Summary of today’s show: Church of the Nativity in Maryland has undergone a remarkable renaissance in the past decade and Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran share the story of this turnaround in their new book “Rebuilt”. Scot Landry and Fr. Matt Williams talk to Fr. White and Tom about changing the consumer culture to one of discipleship; simplifying their mission statement to six words encapsulating the Great Commission; the lessons learned from evangelical mega-churches; developing a profile of the “lost sheep” they were seeking; and how the experience of Sunday Mass has been changed to appeal to the unchurched and to give the sense that the parish is waiting to welcome them home.
Listen to the show:
Watch the show via live video streaming or a recording later: BostonCatholicLive.com
Today’s host(s): Scot Landry and Fr. Matt Williams
Today’s guest(s): Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran
Links from today’s show:
- Church of the Nativity, Timonium, Maryland
- Fr. Michael White’s blog
- “Rebuilt” website
- Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter
Today’s topics: Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter
1st segment: Scot Landry welcomed everyone to the show and he said he’s looking forward to talking about this new book “Rebuilt” and he thinks this book has the opportunity to change the way we experience parish life. He thinks about 100 of these books are floating around the Pastoral Center. Fr. Matt said it’s a great read.
They welcomed Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran to the show. Scot said when they first arrived at Church of the Nativity in North Baltimore, they probably experienced what we would all recognize in our parishes. Fr. White said it was a consumer culture where parishioners were like customers and the church was a retailer. He said they think the basic problem in parishes today is culture and it’s a parish problem. It needs to be fixed at the parish level. Churches all across the country share in this problem.
Scot said that culture grew over many decades and those who work for the Church feed that culture. Tom said in their parish they failed in perpetuating the culture. The classic moment from the book were the Family Friendly Fridays where it ended up with people complaining about the free food being served them. Scot said they admit in the book that their eye came off the mission of Jesus, seeking those who were lost.
Fr. White said they began a period of examining fruitful parishes across the country, parishes growing intentionally, not just in communities that were growing. That necessitated looking at Evangelical churches, which have cornered the market on this growth. At a weeklong conference at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California, he was struck by the change he needed personally and the parish needed collectively.
Fr. White said they kind of fell into the process. They began implementing items that worked as opposed to formulating a grand strategy. They took the Family Friendly Fridays that felt purposeless and adapted it with the new purpose. They went from 500 people to about 200 people because they made it clear that the intent was to make it about evangelization and volunteering and small groups. When they began to make changes, conflict ensued. Scot note that there was a lot of resistance, especially from parishioners who were being challenged. He said in the Archdiocese of Boston, five out of six Catholics don’t come to church and many parishes don’t do a lot to show they care for that five out of six.
Fr. White said it’s hard to stay focused on who’s not there. Plus resources are tight, people are busy, church people tend to be friends who are church people, and it’s uncomfortable and intimidating to look at the prospect of going out to share your faith and inviting people to church. A lot of Catholics don’t even see why there’s a need to do it. When you go down that road, you’re inviting conflict with people in the pews.
Scot said he appreciated the mission statement of the Church of the Nativity. Tom said no one at the parish knew their original mission statement, including himself. They kind of pushed against mission statements because Jesus gave us one. So that’s what they used: Love God. Love others. Make disciples. One of the lessons they had learned from others was that the Great Commission in the Gospel of Matthew was the mission statement.
Fr. Matt asked for some background of the parish before and after. Fr. White said the parish is in an affluent community north of Baltimore. It was built in the late 60s with a beautiful campus and facility. It was generally considered innovative for its time in the late 60s and early 70s, but that innovation came to an end and they were stuck in place and aging in place. By the late 90s when they arrived it had become a community devoted to the maintenance of the status quo. Resources were strained and the staff was small and dysfunctional. Most remarkable was that the parish was dying. Over the past 20 years, 30 to 50 per year were leaving the parish and it was shrinking. At its high point, weekly attendance was about 2,000, but had dwindled to 1,300.
Today, they have growth in every measurable area. Weekend attendance is about 4,000, with about 4,500 during Lent and Easter. Even more they see people giving and serving and getting involved in small group life. On a single Sunday recently, 1,100 people volunteered to get involved in a ministry.
Scot said the purpose of the parish is to help the lost become disciples and help the disciples grow. Tom said a disciple loves God, loves others, and makes other disciples. They want people to develop a personal relationship with God with a person prayer life. They want people to look at all of their life as coming from God, which includes their financial giving, not just to the church, but to the least of our brothers and sisters. They love their families and people around them. And if they love people, they want to invite them into relationship with God.
Scot noted Fr. White’s video of his homily inviting people to get up out of the pews and get involved. He said that Fr. White wanted them to get involved because in serving others we grow in our faith. Why is it important not just to come and hear the homily, but to get involved? Fr. White said just coming to Church and consuming is not growing as a disciple. If a child just ate but didn’t exercise, they wouldn’t grow in a healthy way. The only people who don’t serve in a family are babies, so “baby Christians” are okay to sit in the pew and consume, but at some point they’re going to have get up and serve beyond the parish boundaries.
Fr. Matt asked how they seek to evangelize their people. Fr. White said based in the Eucharist and the Word of God, the people can go out into the community and do evangelization. That word can mean so much, so they reduce it to the simple strategy of “Invest and Invite”. He’s not sure how many in their community are unchurched Catholics, but everyone in the parish knows them so they ask them to make an investment in those people in their encounters at the PTA or kids’ sports games or the like. Then they ask them to invite others to visit the parish in person or for the events available online.
