For those of us working in ministry, it can be tempting to let the metric of success become a numbers game. We might create an imaginary equation about how much time we spent preparing a particular program, any costs of marketing and promotion, and then decide just how many people showing up determines whether our efforts were fruitful or not.
I spent 12 years working in university chaplaincy and another six in various parishes. In both cases, worries about numbers were as ever present as the coffee and doughnuts after Mass. Even as we got better over the years about paying attention to welcoming new folks coming through the doors, we still worried about how to attract more of them: to attend Mass and evening programs and to sign up for the email list. The focus was too often on the quantitative measurement instead of on the qualitative. We were preoccupied with how many were present instead of who was in the room or, maybe even more importantly, who was missing.
Many of us are overly familiar with the statistics: A 2015 Pew Research Center survey reports that 4 out of every 10 U.S. Catholics said they attended Mass weekly. Post-pandemic, that number has dropped by about 14 percent, according to a survey published by the Pillar in November 2021.
These numbers are not new, and many studying church attendance predicted the continued decline of Mass attendance by 2030. But the pandemic accelerated this slide, and parishes in large part are not bouncing back as people feel more comfortable returning to public life. Rather than focusing on bumping up those numbers in general, the best practices for bringing in new parishioners or welcoming back those who have been away involve focusing on who parishes would like to see in the room rather than casting out as many new programs and campaigns as possible just to see what might stick.
Personally, I eke in as a Catholic Millennial and as the parent of three children. It’s usually obvious when other families with children are present or not. Several other parents I talked to mentioned this: When your child is the only one offering vocal contributions to the Mass, it’s hard to feel like you fit in. But when a cacophony of tiny voices peppers the liturgy, or efforts are clearly made to include children, it nearly guarantees they will return.
Lisa Ferreira, a mother of two, has been involved in parish life and knows from both her time on parish council and her own experiences at Mass how important those little things are to parents. “As a parent of young children, I’m always a bit anxious visiting a new parish,” she says. “Having someone say we are glad you’re all here, this is where the bathrooms are located, and here is an area where the kids can move around if needed would make a huge difference for me.”
Another young mother agrees: “The most welcomed I have felt at a parish is when, after walking in late to a new parish with my husband and baby, multiple regular parishioners came up to us after Mass and greeted us, introduced themselves, and welcomed us into the parish.”
Sharing their experiences, these parents are clear that there were not specific programs or the right kind of refreshments after Mass that informed their thoughts. It was the simple and kind actions of multiple individuals in the community who, noticing that they were new or had babies, took the time to offer information or a clear statement that they were welcome there.
A local priest I asked about this question agrees that new and slicker programming is not the way to ensure greater Mass attendance. Instead, he and his team have “prioritized being consciously hospitable,” teaching the whole community to continually consider their liturgy and experience as if it were their first time visiting.
Concretely, that means doing a few intentional things at every single liturgy, such as greeting one another after a welcome message is read. The very last petition in their prayers of the faithful always reads the same:
For those who are struggling to believe in God, for those who have felt disappointed by or excluded from the Catholic Church, for those seeking God with sincere hearts, and for those looking to deepen their relationship with Jesus, that all may find a welcome home here at [church name], let us pray to the Lord.
Because this petition is such a strong parish tradition and read at every Mass, the pastor explains he has seen people come back on a Sunday after attending a wedding or funeral there and noting the tone of that prayer.
This particular parish has also taken notice of the who when it comes to the people they are serving or not. The team reflected on who in their town might feel especially marginalized or suffering and realized there were real needs and challenges for those in recovery. It was important to them not to think globally at this particular moment, but instead to see the oppressed close to home and ask what their parish could do to serve and stand in solidarity. Rather than arbitrarily launch a program, the parish partnered with local prevention coalitions and recovery centers, eventually hosting groups and a dedicated Mass for those struggling with addiction.
The point is not to simply get more people in the pews. It’s to offer hope and welcome to those too often excluded elsewhere, including in our own church.
In shaping our parishes to be ports of welcome and refuge, we have to see through the eyes of strangers. There’s no magic formula or program, or even the right amount of pledge donations, that can shape and grow a parish without a culture of hospitality that is clear about the role of the church as a sanctuary open to everyone.
Citing the parish evangelization manual, Divine Renovation, the pastor explains that, “in our old model of church, if you believe like us and behave like us, you can belong to us.” But the new model and what informs his ministry is actually much simpler: You can belong with us. Period. When relationships and acceptance are prioritized, differences in belief and behaviors can enhance our shared worship and bring diversity to otherwise homogeneous echo chambers.
It is simple in many ways but not easy. Younger Catholics are also weary of the hypocrisy of the institutional church—pastoral at individual levels but with what appears to be unchanging dogma or silence in public settings, particularly around the role of women, the LGBTQ community, and systemic racism and white supremacy. That prayer of the faithful resonates with so many because so many find themselves wounded or excluded from the church in this way.
For the pastor with whom I spoke, his role remains clear: “The role of a parish priest is not an institutional reformer—though there is a need for that. I have to be Christ for them in this moment and might be with them in that moment of hypocrisy and frustration, attempting to create an experience of Christian community.” If he can stay focused on making individuals feel safe and included in one small parish in one small New England town, then he is being the church as God asks.
He might be onto something. One young mother of an infant gives a laundry list of welcoming practices: “I think there are some things that parish staff can do to foster this attitude of hospitality, like having greeters, folks handing out song sheets, the priest explicitly welcoming people before the liturgy, coffee and doughnuts after Mass, and signs welcoming small children into the main sanctuary.” But ultimately, that isn’t what she or her peers are really searching for in a church home. She adds, “A real sense of welcome would come from a feeling that there is true community in the parish—where all are welcome, all care for one another, all sorts of people are accepted, and all are striving to be Christ’s loving presence in the world.”
This article also appears in the January 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 1, pages 29-30). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Pexels/Craig Adderley