built around particular theological associations or liturgical styles) will be those who invest heavily in their online church experience. Sound, lighting, and multiple camera angles all contribute to the communication of your message. These will all be important considerations in the quality of a parish’s online broadcast and key factors in whether parishioners are willing to stay connected and keep coming back. But more than that, the lesson is that a great weekend experience online will be the number one driving force in bringing many people back to in-person attendance.

Programing for the Next Generation

In the old paradigm, kids and student programs were often undervalued and underfunded. This cannot continue moving forward. This is because the other factor that will effectively drive adults back to church is their kids and grandkids. If young people want to come, the adults will follow. That means new investment in kids and student programs is essential:

  • expanded nursery services with real programming that’s more than just babysitting
  • fresh and creative programs of religious education/faith formation, and children’s Liturgy of the Word for kids, and dynamic student programs
  • vibrant, dedicated spaces for next-generation programs, greater use of video and technology

That last point is an especially important one. Technology is an integral part of building community among your younger members. Our next-generation team has actually found that students are more engaged when their weekly message is presented as a video in a small group setting than they were when it was delivered in-person at the larger group gathering.

Technology can also enable teens to get the support of their small groups even while traveling or when their many commitments would otherwise have gotten in the way. More intimate settings, with the right use of technology, can bring more engagement, not less.

In the old paradigm, kids and student programs were often undervalued and underfunded. This cannot continue moving forward. A key factor that will effectively drive adults back to church is their kids and grandkids.

Engaging in Small Groups

Increasingly in the old paradigm, parishes probably saw their primary focus as supplying the sacraments and the delivery of content (homilies, religious-ed, adult-ed, etc.). The unspoken theory was that the regular reception of the sacraments and the infusion of content would make disciples. It didn’t.

The majority of Catholics were already walking away from the sacraments pre-COVID and there is an internet filled with more free content than anyone could ever want, even spiritual content.

The parishes that are going to survive and thrive through and beyond COVID will be successfully engaging, equipping, and inspiring their adult parishioners.

At Nativity, our adult “faith formation” is actually our small group program. Small groups are the easiest, most effective, and most sustainable way to grow the faith of your parishioners. If a parishioner is in a small group, they’re far likelier to give, to serve, to keep in touch through online church, and…return to in-person attendance.

Adapting to the new paradigm will be difficult, and undoubtedly the Church will look very different in the future. But parishes that embrace this opportunity rather than get lost in wishful thinking for a romanticized past will be healthier and stronger than ever before.

Check out Cellucci’s talk and let us know what you think in the comments below:


You can get inspiration from Nativity’s resources for online church, kids and student programs and small groups at


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  1. Thank you Fr. White, once again for your forward thinking and genuine love of our Catholic faith. You preach the words so many need to hear. Continued prayers for your work and ministry. Know that your reach extends well beyond your Maryland borders for those of us who don’t have a community like Nativity.

  2. I believe “they” can come back. It’s going to take a lot of work. It starts with awareness of the different categories of “Not Coming Back” people.

    1. Breaking the Habit. Your entry, Father, details with this group. We are talking people who like online Mass and have no intention of regular church attendance, if at all. Some may even have detached themselves completely from the Church.

    2. Political Animals. These are the people who are mad at church political positions. They go as high as His Holiness and to the priest in the local church. This person will still go to church but a different one. The problem with that is this person will eventually run into a disagreement over something and start the cycle over again.

    3. The Betrayed. This person feels the Church betrayed people by folding to the demands of secular, anti-religious forces. Whether true or not, this a perception that has to be addressed.

    4. The Angry COVID Person,. This person is excited to return to church. The excitement turns to rage when a priest or an usher makes a COVID point they disagree with. One conversation could be an usher saying, “These COVID measures were necessary,” to which The Angry COVID Person replies, “I didn’t get to see my grandfather a year before he died.” Another conversation could be a priest saying, “Masks aren’t necessary,” and you know he’s going to deal with angry parishioners and donor bullies.

    5. Just Not the Same. This person finds church not to be the same as before and decides not to come back.

    6. Don’t Tell Me What to Do. This person is going to hate arrows telling them where to go.l This person is going to hate being told where to sit and when to leave. If registering for Mass is still a thing, that person is going to put down Larry Hogan or in Baltimore County’s case, Johnny O’s name. It reminds me of a two-panel political cartoon. It showed a guy in grocery a store with a list of rules pertaining to COVID (mask-wearing, social distancing, one-way aisles, bagging your own bags). The next panel shows the guy placing a grocery order online.

    7. COVID Fear. We are going to have people who will avoid large crowds. Some will go to church nonetheless but will wear masks and handshakes, both for instance. Those people may find themselves in debates with people about their “paranoia,” and views on COVID protocols.

  3. I’ve had that basic fear…… “what if they don’t come back”, for awhile. Church to me, is the core of my existence. It’s more than a habit, to me.
    I’m upset that I didn’t register for Easter Mass early enough. I will go to the parking lot, but it won’t be the same as being in the church. It’s the same concern/comment as heard (Christmas or Easter) (before Covid), “where were you people the rest of the year”!!!! Yet a pastor once said, “you are loved and a part of us, we missed you”, (rather than scolding them).
    Yes, we must find new means or methods to pull them in. It may not be easy to do. I don’t know what part I can play in that struggle, (I’m 74) but I can’t go out without church remaining a vital part of the life of my family, friends, associates. I’m searching.

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