Scot asked where you start to turn a parish around. The book lists three general steps: Define the mission field, describe the lost in the mission field, and devise a simple invitation for the lost. Scot said on that second step, they described the lost in a lot of detail.
Tom said they described a man they called “Timonium Tim” and described him as very specific to north Baltimore: Went to Catholic school, went to confirmation classes, and then stopped going when his mom stopped making him. On Sundays he watches football and doesn’t go to church because he says it’s boring and his idea of the Church came from the Da Vinci Code. Painting that picture, everyone in the pews could think of someone they knew who was like that. People now come up to them and say that was them. The parish makes sure to tell them that in general and individually that the parish is glad for them to be there.
Scot asked what they changed about weekend Masses to make “Tim” more welcome and want to come back. Fr. White said “Tim” grew up Catholic so he knows the Mass, but doesn’t appreciate it. To get him where he needs to be, they need to focus on those elements besides the Eucharistic Prayer which are going to have traction with him. That comes in three parts: Music, message, and ministers. Music is important for lifting hearts and giving a sense of worship, but they specifically selected music with “Tim” in mind. The weekend experience is a kind of journey on which they’re trying to take people, an emotional and spiritual journey to the realm of higher things. Music is like the water on which that experience sails. It’s incredibly important to someone just back to church for the first time. The weekend message or homily is based in the Scripture readings which is relevant on Sunday mornings for what’s going to happen in their lives on Monday morning. A great compliment is to hear people say they were talking about the message on the way home or later that week. The ministers are the parishioners who serve their fellow parishioners, guests, and newcomers, meeting them at the door and showing they’re happy they’re there. They even have parking ministers greeting people.
Scot asked Tom how long it took to get the parishioners used to singing. He said it took a couple of years and it’s still an ongoing challenge. they still have people who walk out church during the closing song. But over two or three years they increased the singing, modeling the behavior or preaching about it. Scot noted that they decided not to have different music at each Mass. He noted that they have several different types of music, whether contemporary Christian music or Gregorian chant. Tom said with contemporary worship music, they started it at their youth Mass and found that all ages were attracted to it. Over time it became obvious that in order to reach the people far from Christ, the music they would want is music that was most like what they would hear on the radio. That was the music that would appeal to “Timonium Tim”. He said it moved to their other Masses.
When it comes to chant, he said Fr. White has a great sense of the movement of the Mass. They’ve come to believe that there is a desire for mystery, especially in the emerging generation. There is something mysterious about chant and it makes the Eucharistic prayer stand out from the rest of the Mass. It became part of the Mass organically. Between those two, it represents who they want to be as a parish, dynamically orthodox.
Scot said the book indicates three decisions related to how Fr. White would preach. He would preach longer, at least 20 minutes. He would multi-week themes for his messages. He wanted every parishioner to get the same message at every Mass so he preaches at every one. Fr. White said they discovered the idea of message series from Protestant churches, which develop a theme over four to six weeks. As they implemented it, in a liturgical church with seasons and a lectionary cycle, they discovered it makes even more sense because those seasons and themes are already there in Lent, Easter, and even Ordinary time. It’s a great way to keep people coming back and interested. It’s a great to keep everyone on the same page over time. It makes sermon preparation easier as well.
He does preach 20 minutes every week.They found that the length of message has the critical mass needed to get a clear strong and relevant message across, giving them time to explore the Scripture in a serious way and make a life application for it.
Fr. White said it can be problematic to have multiple homilists over a weekend because people can hear different messages. Sometimes people hear conflicting messages. Recognizing the gift of being pastor and having a pulpit to speak from, he had to renew his gratitude and understanding of that gift. There can be logistical problems in preaching at every Mass when there’s a parochial vicar. In some parishes, they switch off weekends. In others they coordinate a consistent message.
Scot said Church of the Nativity has groups of ministers: parking team, ops team, hosting team, welcoming team, cafe team, and more. He said some of the terminology is foreign to many Catholics. Tom said they often hear from people who they felt so welcomed when they came to the church. That’s not rocket science. It’s all very simple and all very hard to implement. The parking ministers don’t just show people where to park, but set the tone that this is a church that’s prepared for an event. These ministries communicate that we expect guests, people who haven’t been here before. The greeters welcome people. The hosting ministers help seat people or direct them to the restrooms and the like. It shows that this place has its act together. He said children’s programs for nursery and kindergarten provide for the people who are coming back to church at this stage. They’re not babysitting, but provide a worship experience for them and then allow parents to have an hour to listen to what God is saying to them without worrying about the children.
Fr. Matt asked how the parish cares for a young couple having their first child up through adulthood. Fr. White said they make baptism preparation as more than a class but a celebration of their baby. They connect them to an enthusiasm for faith. When they are successful in getting them to bring the child to the nursery, there are ministers there who introduce the child into a worship experience where they learn, play, and worship together. The kids bring the parents back week after week. Later on, they get the kids in church at Mass and try to have an interactive children’s liturgy of the Word during the 20 minute homily from Fr. White to the adults. They also have student programs starting at middle school, giving them an experience every week of worship, fellowship, and small-group interaction to learn about discipleship.
Scot asked about the importance of small groups. Tom said they talk about friends and faith. We need relationships in order to grow in our discipleship to Christ. This is the biggest challenge and toughest hurdle. People understand volunteering for ministries and going to church, but people are still leery of small groups. But it’s absolutely essential so the larger church can become small and intimate and people can share their struggles.
Scot recommends listeners to watch one of the Masses on Sunday at 10:30am or 5pm to experience what it’s like.