Deacon Greg pointed me to this link from Joe Ferullo and the National Catholic Reporter

My cousin is a business graduate student back at home, and is staying with us while doing a corporate internship in town for his master’s thesis. He’s gone to Disneyland and downtown, to Hollywood and Malibu — but our local parish has made a real impression.

Usually the place is pretty full on Sundays, which is not the case in Italy. Not even in the small town outside of Naples where my cousin grew up and still lives. There, a scattered dozen or so old ladies in traditional black still bother to make church-going a steady habit. An ancient organ heaves out traditional tunes, but no one sings along.

And the priests, my cousin says, are as ancient as everything else — preaching an Italian version of fire-and-brimstone homilies to the few in the pews. He was stunned to meet our pastor, who is a youthful 50 years old and sometimes wears Hawaiian shirts on his days off. His homilies are humorous, thoughtful and straightforward, speaking to everyday life and tying that to the gospel. Same thing when our bishop came recently to deliver the sacrament of Confirmation to my daughter and forty other teenagers her age. He didn’t speak over the heads of kids, nor did he condescend to them — he was simple and direct and genuine.

My cousin said he understood why the church was full, and why the ones back home were not.

Indeed. I’d go a few steps further. You fill the pews by doing the following:

1) Welcoming: Quite often nobody becomes engaged in a community unless someone else comes over and talks with them and gives them some kind of formal welcome. But we often don’t do that at church. The ones that do are the ones that thrive.

2) Good preaching: Now we lay people have little control over this one, but pastors often value feedback and believe that their preaching time is the most important thing they do all week. As someone who gets to do reflections from time to time, I can tell you first hand, this is not easy work–but it’s very much appreciated by the congregation when it is done with care.

3) Singable music: Notice I didn’t necessarily say “good music”. Why? Because we can argue about our individual tastes in music with some preferring Gregorian Chant to Praise and worship–but I think we can agree that if you spin out a catchy little tune people will sing along. They aren’t intimidated by giving them something that they can sing along to and singing with a cantor who has an inviting presence and not an intimidating one that says “I could never keep up with her/him.” It also guards against the “performance” style where the congregation listens and the “performers” sing. That might be entertaining, but it sure ain’t church.

4) No diatribes against modern culture: We all live in this culture and helping people live in the world according to the principles of the church need not be a fire and brimstone activity. When we stand against the culture necessarily at times, we need not denigrate the ENTIRE culture. The world is good. God said it and we believe it. Help our unbelief.

5) Point people to life giving ministry: In short, let people know that there are things going on–but be focused. In many good parishes there is so much going on that we miss most of it because of challenges on our time. And people get overwhelmed by things easily. If we focused our community on one big project per month that everyone could (and wanted to) participate in—that would go a lot farther and keep the community engaged. Now, other smaller things will happen organically and those involved in them will invite others to those events but the parish at large doesn’t need to push those as hard in a litany of various announcements.

6) Size matters: We used to think that we should start small and build on the little event that we can blow up to a large scale event. But in truth, doing something that is a huge event that is done extremely well is far better than a bunch of small events that nobody was particularly engaged in. So build something that attracts a lot of attention to start and then from that excitement, you can build smaller events to keep those excited people coming back. Campus Ministers should do large Habitat projects, mission trips and Alternative Spring Breaks as well as retreats. Parish ministers should think about human concerns and making a difference in the community and having big gala events for celebrations. Both should think about large-scale prayer events that bring people together for mass or prayer for a particular reason.

It’s time to rally the troops and it doesn’t sound like that happens with fire and brimstone in churches that are indeed barely alive.

0 thoughts on “How to Fill Your Pews”
  1. Preach the teachings of the Catholic Church and give *ALL* the Glory to God. Our Catholic Worship is not about the Priest, laity or the building. Get your priorities straight. Going to Mass is not entertainment. It is *HEAVEN ON EARTH*

    1. Nobody’s saying that, Greg. You might want to read more carefully before being nasty.

      Worship is communal. Not individual. Therefore a congregation needs tools to assist them in public prayer and praise. All the things I mention are used to help people praise God and not to entertain them. I even specifically mention that music should not be used to entertain but rather to engage common worship.

      But alas, some people just need to be right even when I already agreed with them. Maybe Deacon Greg has a point about limiting comments.

  2. OK, now I’m getting mad. Today hasn’t been a good day and you’re touching my last nerve, Gregg with three G’s.

    First of all, I work with young adults (20s and 30s), not youth–perhaps you can get that right too.

