It seems these days that every time we open a magazine or read an online article there is more bad news about Catholics leaving the Church. Last week, the Catholic News Agency reported the results of a CARA study about why young people leave the Church. Of the 214 former Catholics interviewed for the study, the median age at which they said they had decided to leave was 13; overall, seventy-four percent had decided to leave between the ages of 10 and 20.
The natural follow-up question to: “Why do people leave the Church?” is: “What can we do about it?”
Thankfully, we do have resources that show how parishes today have overcome what seems like an overwhelming challenge.
Two key resources come to mind: The Amazing Parish and Parish Catalyst. Both of them have studied parishes across the country and identified the hallmarks of vibrant, thriving, evangelizing parishes. It’s no surprise that they both found some of the same hallmarks.
In addition to a “Sunday experience” focused on “hymns, homilies, and hospitality” (or “music, message, and ministries”), The Amazing Parish identifies three essential building blocks for a parish to become “amazing”:
- A Reliance on Prayer and the Sacraments
- A Commitment to a Healthy Organization
- A Passion for Evangelization and Discipleship
Likewise, Parish Catalyst has amassed a treasure trove of information on best practices of “great Catholic parishes,” descriptions of which can be found in the book Great Catholic Parishes: How Four Essential Practices Make Them Thrive, by Parish Catalyst founder, Bill Simon, Jr. From these interviews they identified four essential practices of “great Catholic parishes.” These are:
- Great Parishes Share Leadership
- Great Parishes Foster Spiritual Maturity and a Plan for Discipleship
- Great Parishes Excel on Sundays
- Great Parishes Evangelize
Notice any similarities?
Of course, these things don’t just happen without deep prayer and thought, hard work, and tough decisions. They also don’t happen overnight.
Pope Francis wrote in The Joy of the Gospel that “if a parish proves capable of self-renewal and adaptivity, it continues to be the Church living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters.” Here we find at least one answer to the question of what to do about the latest religious trends: if we want the Church to continue to be relevant in our communities, it must be open to change and be able to respond to the demands of the times.
There are excellent programs that focus on personal conversion to Christ as the first step to a parish full of missionary disciples. (For example, ACTS, Alpha, Christ Renews His Parish, ChristLife, and Dynamic Catholic.) But only if we keep focused on all the elements that contribute to long-term, sustained parish vibrancy will these programs be truly transformative. Looking at the daunting statistics on religion today, and reading the stories of parishes where missionary discipleship is thriving, we realize that it’s essential to be intentional and strategic about engaging in this call if we are to be successful. This is a foundational premise of Archbishop Lori’s Be Missionary Disciples planning initiative.
If you need a little inspiration or information to dig deeper into best practices for missionary discipleship, I encourage you to register for the upcoming Mid-Atlantic Congress, being held in Baltimore February 15-17. There will be many outstanding speakers and lots of fabulous resources available to help you. Additionally, the Rebuilt Conference is happening April 16-17 in Timonium. Those who can travel further afield can take advantage of the Amazing Parish conference in Dallas, TX April 25-27 or the Divine Renovation conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia June 11-12.