From the Center

From the Center

Where do you start in helping people come to Christ, in re-filling the pews for Sunday Mass, in getting people connected or re-connected to parish life? When I talk with people about this, I regularly hear about addressing those who no longer come – somehow. (“How” is usually left for me to think up…) There are two things wrong with this approach, sensible as it seems: First, it uses a lot of parish resources (volunteer and staff time, money, etc.), which would be ok if it worked. But the second thing wrong is, it doesn’t.

Both research and church experience show that churches that work hard on inviting people in – “Come home” weekends, “Invitation Sunday,” “Bring your neighbor weekend,” and the like, succeed in creating a “big front door” for the church – lots of people do come in. Unfortunately, campaigns like this also demonstrate that most churches have a “big back door,” and after the campaign is over people, walk right back out. Their visitors’ church experience isn’t “sticky” enough, and they find no reason to stay. (I tell people who talk to me about “doing something to bring people back in” that my greatest fear is that we’d succeed, and people would come. But then they’d look around, say to themselves, “Yep, same place I had good reasons to leave last time,” and walk out again.)

Even the famous “mega-churches” that offer all sorts of amenities and programs for “spiritual seekers” in an atmosphere deliberately light on traditional Christian teaching find this: They draw huge crowds, but too many are only passing through, and too few make a commitment to long-term membership and discipleship in them.

Starting from the edge to “bring people in” doesn’t work. What does? The answer seems to be in the title of that old movie: Build it, and they will come. Start from the center, building a vibrant and engaged life together in the parish. Then already-active members will find it natural to invite their friends, neighbors, co-workers, and others. A “buzz” in the community will attract the curious. Young families will tell their friends about what they find there. Personal invitation will get people “in the front door,” and an engaged and vibrant community life will be the reason to stay around and learn more. That’s the way churches grow. Beautiful buildings alone don’t do it. Snazzy invitation programs don’t do it. (People are already drenched with advertising and instinctively resist it, and businesses spend far more on it than churches ever could, so our attempts in that direction always look third-rate). But engaged church communities can and do meet the spiritual hunger that’s present in many people. (Just try to reserve a time to visit a monastery or retreat-house; most are booked a full year or more in advance.)

This approach – start from the center, the already-engaged members, then grow outward – is so counter to our instinctive approach that it takes discipline to hold onto it. Maybe that’s because we too often confuse involvement with engagement. Members who are involved but not engaged can lead to an inward-turning church, one that preserves what its present members like and welcomes others gladly – but only if they “become like us an do things the way we’ve always done them.” In short, involved but not engaged members make a church into their “spiritual home,” but they forget that churches have a mission to move outward, with all the un-homey discomfort and challenge that involves. Engaged members, on the other hand, instinctively make the most of opportunities to welcome the curious – they invite the person as s/he is to “come and see,” and to find a place for their own, different gifts as they share in the mission.

(Thus our “spiritual blood test” next month, the Gallup Member Engagement Survey (ME25 for short), is not a random sample of everyone on our parish register. It’s a survey of people who are already connected to some degree, as many of those people as we can encourage to take part. We want to know how the active center is doing, because that’s where growth will have to begin.) So however your concern about the future of our church expresses itself – in anxiety about your grandchildren’s lack of practice, in concern for all the empty pews on Sunday morning, in fear for a culture that seems to have forgotten about peacemaking and forgiveness and truth-telling – remember what your role in making things better is: Start from the center. Until next week, peace.