How can Church-goers attract more young people to their parish?

For context, this essay was originally written for a small group of weekly Church goers, ages 60 and up, who wanted to learn more about why younger generations are no longer attending Mass at high rates. The parish is wealthy and mostly white, so this is the audience the article is addressing. It is a list of some of the biggest turnoffs to the Catholic Church and recommendations to address them.

Turn-off: The Church only seems to talk about abortion. Other issues that cause extreme suffering and/or threaten human life such as refugees, the Iraq War (we know now, a war of aggression), mass incarceration, domestic violence, bullying/interpersonal meanness, stereotyping, climate change, etc rarely if ever get addressed. Universal healthcare and ending the death penalty have been on the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops agenda for decades, but are never get talked about in the parish. Not once did I hear a leader in the parish say, “We are grateful for the Affordable Care Act, and we need to keep healthcare for all. However, we don’t agree with the contraception piece, and we will push to change that.”

Proposed Solutions:

  • Talk about a myriad of issues from the pulpit. Remind parishioners of/emphasize the corporal works of mercy.
  • Create smaller groups or ministries to address these issues. For example, a “Green Team” could work on getting LED lighting for the parish (it reduced my coop’s electricity bills by 30%!) and sourcing electricity from renewable sources (it is expected to reduce my coop’s electricity bills by 4%!).
  • Invite speakers to talk about these issues (e.g.: someone from the local refugee resettlement program at Catholic Relief Services, a local domestic violence shelter, The Sentencing Project, etc).
  • Do fundraisers for organizations that are working to mitigate these issues.

Turn-off: The Church seems to be more focused on judging people’s lives than anything else. If you go to Church every Sunday, don’t have an abortion, and aren’t gay, you’re “good,” and if you don’t, you’re “bad.” It seems that the Church will tell other people what to do and how to live, but is not concerned at all with actual well-being or spiritual growth (self-esteem, insecurity, fears, pain, poverty, illness, kindness, compassion to others, ability to be respectful o others, etc).

Proposed Solution: Talk from the pulpit about how every situation is not black-and-white/good-or-evil. Humanize people. For example, I know a woman who had 8 abortions while in her drug addiction. Two strikes against her: A drug addict who had 8 abortions. People stereotype drug addicts as selfish losers who don’t care about anyone else; people stereotype those who’ve had an abortion as cold, cruel, and selfish. However, drug addictions are simply a means to self-medicate severe emotional pain and trauma. This woman experienced sexual violence and severe abandonment as a child, and used drugs as the best way she knew at the time to anesthetize her pain. As a result of her addiction, she got pregnant multiple times. So who are we, who haven’t gone through that kind of trauma and don’t know her life, to cross our arms and judge her? Also, if people want to see abortion rates to go down, encourage parishioners to work on reducing addiction, gender-based violence, and other root causes.

Turn-off: There are so many forces that cause suffering and cause death within the parish. People’s lived experiences — fears, frustrations, pain, etc– are not discussed in Church. Why isn’t the Church talking about them? What is the Church doing to save lives where it can, to ensure people’s well-being where it can, and to give comfort? These issues include suicide, depression and other mental illnesses, anger issues, control issues, cancer, sexual violence, drug addiction, gambling addiction, relationship abuse, bullying, enabling/lack of assertiveness in relationships, etc.

Proposed Solutions:

  • Talk about these issues from the pulpit. People need these pain points in their lives to be normalized and de-stigmatized, and people need sources and resources for healing. Remind parishioners of/emphasize the corporal works of mercy.
  • Create smaller groups or ministries to work on these issues by doing direct service (e.g.: volunteer at a rape crisis center) and by advocating for policies that protect lives (e.g.: more funding for studies on suicide prevention).
  • Invite speakers to discuss these issues (e.g.: from a domestic violence shelter, local rape crisis center, etc), the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a professional who specializes in addiction, a mental health professional, a couples therapist, etc). Be sure to tell parishioners that each of these speakers are for everybody, regardless of whether you think the issue affects you directly or not. It’d be a shame for someone to miss a resource that could profoundly improve their well-being, because they’re too afraid to show up.
  • Organize movie/documentary screenings and book clubs to discuss these issues.
  • Create support groups within the parish to help parishioners going through these issues. It is so powerful, just in itself, to know that one is not alone in their pain and struggle and to see someone else struggle with the same thing.
  • Do fundraisers for organizations that are working to mitigate these issues. Organize a group to participate in organizations’ awareness/fundraising activities (e.g.: the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention does a nationally organized “Out of the Darkness Walk” every year, the Susan G Komen Breast Cancer Walk, etc).
  • Encourage a culture wherein parishioners are comfortable and heartened to bring forth ideas about what issues need to be addressed and how to address them.
  • Encourage a culture wherein parishioners take what they’ve learned and spread it (e.g.: after hearing someone from the local rape crisis center speak at the parish, a parishioner works with rape crisis center to facilitate a workshop on gender-based violence at a local all-boys high school).

