CARA’s Parish Data & the New Evangelization: A Social Network Approach

CARA has a very interesting post showing the multiple ways of counting Catholics. It should be very helpful for thinking about the New Evangelization. See A Micro-scoping View of U.S. Catholic Populations at CARA’s blog, Nineteen Sixty-Four.

I wish I had had the USA Catholics per Parish data when I was on pastoral council. Below I have created a table from the CARA parish data to help think about parishes. The “average” parish has 3,277 persons in households registered in the parish. This is the easiest number to compare with your parish. There are likely an addition 911 unregistered people nearby who still identify as Catholic, and 1,264 who were once Catholic at some point in their life. So the parish’s total “Catholic” population is really 5,452.

Among the 3,277 persons in registered households, there are 1,225 who attend Mass less than once a month, another 1,047 that attend at least once a month but not every week, and finally 1,005 people who attend Mass every week. The group that is key to re-evangelizing the “whole” parish consists of 168 adults very involved in the parish outside of Mass. I have divided each of the cumulative circles by this number. For the total 5,452 Catholics, there are 32 Catholics per Involved Adult. For all the Catholics in households registered in the parish there are 20 Catholics per Involved adult.

Evangelization can be considered as strengthening and spreading both Catholic Culture (e.g. beliefs, values, practices) and Catholic Institutions (e.g. social networks).

With Andrew Greeley I believe religious culture works more like poetry (by inspiring and shaping our experience) than like prose (by systematically educating our minds). The good news is that Catholic culture is wonderfully rich, diverse and inspiring; the bad news is that one size fits all presentations of Catholicism tend to be boring rather than inspiring.


Concentric Circles Model*: USA Catholics Per Parish Data

Category of Catholic Numbers Cumulative Per Involved
Catholics at some point in life




Currently identifies as Catholic




In household registered with Parish




Attends Mass at least once a month




Attending Mass every week




Adults very involved outside Mass




Lay Ecclesial Ministers




* Assumes those who attend Mass are registered in parish, generally but not exactly true

At this time, strengthening social networks is more important than strengthening culture. People who have social networks (families, close friends and small groups) in a congregation are healthier, happier and more willing to give of their time, talent and treasure. Beliefs and values acquired from sitting alone in the pews or childhood education do not seem to confer many benefits. The good news is that social networks spread and maintain culture; the bad news is we can no longer rely on Catholic family and ethnic social networks to grow and maintain themselves. The parish today has to build and strengthen social networks of families, friends and small groups.

What does strengthening Catholic culture and Catholic social networks mean for the different concentric circles of the parish?

Cultural Catholics: They were Catholics at some point in their life but now no longer identify as Catholic. Bad news: They are unlikely to come back since many have become members of other churches. Good news: Today, people feel free to draw their religious culture from more than one denomination, and to participate in social networks of more than one denomination. Although many of these Cultural Catholics may have rejected certain aspects of Catholic teaching (birth control, abortion) they likely retain some Catholic beliefs, values, spiritualities, and practices. Evangelization strategy: make the richness and diversity of Catholic culture widely available to the public through parishes where non-Catholics can network with Catholics in small groups led by Involved Catholics.

Lukewarm Catholics not in Parish Network: These are people who identify as Catholics but are not in a registered household. What sociologists know about “lukewarm” people is that they are ripe for having a conversion experience if they find something that inspires their interest (religion as poetry) in a group that shares that same inspiration. Evangelization strategy: present many different inspiring aspects of Catholicism (beliefs, values, spiritualities, practices) through small groups led by Involved Catholics.

Lukewarm Catholics in the Parish Network: There is an even larger group of the lukewarm Catholics that do not go to Mass even once a month who are connected to the parish network through registration. These could be attracted by social groups build around hobbies and other non religious interests. Evangelization strategy: create as many social groups with many different interests as possible led by the Involved Catholics.

Weak Practicing Catholics: These are people who attend Mass at least once a month but not every week. I considered calling them “mediocre” since the mediocre quality of our liturgies, and the mediocre quality of parish community life is probably responsible for their weak involvement. Evangelization strategy: improve the quality of our parish liturgies and improve parish community life through a greater number and variety of small groups.

Strong Practicing Catholics: These people attend Mass every week. However their very visibility can lead parish leadership to focus upon them and become self satisfied. They are the 20% that can get 80% of the parish staff’s attention. Evangelization strategy: turn Strong Catholics into Involved Catholics. Make some of them leaders and providers not just consumers of parish services.

