Getting people to go to Church on Sunday: addressing the malady and not merely the symptom

This article was published in the ChristLife Magazine at the request of Dianne Davis and David Nodar of ChristLife.

As Christians, our “mission statement” is very clear: “Go out and make disciples of all the nations. Baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you, and know that I am with you always, even until the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:19-20) Any parish that is truly striving to be faithful to our call to be disciples and to have a missionary spirit rather than simply being stuck imakediscipleswpn maintenance mode struggles with the question of how to bring in people who have left the faith as well as reach people who have never known Christ. When we especially think of the question of people who have left, there are so many different ways we have tried to reach out to them. My experience, however, has convinced me that we’ve been addressing the symptoms and not the malady. Lots of people, for example, say that they’re bored at mass or they don’t get anything out of it. While this is true, we’ve responded in all the wrong ways to try to make them “get something out of mass.” We’ve brought in puppets and balloons, we’ve told jokes and done shtick, all to no avail. As a priest I’ve tried all the gimmicks that are touted with the promise that they will get people to come to mass. Perhaps they work for a time, but none of them offers the permanent effect of faithful discipleship. I was told for example that if you want to get teenagers to come to mass you need to have a rock mass. So we did that. We got all of the teenagers who had ability to play musical instruments together and set up a rock mass once a month on a Sunday night and we rocked the church! That place was jumping and many of the people there enjoyed it very much. But what we noticed month after month was that it never brought any other teenagers back to church. The teens who told their friends about it found it was not enough to get them to start coming to mass. They weren’t staying away because they didn’t like the music – that was the reason we told ourselves. The real reason was that they didn’t come to mass because they saw no value in it. When it comes to little children and getting their parents to attend mass, we were told that we should have special masses for children because their parents will come. This is true – to an extent. When children are doing something at mass the parents will come, but that doesn’t make them come back the next week.

I have come to realize that all of the things that we’re trying to do to bring people back are simply addressing the symptom and not the malady. People are not staying away from church because they don’t like the music or because the priest is boring; those are the excuses they use. No, they are staying away because they don’t realize why we go to mass in the first place and why they need to be there. Most people don’t like to go to the doctor, but they go because they know it is important for them to do so. They don’t complain that they don’t like the music they play in the waiting room or that the doctor is boring and doesn’t tell jokes. If someone actually were to use that as an excuse for why they don’t go to the doctor, I doubt that anyone would tell doctors to learn good jokes and start playing different music in the office. Why, then, do we think this is the answer for how to bring people back to mass? This is not to say that we don’t strive to provide prayerful music, homilies, etc., but that we don’t make this an end in itself.

I have come to believe very firmly that the only way we are going to get people to return faithfully is to get them to see that “I need a regular relationship with Jesus that I will find not by praying on my own at home, but that I will find when I come to church every Sunday to receive the Eucharist for the forgiveness of my sins, to unite myself with Christ in his suffering, death, and resurrection, and be strengthened by my fellow Christians as we journey together to follow Christ and be a community.”

We’ve had lots of wonderful programs that have attempted to provide precisely this, yet many of them in my opinion have failed. I’ve used lots of retreat programs that had people giving personal witness talks about the power of Christ in their lives and the things he’s done for them, and they can be very powerful. The problem is that not everybody’s witness talk is appropriate, and some are questionable in their content or in their interpretation of what God actually did for them. I’ve heard peoplediscovering-christ say things that have made me cringe. In order to make sure every talk is appropriate the priest has to listen to every talk through beforehand to accept, modify, or reject it. Not only do most priests not have the ability to dedicate that much time to this, when he does suggest changes, some people’s feelings get hurt. Other times programs tend to become a clique. The people bind nicely to each other in the name of the program, but not in the parish and in the church, and it ends up creating a sub community of the parish rather than encouraging participants to be active members of the Church Universal. They tend to refer to each other as “my ‘Such-and-Such’ Program brothers and sisters”, but not “my fellow parishioners”, and certainly not, “my fellow Catholics.” Being members of the ministry program frequently becomes the end in itself to the exclusion of parishioners who are not part of the program. When this happens the program has failed in its stated purpose. It has brought people closer to each other but not together in Christ. They may strive to bring other people into the program, but it often becomes apparent that they are more interested in membership in the program rather than in the Church. ChristLife is different.

