For Catholic Priests: How to Grow Your Parish
It’s December of 2020, and this year I want to give a Christmas gift to any Catholic priest out there willing to receive it. It consists of some basic bullet points that, if implemented, should revive your parish in the face of creeping Secularization in our culture, and growing Evangelical sects that constantly pilfer our parishioners away from us. You might be wondering how I know what will work. To answer that, let me give you my credentials.
I am a former Evangelical associate pastor for Calvary Chapel, an anti-Catholic, Evangelical affiliation that is primarily based in the United States. Calvary Chapels usually consist of a large number of ex-Catholics (many of them now pastors) who preach a form of Biblical Fundamentalism coupled with contemporary worship style. Catholics who leave the Church, for Calvary Chapel, often report that the reason why they left the Catholic Church was because they felt like they never learned anything there. (That’s important. Note that.) This affiliation is highly effective at getting Catholics to leave the Church, but they’re not alone. Many other Evangelical affiliations offer a similar package and are equally effective at getting Catholics to leave the Church. So the Christmas gift I’m going to give you this year is the secret to their success, and how you can turn the tables on them. You may want to take notes, or actually print out this essay. For that matter, you may want to share this information with your fellow priests.
The Evangelical Secret
The secret to Evangelical success is really not very secretive at all. Here’s what Calvary Chapel offers that is so successful, and they have one of the most simple methods out there. They don’t offer fancy services, with fog machines, strobe lights and laser beams. They don’t offer charismatic homilies with a pastor waving his Bible in the air while he screams into a microphone. They don’t have wild and crazy services where people are falling over with “signs and wonders.” No. Their package is simple, but it’s so effective at pulling Catholics out of the Church, their congregations are filled with ex-Catholics, or as they sometimes call themselves “recovering Catholics.” Are you ready for their secret? Here it is…
- They use simple and heartfelt worship music, very contemporary, with no fog machines or laser beams. Just some simple and contemporary songs that anyone can easily memorize.
- A homily is preached that is based on expository teaching from a particular Bible passage, or group of passages. In other words, these pastors teach their congregation what the Bible says, and what it means, in a plain and simple way, that anyone can understand. They also teach them how to interpret the Bible too, so they can learn to do it themselves. All of this is done in the homily, as the Bible passages are being expounded upon: “This is the passage. This is what it means. This is why it means that. This is how I came to that conclusion. This is how you can do it too.” Again, all of this is done in the homily. If people want more information, the pastor offers a Bible-study class sometime during the week. But each homily itself is like a little Bible-study on its own.
- A liberalizing of the Faith is frowned upon and avoided. The best way to get people to remember the faith is through the plain and simple teaching of the Faith on face value. Liberalizing the Faith actually complicates it, and in the end, this drives more people away than it attracts. Calvary Chapel understands this. That’s why they teach the Faith in a plain and simple way, which may seem cold and rigid at first, but is surprisingly effective at retaining members. As a general rule, the two-hand approach is always emphasized — God’s justice in one hand, and God’s mercy in the other. Both hands are given in every homily and Bible-study class.
- A “Foundations in Faith” course is offered for those who wish to join the church. It lasts about six to eight weeks, in total, and catechizes them on the very basics of the faith, covering the topics of the Apostles Creed in detail. Baptism is offered to those who complete the course. Or else, baptism may be done first, so long as the one being baptized agrees to attend the course. The length of the course is essential. It runs six to eight weeks long, year round. Anything longer and the potential new members might lose interest. Anything shorter, and the catechism is incomplete.
- An offer is made during each worship service for new members to join by making a public profession of faith, and for lapsed members to return by doing the same. Re-dedication to the faith is a regular feature of a Calvary Chapel worship service.
