In my last post I argued the ongoing importance of our online presence, including live streaming weekend Masses. It will be more important post-COVID than it was before. At the same time, this in no way suggests that attendance, physical presence, and, of course, the reception of Holy Communion at church are unimportant. They’re critical.
Recently I was speaking with a life-long, never-miss-a-Sunday kind of Catholic. He volunteered the information that even though he’s fully vaccinated and all State-wide restrictions have been lifted, he hasn’t yet come back to church. He eats out at restaurants, he goes into the office daily, I ran into him at Starbucks, but he hasn’t come back to church in 15 months. I asked him if he would mind telling me why. He answered “I really don’t know why.”
Let me try and answer for him. Perhaps:
- he no longer feel safe in a crowd.
- he’s still afraid of the whole COVID threat and wants to remain as safe as possible.
- he’s comfortable watching from home and it’s so much less hassle when it comes to his kids.
But maybe there’s a much more basic reason. Maybe he hasn’t come back to church because he’s fallen out of the habit of it. Church attendance is no longer a part of his lifestyle, it has no place in his schedule. He’s learned to live without it and so far that’s working out just fine for him. And he’s not alone.
Maybe church attendance is no longer a part of their lifestyle, it has no place in their schedule. They’ve learned to live without it and so far that’s working out just fine for him. And they’re not alone. What do we do with this?Tweet
In an era of declining church attendance, the COVID ordeal has powerfully accelerated this trend. Since seating restrictions were lifted here in Maryland, we’ve been experiencing weekend attendance at about 1/3 our pre-COVID attendance. In other churches we’ve been talking to this is consistent with their experience as well: 30-50% of pre-COVID attendance. If these patterns continue it would be nothing less than a calamity for the Church in this country.
What to do? Well, there are lots of things parishes can do to meet the moment and respond to this challenge, like improving the online experience (to inspire viewers to want to come to church). It’s always helpful to work on the music and the message, and you can consistently encourage attendees to become your ambassadors (I discuss this in a previous post). We’re actually talking about doing a message series on the Eucharist and the importance of Holy Communion.
Hopefully these are all positive, effective steps. But to really reverse this situation more will be needed. That more is actually nothing less than a total change of perspective from attendance to engagement.
Attendance to Engagement
For generations the prevailing culture in many churches, Catholic and otherwise, has been a consumer culture: people church “shopped” for what was convenient, comfortable, close. People looked for the parish with the style of music they liked or a consistent message that “fed” them. Sitting passively in the pew week after week easily translated into sitting passively on their living room sofa for Mass. It is what COVID era consumer Catholicism looked like.
Again, I hasten to add, we’re the chief proponents of online church. And there is nothing wrong with finding a church you like, or being a consumer. As long as you don’t stay just a consumer. What has happened this past year is that the consumer connection has been weakened, and now it is only a click away from non-existent. If we can’t get people up out of their pew (or their sofa) we’re going to lose them.
What has happened this past year is that the consumer connection has been weakened, and now it is only a click away from non-existent. If we can’t get people up out of their pew (or their sofa) we’re going to lose them.Tweet
Engagement is all about STEPS:
Engaged parishioners Serve in ministry to the parish or missions in the community, they’re outwardly focused.
Engaged parishioners Tithe or give, supporting the parish and the outreach of the parish financially.
Engaged parishioners Engage in small group life, forming friends in faith to grow in faith and go deeper.
Engaged parishioners Practice prayer daily and join in the Eucharist weekly. Their engagement can also include devotionals such as the Rosary, the practice of fasting, and regular use of the Sacrament of Penance.
Engaged parishioners Share their faith with family and friends. They invest in those relationships and, when given the opportunity, invite them to church.
In this unsteady post-COVID period, don’t worry about your attendance. Start taking a closer look at your engagement.
Only God can bring growth, but he uses engaged people to make it happen.