Church Life

On Casting Wider Nets for Newbies

The other day I was speaking with a colleague about these articles I’m writing and the changes I am trying to implement in my parish. I have 4 days from today to get this vision of the future of the parish in as concrete a way as possible so I’m trying to have as many conversations around in order to flesh out these ideas and detect landmines ahead of time before they blow up in my face. 

It was a good conversation for me. Charles asked why I was hoping to create these types of programs and working so much on the initial stages of conversion instead of the later stages. “Because everything we do is already for those in the later stages,” I said. "We have nothing, absolutely nothing, for the people who are wrestling with the basics of faith or who want to be introduced to it.” 

As the conversation unfolded, I explained the dangerous tendency in faith formation is to offer a little bit of everything, thinking it will meet everyone’s needs, when in fact it dilutes the effectiveness of what you are offering, burns out your ministers, creates competition between ministries and programs for people, space, and advertising, and, like any huge menu, creates the burden of confusion.

“I am becoming more and more convinced that parishes think they are casting a wide net by offering a million things, but they aren’t. They are casting a thousand small nets.”

Charles responded with a brilliant insight, “They aren’t even doing that. They are casting individual lines. You want to bring the net and gather all these people together, but we’re crowding each other out with our individual lines.”

That's exactly what we are doing and it’s too much

One of the sections in Simple Church that I first ignored was on “Congestion.” No one likes to be congested and we all take medicine to immediately get rid of it. No one likes to drive on congested roads. Yet parish after parish is congested with offerings, a million options, and it confuses, frustrates, or just puts-off too many potential saints.

Right now I am working on two things: Discover Padua and Start Here Series. Discover Padua is our bi-monthly hospitality initiative to deliver the very best New Member class we can. The hope is that after 1.5 to 2 hours everyone will leave with a basic knowledge of the parish, our expectations for them as parishioners, a commitment to grow in their faith, and a Next Step into doing just that.

The Next Step that I am composing is my new Start Here Series. This series is built around the idea that no one equips beginners in parish life but just presupposes that they already have the knowledge. So people who truly are beginners do not know where to get that basic information and will tend to avoid classes and programs that seem to advanced. 

What makes a program seem “too advanced” you ask? To a real newbie, anything that is a long commitment or that lasts for hours and hours, anything that requires a lot of additional books to purchase, or anything that seems to presuppose a lot of knowledge, all of it is probably too much. 

Think about your parish’s programs, classes, events, and ministries and ask yourself which ones would appeal to people who know nothing, or very little, about Christianity versus which ones appeal to the people who already get it. Using FOCUS terminology, which ones “Win” people for Jesus Christ and the beginnings of faith and which ones “Build” up already existing believers? Methinks the majority of classes, if not all, are in the Build category.

This means that we are not equipping people for lifelong discipleship because we are not introducing the very concept to people in a systematic and appropriate way. Pre-evangelization and initial proclamation of the gospel have to start somewhere. Because parishes do not offer this formally, this process is usually carried out by individuals with their family and friends. But why not? 

Why is the parish offering only things for intermediate or advanced Christians and little-to-nothing for the beginner? Because, honestly, that’s where the money is.

I heard a very well-known Catholic presenter who make his living selling “Build” programs criticize the Church in America for having nothing, absolutely nothing, that proposes the faith at a beginner level. He said it is because there is no money in it for the publishers. He worked for a major publisher for years, but he didn’t realize this until he started working for a diocese and experienced the lack of this type of content.

Alpha, Discover Christ, and that’s about it for “Win” in most Catholic parishes who care about evangelism. 

But when you look at the evangelical world, almost everything they do is for the Win, even their Sunday services. Seek-style churches leverage their whole Sunday services for winning people to Christ, usually reserving the Wednesday evening service for believers and not seekers. Their ministries are set up to cast as wide a net as possible for seekers and newbies. Their whole church is aligned along this notion of winning people for Jesus and then getting them into growing relationships with others. 

Casting a wide net means we are able to address the 8,000 adults that supposedly belong to my parish church but haven’t come to anything or are a part of any formation or ministry. We have about 2,000 adults that have done something, whether it is as a lector, food pantry volunteer, or attend a class. Those 8,000 parishioners are the very definition of “peripheries” of the parish. They probably do not attend Mass but once a year. 

Having both the Discover Padua and Start Here Series offered continuously at the parish enables these marginal people to have an easy and appealing reboot to their faith. Serving this crowd is what keeps me up at night and finally I feel like I’m making headway into actually bringing the gospel to them.