Parish success might come down to the answer to a simple question: Why aren't we growing? I am convinced that the next evangelization can start with this answer. Why?
We listen with a mix of astonishment and disbelief to Easter stories of a powerful young Church. Why aren't we just as Spirit-filled today? Many Catholics have been generously sacramentalized. Some are sufficiently catechized. But too few are adequately evangelized.
Could it be that we have lost the capability to warm hearts that yearn for Christ? The urgency of that question is just as clear today as when Pope Francis asked it at World Youth Day 2014. All we need to do is observe the average age of Mass attendees this Easter season. Today, less than one-third of all Catholics attend Mass every Sunday, while more than two-thirds spend more time each Sunday in various online pursuits. Perhaps the problem is that some Catholics still think their faith is a "Sunday" activity.
Historically speaking we are victims of our own success. Some of us still recall a time when new churches were being built and we needed ushers to pack them in on Sunday. No more. Today, a couple dozen hours of faith formation per year is no substitute for the faith experience of the home in a culture desperate for meaning. And while Catholics represent the largest group using social media today, most are ill-equipped to share faith online. There is a hunger for meaning today as great as in the earliest days of the Church. We should be growing again.
Pope Francis is right. We need parishes capable of warming hearts with a missionary faith at home and online, in the workplace and in the community. We need parishes that can equip people to connect with newcomers, welcome visitors and engage returning Catholics. We need parishes that are creative and entrepreneurial enough to inspire young Catholics with the joy of following Christ. Why isn't growth our goal?
Well, it is now. A new ChurchGrowth project beginning in the fall will invite Catholics to do what Pope Francis asked - reimagine the parish as a place to grow disciples who give joyful witness to their faith in Christ. In ChurchGrowth, parishes will be equipped to develop a plan to reverse recent declines. Growth parishes will take advantage of the welcome opportunities that come so regularly at Christmas, from ashes to Easter, as well as at weddings, baptisms and funerals.
ChurchGrowth parishes will align the megaphones of social media within the parish for outreach with messages of hope. ChurchGrowth parishes will have a welcome center, and hospitality will be everyone's business.
Growth parishes will benefit from a system of outreach to newcomers and returning Catholics. ChurchGrowth parishes will use intentional small groups to encounter Christ, follow Christ, enjoy Christ and share Christ. Growth churches will invite young Catholics to plant the seeds of compassion in their community. To do so we only have to be willing to discard the comforts of the consumer-driven Church and be open to something new.
"God is not afraid of new things! That is why God is continually surprising us, opening our hearts and guiding us in unexpected ways," Pope Francis said in 2014.
Are you interested? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 716-847-8393 to find out more and get ready to grow again.
Dennis Mahaney is the director of the Office for Evangelization and Parish Life.