What I described above is the Calvary Chapel method, which is highly effective. Other Evangelical churches might add things to that. Some of them have more elaborate worship styles. Others have more charismatic and dynamic speakers. The reason why I point out the Calvary Chapel method is because it’s fairly “low-key” and not very flashy, but it works. And man it works well! You can expect the average Catholic to leave the Catholic Church entirely, and join a Calvary Chapel, never to return again, within three to six months of first attending a service there.
Applying the Secret to Your Parish
There is a common mistake that many Catholic priests make when they think they’ve learned the Evangelical secret. They try to duplicate it in their parish. They tear out the altar rails. They bring in the drums and electric guitars. They play Evangelical worship music. They try to be cool, hip and “with it.” And they’ve been doing this since the 1970s. It’s a terrible mistake. It doesn’t work, and it needs to stop. I’m going to now reveal how you can apply the secrets of Evangelicalism without trying to duplicate them. There’s a Catholic way to go about these things, and then there’s a Protestant way to go about these things. The Evangelical way is the Protestant way. Don’t do that. It won’t work. Not only will your parish continue to hemorrhage members, but you’ll end up looking rather silly while it’s happening.
Catholics need to apply these secrets in Catholic ways. Because, you see, if you try to duplicate the Evangelical method, all you’re doing is creating a Catholic parish that looks like a wannabe Evangelical church. You’re teaching your parishioners that they should wannabe Evangelicals. That’s obviously not your intention! And certainly that’s not what you’re broadcasting. But this is what many of them will receive. Nobody is better at being Evangelical than the Evangelicals! They will always be better at that. So we can’t try to imitate them. We have to go a different way, and thankfully, that way is laid out before us in our history. So here is how we can implement the Evangelical secrets in our Catholic parishes, in a Catholic way…
- Teach your parishioners how to chant. Yes. You read that right. Teach them how to chant. Put the songs of our ancestors on their lips and in their hearts. The way you do this is by including plenty of simple chants in the Mass. You can dress the chants up, all you want, using the choir. But the basic chant needs to be simple and easy to learn. This is done through repetition. Your parishioners need to hear them every Sunday and on weekdays. Use bells and incense during the Mass. Face ad orientem during the liturgy, especially during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Bring back the altar rails (or at least some kneelers) and try to distribute communion on the tongue while kneeling. (This is to re-teach Catholics how to reverence of the Eucharist.) If you can’t do it on the tongue, for whatever reason, at least place it in the hand while kneeling. Kneeling is what makes the difference here. Lower the lights during Mass. People who need light to read their missals should sit closer to the altar where it’s well lit. However, the priest should emphasize that hearing the Mass is more important than reading it. Most of all, remember this. Mass is meant to be sung whenever possible. Singing lifts the soul. A well sung Mass, using chant everyone can do, with bells and incense, in a dimly lit room, with the priest facing ad orientem and the parishioners receiving the Eucharist on their knees, will make every bit of a lasting impression on people as any Evangelical worship service, if not more.
- When it comes to the homily, use an expository method on teaching the gospel readings (when appropriate) or one of the epistle readings (when appropriate) to teach your parishioners what the Scriptures mean, why they mean that, how you came to that conclusion, and how they can do the same. The big difference here is you need to point them to the Catechism too. The best way to do this is to pepper your homily with Catechism references as they relate to your expository teaching on the Gospel (or Epistle) readings. Remember, it’s always Scripture first, and Catechism second. Then, you should offer Bible study courses for more details to those who are interested. I highly recommend focusing primarily on the New Testament in these courses, with only occasional dips into the Old Testament, reserved for more interesting books. The trick here is to keep feeding them on the Scriptures. Think of your Sunday Mass homily as “basic rations” of Scripture study to maintain survival. Some will want to feed their appetite more. These are your Bible study students for additional courses.
