The majority of Catholic parishes and most other churches face a great test. Or is it a tremendous opportunity?

The Reality of Decline

For many years, the overall rates of active participation in Mass and other critical sacraments have been in a long and steady decline. A statistical report by CARA – the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate – noted that baptisms are now half of what they were in 1970. Marriage rates are only about one-third of what they were in 1970. Catholic Mass attendance plummeted from 55% to 21%. Other reports show that less than one out of ten young adult Catholics go to Church, let alone live as fully committed disciples who make following Jesus Christ the most important thing in their lives – as evidenced by how they pray, serve, give, and witness to others. The COVID-19 Pandemic has taken a terrible toll in the loss of life and in many other ways. It has dramatically changed the Mass-going habits of a majority of the remaining active Catholics, and there is real concern that the long steady Church participation decline has been accelerated. So that’s plenty to worry about. Where is the opportunity?

Begin from Within

Now more than ever, the Church has a great need to focus on inspiring and inviting people to fall in love with Jesus and the Church’s mission in which they are collective stakeholders. Led by the Holy Spirit, that renewal must begin within – within each member, each ministry, each family, each small group, and each parish. Beginning within the faithful core of those who are already active, a prayerful and powerful transformation can begin to take hold. The Church can re-establish itself more intentionally as a community of deeply committed, caring, serving, welcoming and witnessing disciples who are powered by their love for, and life in Jesus.

Awakening to Mission

This call to missionary discipleship has been led most recently by Pope Francis in his powerful apostolic letter, the Joy of the Gospel. He shared “We must admit, though, that the call to review and renew our parishes has not yet sufficed to bring them nearer to people, to make them environments of living communion and participation, and to make them completely mission-oriented.” “Laypeople are, put simply, the vast majority of the people of God. The minority -ordained ministers – are at their service. There has been a growing awareness of the identity and mission of the laity in the Church.” The Church – the people of God – are suffering from a major identity crisis. We often see ourselves as consumers of Church and the faith itself, seeking some benefit for our lives or those we love. We don’t see clearly enough the cause to which we have been called. We need to equip God’s people for their “greater mission.” God has already given them the gifts they need, beginning with the gift of himself. Living their faith in a missionary community of disciples is their greatest purpose in this life.

Building a Plan

What will fuel this kind of inspired comeback? It all begins with the faith and love, the determination and perseverance of the pastor and parish leaders. Here are six key pastoral planning strategies that will help defeat the pervasive crisis of Church homelessness and make the Church attractive again:

  1. Inspire God’s people to pray with the sacred Scriptures each day.
  2. Renew the experience of Sundays so they provide a more profound encounter with the sacred, an authentic experience of enthusiastic faith in worship and prayer, and a genuine care for one another.
  3. Establish a strong annual parish retreat model that will nurture the transformation of parishioners’ lives.
  4. Invite every member to participate in small Christian communities that allow them to walk with each other through the journey of faith and life itself, with its many ups and downs.
  5. Inspire and invite parishioners to the practice of stewardship, service and sacrificial generosity.
  6. Equip members for their essential mission of evangelization by their witness and ready invitation.

Let God Lead

Jesus taught, without me you can do nothing, but remaining in me you will find fullness of joy and bear great fruit. (cf Jn 15). Inspiring a comeback of the Church begins and ends with the essential mission of each member to receive and to share Jesus. Renewal will come inside-out. The Holy Spirit will lead. Let’s go.