In order to revitalize a parish, you need to have more disciples and less pot lucks, said Fr. Michael White at the New Evangelization Summit. Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Parish renewal: More disciples, less pot luck

  • May 23, 2017

OTTAWA – When it comes to revitalizing Catholic parishes, don’t be afraid to borrow ideas, even from Protestant churches, said an American pastor who tripled his weekend Mass attendance.

Fr. Michael White and his associate Tom Corcoran shared their blueprint for success at the New Evangelization Summit earlier this month, chronicling how their struggling Church of the Nativity in Baltimore was transformed into a vibrant parish. Their formula has been documented in two books, Rebuilt and its sequel Tools for Rebuilding.

White said when he first came to Nativity he found it a “sleepy parish.”

“We thought the problem was low energy, a lack of programs and services,” he told his audience at the New Evangelization Summit earlier this month. But the more time and energy he and his staff invested in new programs and services, the more they were contributing to a “consumer mentality” among parishioners. They thought of the people in the pews as “customers,” and “we came there to help them consume.”

They expanded devotions, held concerts, bus trips, developed children and youth programs, and member care programs in an effort to get people to become more interested and “so much was a waste of time,” White said. The programs were “creating ever more demanding consumers.”

One year later, everyone was experiencing “total burnout” after a few weeks and they still had Holy Week and Easter ahead. “A lady approached me to complain about the food!” White said. “The free food! She was mean about it, too.”

Soon a chorus of complainers joined her. “Something snapped,” White said. “I knew in an instant I couldn’t do this.”

Corcoran explained the local parish exists to make disciples, not to “go and play bingo, or go and have pot luck suppers.”

They decided to go learn from healthy, intentionally growing churches, even if it “meant turning to Protestants,” White said.

They visited successful parishes such as Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California, Willow Creek in Illinois and North Point Church in Georgia. Corcoran said what they learned resulted in “no spectacular plan but a series of small solutions.”

“We need to change our focus from churched people to unchurched people,” said Corcoran.

They also needed to make those in the pews “mobilized for mission,” Corcoran said. The leaders at Nativity began to look at their parish from the perspective of an unchurched person. How does he spend his time? What does he look like? How does he spend his money? What does he think about church, religion or God?

They named that “mythical unchurched person ‘Tim’.

“Tim is a good person” who grew up Catholic, was confirmed, but then stopped going to church, White said. “What he knows about Catholicism is a muddled mess.”

Going to church is not on his radar screen. When they analyzed their parish from Tim’s point of view they realized if people like him showed up “there was nothing there to interest them or engage them,” White said.

White urged parishes to “define their ‘Tim’, “and then you learn to love him” and invest in him.

“If the Mass if boring and disorganized and irrelevant to their lives, the unchurched will think church is boring and God is irrelevant to their lives,” he said.

Nativity decided to focus on three areas: the music, the message and ministry. Music is one area that is often a source of complaint, White said. “Find people with both skill and heart to lead music.”

The homily provides an opportunity for people to see the relevance of God’s Word to their lives, Corcoran said. “If they see it is relevant to their lives, they will want to go deeper.”

In ministry, the parish focused on two areas: the host ministry — including parking volunteers, greeters, the information desk and coffee service after Mass to “create layers of welcoming”— and children’s ministry.

“Parents with small children are low-hanging fruit,” Corcoran he said. “If we provide great children’s ministry … kids are natural evangelizers.” If they like your church they will want their parents to come, he said.

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