Faith Forum: Why join a parish?

Father Charles Bober

I read that a new survey shows that less than half of Americans go to church, which is very troubling.   What is the Catholic Church doing about that?

There have been several recent polls about religions and religious practice.  The important distinction with the most recent Gallup survey was that it did not cite “not going to church” but rather, not belonging to a particular house of worship.  Gallup states that, “far fewer, now less than half of Americans, have a formal membership with a specific house of worship.”

That distinction is important is because it confirms what we have seen in our daily lives.  Most of us know Catholics who attend Mass but have never joined a parish.  There seems to be a feeling among many Catholics that joining a specific parish is not that important.

There are many reasons for this.  Our society is far more mobile than it ever was.  In the past, parish membership was almost automatic.  Today, people do not really settle down easily, whether due to employment, preferences, family obligations, etc., and they say, “I may only be here for a little while, so, why join a parish?”

Another factor is that a significant number of Catholics contend that their faith is personal and they do not need to affiliate to practice the faith.  Interestingly, I have observed this among college students and young adults.  While there are active Catholic centers around their campus or neighborhood, they tend to worship in a large nearby church, often the local cathedral.  Why?  It seems that they are searching and working out religion in their lives and they say they need some anonymity to do that without the pressure of belonging.

While at times we like to have things neatly tied up and counted, that is not where many people are today.  

What can the Catholic Church do about this?  Programs of evangelization on multiple levels and platforms are critically important.  Many dioceses and parishes are doing that.  But most important is the sense of welcome that a parish can provide.  The way we treat one another at Mass and the way we talk about what is happening in our parishes will very well prove to be the deciding factor in a person’s visit becoming membership or at least consistent active involvement. 

People will join our parishes if there is a “value added.”  They might ask what they would receive in return.  If it is just contribution envelopes, we have failed.  But if joining provides an avenue for interaction and inclusion, we have done a great service.  However, it is not just what people get, but what they can contribute.  Too often we focus on what our parish can do for you rather than what a difference you can make in our parish.

Is there hope in all this? Yes.  Another study from the Pew Research Center conducted last summer showed that “three in 10 Americans reported stronger personal faith due to the pandemic.”   None of us knows for sure what our post-pandemic lives and parishes will look like.  But we cannot afford to sit back and wait to see what happens.  We need to have a strategy for what we want our parishes to be. 

Photo by Dena Koenig Photography