We started using Christ life a year ago, and like any other program I was optimistic but also skeptical, because I’ve been down this path before. What pleases me about ChristLife is that the heart of the program is not personal witness by individual volunteers but rather the videos that ChristLife provides. The videos are solid in their theology, but also touching. They have a way of communicating the need for Christ in his Church in a common sense manner that combines the beauty of being part of a community with an authentic encounter with Jesus. The programs do not turn in on themselves, having the people do merely a group huddle, but are founded firmly on Christ. Yes, there is certainly group sharing, and yes there is a great sense of community, but it is a community founded on Christ and not merely on membership in the group. We had members as young as twelve and as old as their eighties who started seeing the work of Christ in each other. ChristLife does what we want to do as a parish and what we need in a program: it brings people together in Christ. So many of the other programs have brought people together but the “in Christ” portion of it was somehow missing.

I am very happy with using ChristLife in our parish, and we are now planning to use it as our pre-catechumenate in hopes that people will experience the need for Christ and develop a desire to know and follow him before entering into the formal catechesis of the RCIA process. ChristLife is far less expensive than many of the programs that we have tried and the support from the Christ life staff is fantastic. The people on the ChristLife staff see their work as a ministry and not merely an occupation. I strongly encourage the use of ChristLife in every parish, as I think it is the only program out there that truly addresses the real malady and doesn’t merely spend time putting Band-Aids on wounds.

4 thoughts on “Getting people to go to Church on Sunday: addressing the malady and not merely the symptom

  1. Gloria says:

    My comment here, as I go through Discovering Christ again (as a facilitator) is that parishes need to choose their facilitators very carefully. In my relatively wealthy suburban parish, there is a lot of good will but also so much misunderstanding about the Church, most of which boils down to the misconception: “Oh those rules are optional–they were made by priests a long time ago.” Like you, I’ve heard many, many comments in my small groups that have made me cringe and want to break out by CCC (I always bring it with me). I’m worried that in some other groups, led by well-meaning but improperly catechized leaders, many of the misconceptions I hear will only perpetuate themselves.

  2. Mary Ellen says:

    Hi Father, I am usually a fan of your bulletin columns, but I have to say I was a bit discouraged last night when I came home from Mass and had time to read your poem.
    Why were you so hard on that man? Why can’t we celebrate someone having the strength to overcome his fears and take the “plunge” when it’t not easy instead of calling him a “chump”? That really upset me, Father.

    • Thank you Mary Ellen, for your comment. I’m sorry if my use of the word “chump” offended you, as that was never my intention. The point I was making was not chastising people about failing to find the strength to overcome their fears but rather about how, when we hesitate to follow Christ, which we all do, myself included, we remain in suffering longer than we need. Was it specifically the word “chump” you didn’t like? If I had written “that man” instead of “that chump” would you not have been upset, or was it the whole concept? My choice of the word “chump” was a little bit of tongue-in-cheek humor to make a point that we sometimes do foolish things that hurt ourselves, which I thought made the poetic message more powerful than merely using the word “man.” It was meant to sound like we are hitting ourselves on the side of the head saying, “duh!” or to quote “Back to the Future”, “Hello, McFly!” At any rate, I hope you know it was never my intention to upset anyone by the use of the word “chump,” and I apologize if it upset you. I hope you can see the point I was making that we only keep ourselves from finding the respite and comfort Jesus wants to give us when we only practice our faith furtively and don’t “take the plunge into Christ.”

      I pray that God will bless you and your family at Christmas and always!

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