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Authors share key strategies for parish renewal

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News


OTTAWA (CCN) — When it comes to rebuilding Catholic parishes, the authors of Rebuilt believe they have some key strategies other parishes can use.

Rev. Michael White and his associate Tom Corcoran chronicled the renewal of Church of the Nativity in the Baltimore archdiocese in Rebuilt and its sequel Tools for Rebuilding. The duo were among the speakers at the annual New Evangelization Summit May 12 - 13 in Ottawa that was live-streamed to almost 40 satellite locations across North America.

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 said. 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.”

During Lent, the parish provided Friday night speakers and a free dinner “on the theory it would attract more people,” he said. It grew to attract hundreds of families, but the work load was hard on staff because “we never stopped doing anything, we kept adding” things.

One year, 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 potluck suppers.” The parish is not made up of the people who attend church on Sunday, but the whole geographical area, he said. “Disciples are students who are growing to love God, love others, and in making disciples.”

“We realized we weren’t leading people to love more, to love God more, or to make disciples,” Corcoran said.

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. “The growing churches had a key focus on those not coming to church.”

“We need to prioritize the weekend experience,” he said. They developed a slogan for themselves, “It’s the weekend, stupid.”

They also needed to make those in the pews “mobilized for mission,” Corcoran said. “Everyone must take responsibility for their own faith journey and to go and make disciples.”

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? White said. They named that “mythical unchurched person ‘Tim.’ ”

“Tim is a good person” who grew up Catholic, was confirmed, but then stopped going to church, he said. “What he knows about Catholicism is a muddled mess,” a cross between what he learned in confirmation class and the Da Vinci Code, White said. “He has an unmanageable life.” In addition to a terrible commute downtown, he spends hours driving his kids around. He’s “racked up consumer debt” that is “putting a stain on his marriage.”

“On Sunday morning he just wants to relax,” he said. “He wants some ‘Tim’ time.”

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.

“We are competing for people’s leisure time,” said Corcoran.

White urged parishes to “define their ‘Tim’ ” and to learn as much about him as they can “and then you learn to love him,” and invest in him.
Since so much is centred on one hour on the weekend, “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.”

He said they were not suggesting any particular style, and recognize differences in resources. “We are only pleading with you to make it a priority.”

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 main areas: the host ministry that included parking volunteers, greeters, the information desk, coffee service after mass, to “create layers of welcoming”; and children’s ministry.

Parents are looking for religion to help them. “We can use that as an opportunity to bring them into a relationship with God,” 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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