People arrive for Mass at San Jose Catholic Church in Austin, Texas, Sept. 5, 2021. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

My Church Is for Me, Not about Me

How to get members out of the pews and evangelizing

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Father Michael WhiteI am often asked what was the single most important thing we did, the decision made or the turn we took that had the greatest impact on the renewal and rebuilding of our parish. Typically, I say there was no silver bullet; rebuilding is about adopting the right strategy and staying committed to it over a sustained period of time. That’s not the answer a lot of Church people want to hear, but it is true. There is no silver bullet, but there can be a fundamental change in attitude that changes everything. I found this perfectly stated in a neat little aphorism from Pastor Tony Morgan (the Unstuck Church group): “My church is for me, but it’s not about me.”

When people who are in the church, at least a critical mass of them come to understand that the Church is not primarily about them but about the people who are not currently in church, that changes everything. When people who like church come to see that the Church needs to be for people who don’t like church, your parish will change.

We are, of course, talking about evangelization, the Church’s most fundamental mission to make disciples. It was Pope Paul VI who said it best: “The [Church] exists in order to evangelize.” (Evangelli Nuntiandi, No. 14). To really understand this a parish has to live it. It does no good, it changes nothing, to merely espouse the idea; it has got to animate the very life of the parish. Here are a few basics:

Get the parishioners up out of the pews

When a person is new to the parish, just like a baby in a family, they need to be served, they need to be taken care of. But when people stay consumers, week after week, year after year, the parish grows unhealthy and the ministry becomes unsustainable. More to the point: As long as they’re consumers, they’re not growing as disciples, and they’re not helping anyone else to grow either. The most basic way to make the parish not all about the church people is to get them out of the pews to serve.

What are they supposed to do? I’m glad you asked.

Practice radical hospitality

While there can be many forms of service in a parish, the main focus should be on hospitality for visitors and newcomers. We like to talk about “radical” hospitality.

The word radical actually has two definitions. The first regards the roots of something: What is fundamental to the very existence of a thing. In other words, not just empty gestures or stale platitudes. Someone holding the door for guests, and energetically communicating “we’re glad to see you” is far more effective than the felt banner passively proclaiming, “All are welcome.” The second definition regards extreme actions or activity. In other words, going beyond what people expect.

Both definitions should apply to your parish and, whatever your size, this is going to take a team of people to make it happen.

Talk to/preach to outsiders

When you’ve been in church-world long enough, it’s inevitable that you begin to speak in a lingo-infused insider way. We don’t even know we’re doing it much of the time. But outsiders recognize it immediately — and it’s a clear sign to them that they don’t belong.

Talking to outsiders doesn’t mean dumbing down the faith or reaching for the lowest common denominator. It means speaking to them in a language that is familiar to them. One way we do this is by never assuming knowledge of Scripture or theology (the truth is most of your insiders don’t know who wrote the Book of Acts, either).

Budget for evangelization

If the Church exists to evangelize, you shouldn’t have to fundraise for it. Instead, it should be a primary focus of your budget, no matter how big or small that budget is.

Most people, including almost all newcomers, engage with your parish in two ways: your website and your weekend experience. In fact, your website might be the No. 1 evangelization tool. It is likely the first place newcomers go to find out more about you. Invest in it.

Consider how much your parish is all about the church people. In ways large and small, you really can change that. Ultimately the church people will thank you for it.

FATHER MICHAEL WHITE is pastor of Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland, and co-author of “Rebuilt,” as well as a book on church financing, “ChurchMoney” (Ave Maria Press, $16.95).

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