- DO NOT liberalize the faith. Teach it plainly and simply. Don’t try to over-complicate it with intellectualism. Obviously, if Catholics want to believe in evolution over creationism, that’s okay. Tell them the Church supports that, but give them the guidelines the Church recommends when supporting that. However, when it comes to the gospels, the literal approach is always the best approach. When the gospels say Jesus did a miracle, then he did a miracle. Got it? If you try to intellectualize this, it’s going to backfire on you. So don’t do it! If you’re one of those intellectual-type priests, this is not a condemnation of you, so don’t take it that way. What you have to understand is this. Not everyone is wired like you. Some people just aren’t intellectuals. That doesn’t mean they’re stupid. It just means they’re simple, and that’s okay. Look at the gospels. Jesus tells us that God likes that sort of thing. Remember, we must have faith as a child? There are some Catholics who are creationists, and some who are geocentrists. Don’t condemn them for that. The Church doesn’t. Neither should you. Let them be. Your only job is to get their souls into heaven.
- You must figure out a way to totally revamp the RCIA process. Six to nine months is terrible, and a good way to turn people off before they ever get started. You should, perhaps, figure out a way to reduce the course into eight-week segments, and run those segments year round. The first eight-weeks gets you to baptism. Then you can baptize if applicable. The second eight weeks gets you to confirmation and first communion. Then you can administer those sacraments if applicable. Some Protestant converts might be able to skip the baptism preparation, and dive right into the confirmation preparation. Catholics returning to the faith may just need to audit both courses. Ultimately, it’s up to you to come up with some kind of creative method, and yes, you may have to get personally involved, but it needs to happen. A long RCIA process makes the Church appear inaccessible and aristocratic. You may not think it does, but I guarantee that’s what Evangelicals think when they hear about a six to nine month RCIA process to join the Catholic Church. Lastly, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of having a solid catechist, who is 100% orthodox in doctrine. You may have to construct the syllabus of the courses yourself, or you may choose to involve your catechist. Whatever you decide, make sure your catechist is solid, orthodox and traditional. If your catechist isn’t, you’re going to lose people through the catechism process.
- Confessions MUST be offered immediately before Mass, and every homily must end with an invitation to receive the Eucharist only if properly disposed in a state of grace. If not, confession is available before each Mass, and one can always come forward to receive a blessing in lieu of communion. Likewise, at the end of every homily, an invitation should be given to join (or return to) the Catholic Church by simply talking to the priest after Mass. You should have plain and simple materials nearby when you greet people at the end of Mass, and an assistant should be at your side, ready to hand out those materials, and take the contact information of the interested parties. Your secretary will later contact these people, to set up an interview with you. This interview will help them discern what level of catechesis they need. (Shameless plug here: when dealing with hardened Evangelicals, my book “Are Catholics Christian?” might be helpful.) Then, your secretary can sign them up for the appropriate class. This also gives you a grand opportunity to get to know these people and give them a good first impression. If you’re not a people-person, take some classes or something, on how to be more sociable. If you need a shrink, get one. Nobody wants to join a parish with an unapproachable and impersonal priest. I’m sorry, the parish priesthood is, by nature, a sociable vocation. If that’s just not your thing, parish life is not for you. Consider a monastic or academic vocation instead.
Consider this my Christmas gift, and take it for whatever it’s worth to you. Remember what I said above about ex-Catholics at Calvary Chapel saying they felt like they never learned anything in the Catholic Church? As you can see by my recommendations above, the whole thing centers around teaching. Even the liturgy and music is a form of teaching. If you want to stop the hemorrhaging of members, and turn the tables, even drawing in new members, this is the best way. It works. It’s proven. And you can do it. You don’t need a Latin Mass, even though there is nothing wrong with that if you desire it. All you need is the will and the discipline to make the changes using a regular Mass. Approach your parish council with the vision, get your leadership team on board. Be cheerful, uplifting and filled with hope. In other words, be a LEADER! Implement something akin to what I wrote above, and watch the new parishioners start to slowly come back. Watch your parish come back to life again. Then maybe start a new building fund. You might need to get a bigger church!
Merry Christmas and God bless!!!