Turn-off: There are so many forces that cause suffering and death outside of the parish. Same questions as above — Why isn’t the Church talking about them? What is the Church doing to save lives where it can and to ensure people’s well-being where it can? These issues include refugees, wars of aggression (such as the Iraq War), mass incarceration, implicit bias, sweatshops, stereotyping, etc. The silence about these issues connotes that they’re either not important to the parish or there is a lack of moral courage to name them and care for our brothers and sisters outside of the parish. Maya Angelou says it’s impossible to practice any virtue consistently without courage. Does parish leadership lack the courage to say, “It’s wrong that we invaded a country without a clear and strong moral reason. We need to address this, because our Iraqi brothers and sisters are suffering.”? At an inter-faith press conference after the 2017 refugee ban, Sister Simone Campbell moved me to tears when she said, “We have to look at why we have such a large number of refugees. And when we look into it, we see that American policy is responsible for so many people fleeing from war.” Why was she the only Catholic person there, and why was she the only Catholic leader who I clearly heard saying that the refugee ban is counter to our Catholic values? Similarly, why isn’t parish leadership saying, “We are responsible for the well-being of fellow humans. Black folks in this country have experienced two centuries of genocide and one century of legal apartheid. Logic would state that racism is embedded in our society and doesn’t go away in one generation (i.e.: after the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act). We need to listen to our black brothers and sisters today as they speak about their pain.” The Unitarian Universalists and American Friends were white religious groups that were active in the fight to end slavery and segregation. Some of these white people, including a white UU minister, were killed while non-violently standing up for the lives of others — just like Jesus did. Where was the Catholic Church then, and where is the Catholic Church today on racial justice? The Unitarian Universalists and American Friends are active in the fight to end mass incarceration. The Catholic Church’s silence speaks volumes and, to me, is a deep betrayal of the values it says it believes in. Whether it’s a lack of deeming these issues important or a lack of courage to address them, the Church comes off weak and hypocritical, because it’s not doing what Jesus did.

Proposed Solutions:

  • Priests and other Church leaders will need to talk to experts to understand these issues better and how to talk about them. After receiving guidance and education on these issues from experts, talk about these issues from the pulpit.
  • Create smaller groups or ministries to address these issues. Work on these issues by doing direct service (e.g.: supporting someone coming out of prison, be a tutor, temporarily house a refugee family, etc) and by advocating for policy to protect lives (e.g.: changing current drug laws so that people with non-violent drug crimes go through drug courts and don’t spend years in jail).
  • Invite speakers (e.g.: from Catholic Relief Services’ local Refugee Resettlement Program, The Sentencing Project, Families against Mandatory Minimums, etc) to talk about these issues.
  • Organize movie/documentary screenings and book clubs to educate about these issues. Some examples: They Killed Sister Dorothy, The House I Live In, and 13th. Book examples: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Caught by Marie Gottschalk, and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.
  • Do fundraisers for organizations that are working to mitigate these issues.
  • Arrange for a Daughters of Abraham chapter at the parish.

Turn-Off: The Church doesn’t seem to be able to challenge each parishioner well to be as Christ-like as possible. In fact, the Church seems to reinforce and nurture parishioners’ harmful thinking and behavior. It seems as though parishioners get the message that, because they are in the pew, they are not gay, and they didn’t have an abortion, they are “the good ones” and don’t need to work on growing, learning, and being a better person. Is being a Christian just ticking off these boxes, or is it doing the much harder work of constantly challenging oneself to grow and be better? People who work on themselves become more Christ-like with time, while people who don’t work on themselves become less Christ-like with time.

Example 1: When I was in high school, I remember hearing a friend’s dad talk about what he got from the homily after Mass. He was lamenting about the “bad behavior” of a family member. I remember being so disappointed thinking, “That’s your take-away, that your family member is doing wrong? What about you? Was there nothing in that homily to challenge yourself to be better? Are you really going to stand here, ‘tsk tsk’ at someone else, and not look inward?”