    I think since I’ve spoken and worked alongside the US Bishops for over 10 years, I’m in fine standing with the church at large.

    Secondly, you might want to read my book, which has been touted by the left and the right (Everyone from the Jesuits to the Legionaires). I don’t like or accept those baby boomer distinctions anyway.

    I’m one of the few people who hangs out with both a progressive and more traditional crowd who insists on listening to both sides. Couldn’t you grant me the same courtesy? Obviously not.

    Typical of some in the church who tend towards inflexibility in all matters.

  3. Exactly, Young Adults are in their 20’s and 30’s. Anyone in their teen years are in church parlance, “Yoots” (as Joe Peci would say in “My Cousin Vinny”–meaning Youths).

  4. Why get mad? Can you not accept constructive criticism. It’s an observation and my opinion from your writings you post on a web page. You don’t have to tell me what others think about your writings. I think you are too-absorbed with your own acomplishments that God is supposed to be responsible for. You think? Too much flexibility got us into the mess we find ourselves in anyway. Look at what I’ve said and what you commented back, Who’s attacking who? You’re the one making it personal. You should Pray and Think deeper.

    1. Gregg–

      I can accept tons of constructive criticism. You’re just not giving any. You’re convinced that your way is the only way to pray (and perhaps even that it’s the only way to be Catholic). That, my friend, is alienating to many and what you are saying I was suggesting isn’t what I was suggesting in the first place.

      Can you think of one more way to insult me?

      You accused me of the following:
      1) Not preaching what the church teaches.
      2) Not having my priorities straight
      3) Not worshipping God but entertaining people (which is laughable because I said the exact opposite)
      4) Not being able to take criticism
      5) Being self-absorbed
      6) Attacking you.
      7) Not caring or ministering to “youth” correctly

      Anything else you’d like to add to that cause you’re on a roll?

      And I’m not attacking you. YOU started an attack on me with the first 3 accusations and you didn’t even bother to read what I wrote or maybe you just mis-read?

      Gregg, you don’t know me–and it’s obvious that you don’t. I’m a pretty humble person I think and don’t really care about who gets the credit.

      What I do care about is when someone tries to tell “youth” or “young adults” that there’s only one way to be Catholic. That if we’re not doing Latin mass, we’re evil or something. Or if we’re not following the rubrics to the letter that mass is somehow “lessened”.

      Now all that being said…

      I AGREE with you that at times some places value an “entertaining” mass when they should be more focused on “worship.” I would also say that worship also means participation and engagement–otherwise it runs the danger of becoming a “passive” activity. (And BTW all the studies suggest that’s a great way to drive people away.) The Latin mass proponents will argue that it’s more focused on proper worship of Christ but there’s also a shadow side of favoring “vertical” worship (Intimate Worship of God alone–or developing that personal relationship with God and one’s self) over “horizontal” worship (worshiping God with others and seeing God’s presence in them and developing a communal faith). We need a balance of both and need to admit the shadow side of both as well.

      Any thoughts?

  5. Wonderful post, Mike. You have your finger on the pulse of exactly what brings young adults to our parishes (or, conversely, what drives them away when it’s lacking). I am looking forward to meeting you again at the gathering on young adults & vocation in a few weeks – it’s reflections like these that make me glad your wisdom can be part of our group.

  6. Mr. Googler, I apologize. You did not deserve the comments I wrote and I’m sorry. No excuses, but I “get goofy” sometimes. Good to know you take this serious. Keep up the Good Work.

  7. Interesting post, Mike (interesting comment thread, too, by the way).

    I am at the point in my journey where even if Mass is duller than dirt, with a monotonous homily and dirge-like music, it’s still a win, because of the Eucharist. It’s pretty mind-blowing to me that Jesus becomes bread and wine and enters into the body of this stressed and exhausted mama. I like knowing that even a dull, boring Mass can never be a total loss because Jesus will, always, show up … as we Catholics believe, quite literally.

    That said, it took me a great many years to really grasp that Jesus WAS present in that way. And during those years, the only things that kept me coming to Mass were good, relevant, well-written homilies; the beautiful music; the welcoming community. So yes, Mike, you’re onto something with your list.

    And don’t get me wrong: I don’t think we can or should accept Mass mediocrity. The ideal scenario is a liturgy with all of the elements you mentioned, in addition to Jesus. Sometimes, that happens. I think we can get it to happen even more often.

  8. I respectfully disagree on the music…what we bring to the liturgy should be the best we possibly can provide. I’d rather have no music at all than some of the more contemporary hymns, honestly.

