Why They Leave. Why They Come Back – Survey Series #12

Corresponds to Question 19 and 20 of the survey

Everyone’s faith journey is unique. But I have to confess that in one respect my own journey could not be more average: when I stopped practicing the Catholic faith it was the result of gradually drifting away. My parents took us Mass every Sunday, we dutifully “got our sacraments,” and we attended “Sunday school.” But as I entered young adulthood, none of that stopped me from walking out the door. What’s so “average” about this? Over 70 percent of those who leave the Catholic Church also “gradually drift away.” It is by far the number one reason why people leave.

Thanks be to God – literally – I did find my way back. I had a personal conversion – or “reversion” – to Christ and His Church. I discovered as if for the first time all those things I had left behind. My Catholic faith went from meaning nothing to meaning everything. The story of how this happened has to wait for another day. Blog posts need to be pithy, and it’s only one story among thousands. But, one thing is clear:

If we want to become evangelizing parishes, we need to reflect deeply and humbly on why our sisters and brothers leave and what helps them reconnect and come back. Let’s consider Q. 19 and 20 that ask these very same questions:

“Why do we think people leave the Church? (Q. 19) And, “How to help people reconnect with the faith?” (Q. 20)

These are both tough questions because in most parishes, when people leave, it largely goes unnoticed. There is no slamming of doors or loud complaints or ultimatums for “change or else.” Our sisters and brothers just quietly go from being weekly Mass goers to biweekly to maybe monthly to Christmas and Easter to … never again. Or for some reason they suddenly disappear. But, all too often, no one asks them why. No one tells them they’re missed. No one invites them to come back. If we don’t know why they leave – where they are at in their faith journey – it’s hard to know how best to reconnect them.

So, our question for discernment: What would we have to do as a faith community to turn this around? To move from anonymity to a family of faith where every member is known by name, valued, missed, and invited back? Once we know where someone is in their journey, we can try to meet them there.

If the reasons they leave are:

  • disagreement with Church teachings on specific issues (57%)
  • the clergy sex-abuse issue (24%)
  • or they no longer believe (15%)

Are we equipped to:

  • Pray for them (78%) – how is this encouraged in an intentional way in the parish?
  • Be open to their questions about the Church and its teaching (52%) – where and when could these conversations take place? How do we build enough trust for them to voice doubts, disagreements, anger, disillusionment?
  • Share why you remain a committed Catholic (42%) – How do we become comfortable sharing our faith story? Are there regular opportunities to share our faith, to be invited to do so?
  • Listen to their pains and concerns and accompany them (40%) – again, where, when, what have we done to earn their trust? Do we communicate clearly that they won’t be judged and condemned, but respected and heard and accepted?

If the reasons they leave are:

  • Not getting enough out of Mass (40%)
  • Gradual loss of interest (37%)
  • Dissatisfied with atmosphere in church (27%)
  • Spiritual needs not being met (26%)
  • Not feeling welcomed (17%)

Are we equipped to:

  • Pray for them (78%) – this cannot be overemphasized …
  • Let them know they’re missed and always welcome (47%) – how can we let them know if we don’t notice they’re not there? Can we move from hospitality to strangers, to making an effort to getting to know fellow parishioners by name? Can we invite them to leave contact information?
  • Offer a personal invitation to attend Mass with you (40%) – this goes a long way – more people will know don’t come back because no one invited them – but when they come back, what will they find? A reminder of why they left in the first place, or a new reason to stay?
  • Invite them to parish social events (29%) – social events can be the perfect place to get to know people, build trust, and begin to accompany them.
  • Introduce them to your parish friends and/or pastor (20%) – providing meaningful community, making personal connections and, best of all, inviting someone into small circle of faith is often the most effective way to reconnect them with their faith. How can we be intentional about providing these opportunities?

As we reflect on these questions for discernment – and the many other questions prompted by the survey results, let’s not forget Pope Francis’s exhortation to us all: “Pastoral ministry in a missionary key seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says: “We have always done it this way”. I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities.” (The Joy of the Gospel, 33)

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