Involved Catholics: This is the key group for providing leadership for the many small groups (hobbies, support groups, social groups, social justice, faith formation, and liturgical ministries) necessary for strengthening parish networks. Evangelization strategy: develop the leadership skills of Involved Catholics, and attract more people with leadership qualities from among the Strong Practicing Catholics.

Unfortunately the people recruited as Involved Catholics tend to be followers and helpers rather than leaders. They are usually recruited to assist the pastoral staff in the essential faith formation and liturgical ministries of the parish. Often they are not people who have “take charge” skills.

However, there are many people among the Strong Practicing Catholics who have leadership talents and skills derived from experiences like being a member of a religious order, educations in Catholic schools and colleges, involvement in a wide variety of parish programs across the lifespan, and leadership positions in their professions and in civic organizations. These people are interested in providing leadership. Sometimes they show up when there is a call for volunteers to staff new programs. However they quickly disappear when it becomes apparent the call is for helper not leaders; and that the designated “leaders” are well established helpers.

Lay Ecclesial Ministers: Besides coordinating the Involved Catholics in providing the essential ministries of the parish, Lay Ecclesial Ministers often supervise a one size fits all program that is intended to increase the level of parish culture. Often these faith formation programs use small groups to attract people with Involved Catholics as facilitators. At best these programs tend to attract several hundred people (mostly Strong Catholics); at worst they attract a few dozen (mostly Involved Catholics).

Giving More Services to Fewer People? This table supports my experience that parishes have strong motivation to forget about the eighty percent of the people who do not come to Mass every Sunday and focus upon the twenty percent whot do come. This core of the parish can be served well with the existing numbers and quality of Involved Catholics and Lay Ecclesial Ministers.

Or Evangelization? Any attempt to increase the levels of Catholic culture and social networks among the eighty percent of the parish that is not being well served would require not only many more Involved Catholics but more importantly Involved Catholics who are capable of leading a wide variety of small groups on their own. It will also require abandonment of one size fits all faith formation efforts in favor of fostering a wide variety of Catholic culture through various small groups and ministries.

What are your thoughts about this parish data? about evangelization at the parish level? about strengthening parish networks and promoting small groups?

Jack Rakosky, a regular reader of Pray Tell, has an interdisciplinary doctorate in psychology and sociology, and spent twenty years in applied research and program evaluation in the public mental health system. His current main interest is voluntarism, especially among highly educated people at retirement age.






6 responses to “CARA’s Parish Data & the New Evangelization: A Social Network Approach”

  1. Brigid Rauch Avatar
    Brigid Rauch

    I’m a bit tired this morning and can’t give this the careful study it deserves. But I have seen a flourishing, growing parish that reached out to the community stifled by a new pastor and then suppressed by a Chancery that favored the old style parish across town when it came time to downsize. As long as the work of many is at the mercy of the whim of a few, we are all in trouble. This applies to liturgy, parish life, evangelization and everything in between!

  2. Jack Rakosky Avatar
    Jack Rakosky

    As long as the work of many is at the mercy of the whim of a few, we are all in trouble.

    The Good News is that social networks are completely under our control. The Bad News is that we have to spend time and talent to shape them. The three social network variables that predict whether we are likely to be happier, healthier, and to be better people by giving our time, talent and treasure to church and community are:

    1) our religious family network as measured by whether or not we talk about religion in our families,
    2) our religious close friends network as measure by the number of friends that we have who belong to our congregation,
    3) the number or religious small groups that we are in.

    In the past these religious networks were supplied almost entirely by our family, ethic, and community networks, not necessary by the churches within those communities. We did not have to think much about maintaining or growing them, people did that for themselves and not necessarily within the walls of church or under the sponsorship of the pastor. They were usually homogeneous so it was easily to share religious experiences.

    Social capital, i.e. social networks, is one of the most important investments of our lives, right up their close to human capital, the talents and skills that we choose to invest in. It really behooves all of us to think more about their growth and maintenance and not leaving things to chance.

    What is important in making our social networks into religious networks appears to that other people are religious, i.e. they have a connection with God, not necessarily that they have the same religious culture as we do. Now that many of our families and our close friends are from different religions we have to take a lot more initiative for our social networks to become religious networks. But the data says that “religious” networks bring substantial more benefits than just purely social networks.

  3. Rita Ferrone Avatar
    Rita Ferrone


    I found the paragraph concerning lay ecclesial ministers puzzling, because you seem to separate “basic parish ministries” from “increasing the level of parish culture.” Over and over again, it has been demonstrated that the basic parish ministries DONE EXTREMELY WELL are the entry point for countless individuals and families who fall into those less-engaged groups whose connections you are hoping to foster. I agree that we shouldn’t stop at the entry point, but considering how many parishes do not have excellent basic ministries, I think it is an area that deserves a positive focus, rather than being quickly set aside as irrelevant to evangelization.