    The problem is we’re a diverse bunch of people, and what I find “good” in music is going to be a completely different thing than another group of people. While I may despise the music at my schools Newman Center, I can’t disagree that their liturgy is valid. it’s easier (and the charitable thing to do) for me to go elsewhere. At the end of the day, though, they’re just as Catholic as I am.

    It’s hard being one who prefers a more traditional liturgy (I think the various rites should inform and support each other), since most parishes that offer the extraordinary form (or at least the ordinary form in Latin) are not on the same page as I WRT social issues. (Which I realize is going to get rotten eggs thrown at me from some of the commenters.) And, really, it’s not just Latin–I wouldn’t mind a prayerful, reverent ordinary form Mass, even though my concept of “prayerful” and “reverent” doesn’t involve drums and guitars.

    I can honestly understand the marginalization and alienation that a lot of young adults feel regarding the liturgy today. I’ve never been a fan of contemporary christian music, for instance, and it grates when such things are forced on various young adult groups. For instance, I also prefer the old form of the Benedictine Divine Office and do pray it in Latin. I’ve got no issue with those who prefer older devotionals, either, even though they might not necessarily be my thing.

    So where do we go from here? I often feel as if calls for flexibility are one-sided, that those who prefer a more traditional liturgy and music are forced to compromise and be flexible at the expense of what has meaning/devotion/beauty for them.

    Maybe it’s a sign of a larger problem in the Church? I think your blog is a good example of how things can be fixed–you’re keeping the lines of communication open, and we can find out what we hold in common. Sorry this got long.

  9. Jen–

    First of all, thanks for the kind words about this blog keeping the lines open.

    Here’s what I think roughly on liturgy in general.

    It should be a mix of community and contemplation–we need both. Some examples:

    1) Perhaps before mass people indeed mill about and welcome one another and maybe there are ministries that are handing things out, etc. But then someone should get up and call us into worship formally. We ask for silence after a brief word of welcome and we center ourselves on God. This is more than a mere “turn off the cell phones and our opening hymn is…” It’s a formal call to worship–a time to center and meditate and shake out the cobwebs. Some of the best places I’ve seen do a formal welcome and a call to worship–it’s joyful, prayerful and communal.

    2) The music should reflect the point in the mass. So why we might have something more praise and worshippy or at the very least “joyful and inviting” sounding at the start of mass–come communion time we should go with something more contemplative. I think the offertory should also be more reflective in tone but also perhaps thankful. And we also should make these singable for all, so it’s not too hard to keep up and it’s not a performance. I know I can’t sing that well, so I don’t want to be intimidated further not to.

    3) Allow people to contemplate what’s going on. Make it so everyone can be engaged in order to understand. So at the penitential rite allow people to think about their sins–but also remind them that God offers us His forgiveness always. How can we make the Eucharistic prayer not seem like magic words but an entire prayer of thanksgiving–in which God offers us His very self. Do we pause when we say “Let us pray” –silence isn’t always awkward.

    4) Environment. How does this look “like a time unlike any other time?” Do we use lighting, candles, incense, even vestments well?

    5) Active participation…how do we allow everyone to be involved. So we have singable music that’s a call and response as opposed to a difficult hymn that Placido Domingo would have trouble mastering? I often think the creed should be sung to further engage the words as questions and our community response as our assent. Lectors should be story-tellers and not readers. Maybe even having an actor read it with a lot of expression–like one would at children’s story time–but a bit more adult in tone. You almost have to read these things as if you are trying to convey that you have a secret.

    6) The Latin mass does some of this certainly, but I also think it can fall short, especially since most people don’t know Latin and would have trouble learning it.

    What thinkest you?

  10. Oh I’d definitely agree. And I’m not really a latin Mass only kind of person, although I think the older/different rites could inspire us. (And vice versa–if they figure out if women could serve at an extraordinary form Mass, I’d jump at the chance.)

    I think a lot of the troubles today are due to conflicting notions of tradition. For instance, there are hundreds of years’ worth of really cool liturgical music that don’t get used much. I think one motet out of how many other sung bits of the Mass isn’t much–it also gives people time for contemplation. Chant is much, much, much easier to sing than some of the contemporary hymns, and everyone sounds good with it because it uses a narrower vocal range. It’s really sad that some parishes divorce themselves from those traditions. Conversely, as much as I don’t like “On Eagle’s Wings,” everyone sings the hell out of it, when it’s played.

    You know these people? They do some interesting stuff.

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