Example 2: The few consistent Church-going Catholics I know have revealed apathy, fear, negative stereotyping, and disdain for the poor, refugees, Muslims, black Americans, etc. (The fear is just as dangerous as the other three. Once we label a group as a threat, we take away their humanity, lose our ability to care for their needs, and cannot see who they really are.) These Church-going Catholics make statements straight out of the ten stages of a genocide. An older, Church-going Catholic told me one time that he “didn’t like the way Black Americans talk.” My response was, “As Christians, aren’t we supposed to be concerned with the well-being of people, and not judge the way they talk?” He paused and said, “You’re right.” If he’s been going to Church every Sunday for decades, but I had to impart that very basic lesson about Christianity in a casual conversation, the Church failed him deeply. And I don’t want to be part of a Church that isn’t teaching that lesson.

Example 3: I have a friend who essentially says, “My parish growing up failed my family, but thank God for Gloria Steinem.” She grew up in a home where everything looked great on the outside (the family went to Church every Sunday, the kids went to Catholic school, etc), but inside the home, the family was plagued by a parent’s anger and control issues. The other parent didn’t have the resources or knowledge to stop it, and it went on for years. My friend talks about feminism as the place where she learned that it wasn’t acceptable or okay to be mistreated, disrespected, and dismissed.

Proposed Solutions:

Talk from the pulpit. In sermons, nurture and push parishioners to examine themselves. Specific areas include:

  • Are you “taking” being disrespected in any of your relationships? Are you in a relationship wherein it’s mostly or all about the needs of the other person and not about your own? If God is in you, if you are God’s beloved, you deserve to be respected. I’m not just talking about physical abuse. I’m talking about any kind of relationship wherein one person consistently has control.
  • Do you stereotype? Do you perpetuate or promote stereotypes in your words or actions? Do you know that, in every demographic of people, there are people who consistently show love, kindness, compassion to others and people consistency act very selfishly? Goodness and evil exist in every group. No one demographic is “the good ones” and “the bad/evil ones.”
  • Do you truly listen to others, whether it’s to individuals or organized groups? When you see, for example, a Black Lives Matter protest on the news, is your response a negative stereotype? People wouldn’t gather and organize like this if everything felt okay to them. Are you dismissing their pain? Or are you trying to see and understand people’s suffering?
  • Are you controlling or violent in any way? In your communication, whether in conversations with friends, on social media, etc, have you advocated for violence in any way?
  • Are you constantly taking up the mantle to recognize that there are areas for you to grow? Or do you just brush off other people’s opinions/chiding/push back?

Turn-off: Vulnerability and honesty are so important to our spiritual development, yet aren’t nurtured or encouraged in the Church. It seems like people can’t be real with their pain, real thoughts and feelings, etc, and they have to fake it like everything’s fine and go through their pain alone.

Proposed Solutions:

  • Preach from the pulpit that we’re all just trying to figure it out, and that’s okay. This doesn’t exonerate us from our responsibilities to each other — we need to keep working to be wiser, mature, courageous, considerate of others, etc.
  • My high school had a “Wednesday prayer” for 20 minutes once a week, wherein students gave reflections about any topics they wanted to cover. People shares personal experiences, everything from being sexually abused as a child to their experience of being adopted. Perhaps the parish could create something similar.
  • Arrange retreats that are meant to facilitate parishioners opening up to each other. I’m sure there are retreats already created that do this.
  • Arrange for small groups to facilitate parishioners opening up to each other (not lament or shake their heads about what others are doing). This type of sharing brings people closer together, builds trust, and makes people feel connected and supported. One of my friends, who is my age and a consistent protestant Church goer, has something like this at her (non-Catholic) Church, and she always talks with gratitude about her “small group.” She loves her “small group” and gets so much out of it.
  • Establish support groups for specific issues parishioners are dealing with, as mentioned previously.
  • Be honest about the Church’s shortcomings from the pulpit. The Crusades, not taking a clear and vocal stand against the transatlantic slave trade, not taking a clear and vocal stand against the Holocaust, the sex-abuse scandal of the last few decades, etc were all situations wherein the Church as an institution did not do what Jesus would have done. How can someone be trusted who doesn’t acknowledge the harm they’ve done?

Turn-off: Lack of community and fellowship. Lack of joy and warmth in the Mass.

Propose Solutions:

  • Have coffee and donuts before or after every Mass
  • Support groups, as listed above.
  • “Small groups,” as listed above.
  • At a friend’s Baptist church, before every service the pastor has everyone introduce themselves to the person on their right and on their left. Then the pastor tells each person to pray for those two people throughout the week.
  • Music could do a lot to change the environment to not be so solemn.

As a short conclusion, I remember loving -absolutely loving- the movie Sister Act, because Whoopi Goldberg’s character got the nuns out of the convent and into the community through servicing needs in the community. It also brought the community to the church.

Working towards a world where pain and suffering isn’t caused by a fellow human. Twitter @corinne_shutack

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