    In addition, every lay ecclesial minister I have ever known has multiple groups / ministries / outreach, etc, and it is certainly not a “one size fits all” approach. Even the all-parish renewal programs these days are multi-layered, and do not expect the same thing from everyone.

    If what you mean by the one big all-parish program is RENEW or something similar (with small groups meeting in homes, etc), I also wonder if your somewhat dismissive attitude is due to unrealistic expectations. Just as a parish mission does not cure all ills, a RENEW program does not float every boat. But these efforts do help some. Adult faith formation is woefully neglected by many if not most parishes. We need structures to attend to this. Clubs around hobbies do not do the same thing as faith sharing groups.

    Finally, the initiatives that all-parish renewal programs replaced, you’ll recall, were very top-down affairs: the lecture series, and programs where no group interaction was sought or expected. At worst they functioned as an admiration club of groupies for the priest who taught or lectured. At least with a small group structure, horizontal relationships are being fostered.

  4. Jack Rakosky Avatar
    Jack Rakosky

    Adult faith formation is woefully neglected by many if not most parishes. We need structures to attend to this. Clubs around hobbies do not do the same thing as faith sharing groups.

    Rita, the Bad News First

    Data show congregations in the USA are centered on transmitting religious culture through worship and religious education programs. That worked before social networks built around families, ethnicities, jobs, and place of residence started to crumble. Mainline and Catholic congregations are crumbling; However, Evangelical congregations give great attention to social networks.

    Data on small groups in American congregations show congregational leaders dismiss the social aspects of small groups. They view groups as a means to attract people to religious culture, rather than an opportunity to develop community.

    The Vibrant Parish Life study gives us the people’s view of what parishes are about 1) liturgy, i.e. the love of God, and 2) community, the love of one another, i.e. social networks.

    The research, e.g. American Grace, is clear. Religious social networks produce health, happiness, and other-centered lives. Religious cultural capital without social networks, sitting alone in the pew, produces none of these.

    I have been involved with RENEW many times. Short on content, it is a great program for people to learn to share their spiritual experiences. I am always amazed by the richness and diversity of Christian life and talents that unfolds.

    RENEW was meant to develop a community of communities, that is social networks. It failed because it was top down. It did not make facilitators leaders in the parish, having them shape its programs, founding new groups to serve the parish.

    Involved Catholics are the diversely talented leaders needed to create diverse social groups to grow parish networks. Religious culture will follow. Put culture first: social networks will continue to crumble.

  5. Jack Rakosky Avatar
    Jack Rakosky

    Now the Good News, Rita,

    I agree that adult faith formation is woefully neglected. During my tenure on pastoral council, (invited by the pastor) I led an effort to identify what the people wanted in this area. They wanted bible study; and chose the Little Rock Scripture Study Program, which uses the Collegeville Bible Study series. I discovered Little Rock is great and should be the center of adult faith formation.

    Its Four Elements correspond to the Model of Religious Capital that I am developing:

    Religious Capital = human capital + social capital+ cultural capital + spiritual capital.
    Religious Formation = human capital formation + social capital formation + cultural capital formation + spiritual capital formation

    The Four Elements
    1. Twenty minutes of daily bible study: mainly develops Human Capital skills and virtues.
    2. An hour of small group discussion: mainly develops Social Capital skills
    3. Half hour lecture or video: mainly develops Cultural Capital (shared beliefs and values)
    (I would do a half hour Bible Vigil of Readings & Hymns, instead).
    4. Prayer related to all the above (Prayer is an example of Spiritual Capital, defined as the asset of a personal relationship to God).

    Both RENEW and Generations of Faith claimed they are for everyone. (They disclaime they are programs) Only the Liturgy (Eucharist and Divine Office) is faith formation for everyone. What some call faith formation, is really spiritual formation, i.e. formation in a particular spirituality. We need as many diverse spiritualities as possible. But none of them are for everyone.

    Little Rock Scripture study is a good substitute for the Divine Office. The Divine Office, especially in is monastic forms, is basically Scripture rearranged. I would use the weekly half hour large group event of Little Rock to develop a better Divine Office along Anglican models of lessons and hymns. I would call them Bible Vigils, a recommendation of SC which has never been developed.

  6. John Farley Avatar
    John Farley

    Jack, Rita, Thanks for the original article, the link, and the comments. It will be food for thought for both my staff and Pastoral Council, and I’m forwarding it to my deanery colleagues as well as my chancery for their information. Again, Thanks.

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