If you go to almost any ministry conference or listen to Catholic media, you will probably hear that the future of the church in the United States does not look good. We’re told that Sunday Mass participation, especially among millennials, is in steep decline. Sometimes the experts will speculate that we need to become a more relevant church, offering more pop-style music, late-evening coffee gatherings, or exotic mission trips.
Very seldom, however, are any of these opinions backed up by hard data. Well, here are some actual facts to consider. The Pew Research Center asked 4,729 people why they do or don’t go to church. This is what they found out.
Why do people go to church?
The number-one reason people said they go to church (81%) is to feel closer to God. Rounding out the top five, other reasons people go to church include:
- So their children will have a moral foundation. (69%)
- To become a better person. (68%)
- For comfort in times of trouble or sorrow. (66%)
- They find the sermons valuable. (59%)
The good news here is these last four are all things parishes can influence. For example, if your parish — or even just your RCIA team — set a goal to get just a little better at doing each of these last four things, you will begin to see an increase in people seeking out your parish.
Why do people choose to not go to church?
What is even more instructive, however, are the reasons people gave for not going to church. The number-one reason people gave for not going to church (37%) is that they practice their faith “in other ways.” This turns out to often be untrue. Most of the people who gave that response are not actually involved in any faith activities. But, that does not mean they are unbelievers. By looking at some of the other reasons people gave for not going to church, we can get some clues about how to attract them.
I want of focus on just a few of the reasons given. You can click over to the Pew study if you want to dive deeper. For RCIA teams, I think these reasons people gave for not going to church are most relevant:
- No reason is “very important.” (26%)
- They haven’t found a house of worship they like. (23%)
- They don’t feel welcome. (14%)
- Poor health or mobility. (9%)
About one-fourth of those surveyed said they don’t really have a reason for not going to church. I wrote about this in a previous post. People are looking for reasons to come to church and reasons to stay. If we could give those 26% percent who said they don’t have a “very important” reason for not going to church a good reason to come to church, we would see a significant increase in numbers.
One easy solution, and one that will take some planning
The next two reasons are basically the same reason. When people say that they haven’t found a church they like, they mostly mean they don’t feel welcome. If that’s true and we combine both groups, 37% of people who don’t come to church are not coming because we don’t smile enough, shake hands enough, engage enough with strangers on Sunday. You don’t need a budget to improve this. You don’t need the pastor’s permission. You don’t need a workshop or more skills. You and your team just need to show up on Sunday and be hospitable to strangers.
The final reason, health and mobility issues, might need a budget. Many Protestant parishes invest in vans or school busses to pick up people who cannot drive to church. We could do the same thing, but it will take some planning and fundraising. Until then, you and your team could offer to drive less-mobile neighbors to church. If each of you got a friend or family member to also offer to share rides, you would be able to transport at least as many people as a single van could.
They key take-away here is that many, many people are not avoiding church because they lack faith. There are other reasons, and we can very easily solve those objections if we adopt a solution attitude.
Stopping the decline in church attendance really comes to down to asking ourselves if we are willing to be more hospitable and maybe buy a van.
What steps is your parish taking to welcome seekers? How are you helping those who have physical difficulty attending? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
8 thoughts on “Two secrets to RCIA evangelization — smile at strangers and buy a van”
It seems that most Catholics, especially the elderly ones, think it is disrespectful or sinful to smile or greet each other in Church. Most sit quietly and stare straight ahead in an effort to be “holy”. I find myself always asking, “Where is the Joy?” I personally can’t stop smiling when I enter my Father’s House and am called to the Presence of my Beloved Lord. The Holy Spirit has His job cut out for Him.
I want to affirm Nick’s suggestion of picking up folks who need a ride. One of our sponsors picks up a candidate who does not have a car. Not only does it allow him participate in our initiation sessions on Tuesday night, it “gets him out” of his apartment and into a community. In other words, it helps with loneliness, too. And, brings some joy – a shout out to the above comment!
I think it was actually Nick who mentioned one time that a really good way to evangelize is to scoot in and make room at the end of the pew, so that those arriving after you don’t have to ask your permission to come in and sit down.
I agree with Judith McRae. Just last Sunday we had to climb over several people to get to two spaces remaining in the pew. All pews were filled due to a special Santo Nino celebration. The people frowned at us as we asked to pass them in order to get the two remaining seats. Mass had not started so we were not late. They just gave us the impression we were not welcome. I am very involved in this parish but every so often go to a different Mass that is not RCIA. Looks like we have to do some training of some of our parishioners. Good thing I wasn’t a person considering becoming a Catholic!!
I always head for the center of the pew and recently asked our diocesan RCIA catechists both to do the same and to ask their candidates and catechumens to do so. It could change our church “atmosphere” if more of us made this our practice!
I total agree with people in their first time coming to church, I move into a new parish couple years ago, it’s an old parish not a new church only one English Mass on Sunday. I move from big community with registered members more that 10,000 its a multi-cultural and very involve in the community. I was observed ask question and listen to members why they don’t have a lots of people coming into the English Mass and the response is there’s not that many events in English only Spanish community they more like own the parish. Now I registered in the Parish for couple of years now we’re trying to put together a Parish Council. Now I do a welcome before the Mass I ask if we have any visitors and welcome the in our Liturgy and everyone please say good morning into your sister or your brother next to you. Now we start increase the attendants of our Mass.
Malia, this is really great – you saw a problem and instead of complaining, you decided to be the solution – this is the attitude we all need to imitate. 🙂
Oddly, the advice to be more welcoming for evangelization coincides with what an FBI security speaker told us to do in this age of terrorist lone shooters. If someone is acting suspiciously or trying to conceal a weapon we should walk up to them and engage them in conversation confidently. It may throw them off their game and cause them to have second thoughts about their mission. I think it sort of destroys the “us vs. them” mentality.