Review by Scott C. Pluff
You have likely heard of the book Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, Making Church Matter by Fr. Michael White and Mr. Tom Corcoran. This book, along with their second volume Tools for Rebuilding, podcast series, annual conference and numerous speaking engagements, is inspiring a renewal movement in how Catholic parishes “do church.” Their model for parish ministry touches all aspects of parish life: worship, sacraments, youth ministry, faith formation, administration, stewardship and strategic planning, all with a strong focus on the “weekend experience.”
Fifteen years ago, Fr. Michael White and his associate Tom Corcoran were faced with challenges typical of many parishes in middle-class suburbs: declining attendance, a mass exodus of youth once they were confirmed, sagging finances, an aging facility, burned-out volunteers each following their own agenda, and an overall sense of stagnation and decline. Liturgically, the preaching was uneven and the music was “ear-achingly… please make it stop” bad.
Meanwhile, a new non-denominational church meeting in a warehouse across town was growing steadily, mostly filled with people leaving the Catholic Church.
Given this state of affairs, Fr. White and Mr. Corcoran set out to rebuild Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland. In their study of mega-churches’ success at attracting new members, they found three key insights.
* First, to focus most of their energy not on current parishioners but on the “lost”—fallen-away Catholics and the unchurched. This necessitated a thorough pruning process where they learned to stop catering to the “demanding consumer” mentality of their existing members.
* Second, to prioritize the “weekend experience,” everything seen, heard, felt, or otherwise experienced by lost people attending their church.
* Third, to challenge “church people,” their more established parishioners, to get out of the pews and get involved as armies of volunteers and evangelists. If this parish was going to start a movement, everyone had to get up and get moving.
These insights were a fundamental shift in thinking. How often are parish ministers focused inwardly on the perceived wants and needs of their existing members? To answer questions of how to conduct liturgies, what styles of music to employ, or how to prepare homilies pastors typically rely on their own preferences with input from their trusted inner circle of staff members, committee members, and longtime parishioners. They do not necessarily consider the perspective of people who are not there, who spend Sunday mornings on the golf course or at the shopping mall. Yet just as Jesus spoke of leaving the ninety-nine sheep to seek the lost one, parish leaders are called to seek the lost in their own backyards.
The Rebuilt movement places strong focus on the weekend experience under the categories of Music, Message (preaching) and Ministry. When people know that they will be greeted warmly in the parking lot and at the doors of church, that the message will be relevant and engaging, and the music will be inspiring they are more likely to return next Sunday and to bring their friends and family with them.
Regarding music, they aim to speak the same musical language as the people they are trying to attract. This mainly includes Christian Contemporary music from artists such as Matt Maher, Hillsong United, and Casting Crowns. The music at all services is led by a praise band (think guitars and drums) and vocalists, all highly trained and mostly paid. They expect excellent music at all times and they invest greatly to get it. Interestingly, they also regularly employ chant especially for the Eucharistic acclamations, and they consider congregational singing to be a barometer of the health of their assembly. They made a conscious decision to move away from most traditional liturgical music because their target audience is not “walking around listening to organ or choir music on their iPods.”
The goal of their message (preaching) is to grow disciples. They made a conscious decision to put aside Bible Study for Believers (highly exegetical preaching), Sermons for Seminarians (highly theological preaching), Convincing the Convinced, Nagging the Uninterested, Boy’s Club Banter (jokes and funny stories), Canned Ham (reading homilies that someone else wrote), along with other categories described in Chapter 8 of Rebuilt. They instead focus intently on forming people to be disciples by applying God’s word to the concrete situations of everyday life.
Topics such as marriage and family life, managing personal finances/schedules in light of the Gospel, and inspiring people to be evangelists to their friends and colleagues take center stage. Messages are typically planned in four- to six-week series and the pastor himself delivers the message at every weekend Mass regardless of who is presiding. The focus of the message also forms the basis of children/youth ministry sessions and small group discussions, two other foundational elements of their parish life. Upcoming message series are marketed to attract new people who may be interested in the topic. These have catchy titles such as “You’re Dead… So Now What?” Fr. Michael White works closely with his staff to develop the message series and considers this the highest priority of his ministry as pastor. He relates that even if a pastor gets everything else wrong, effective preaching is the one skill that every parish priest must develop to the fullest extent possible.
Ministry is their third key to reaching the lost and challenging church people. They recognize the barriers faced by unchurched people and strive to ease their transition into the church. This begins with a highly organized and energetic hospitality ministry with greeters in the parking lot, at the church doors, and throughout the weekend experience. Not sure where to park or what door to enter? Check. Not sure where to find the children’s programs? Check. Have questions about becoming Catholic or returning to the church? Check. Want to register in the parish, join the mailing list, or volunteer for a ministry? Members of their host and information teams are standing by.
They discovered early on that people would come earlier, stay longer, form community, and get more deeply involved in the parish when they offered food and drinks after Mass. From this idea they developed a café offering coffee, tea, juice and bottled water with donuts and bagels in the morning and pizzas and sandwiches in the afternoon.
It’s now a common experience for someone who never attends Mass to drop their kids off for children’s ministry, spend an hour in the café watching a live broadcast of the Mass or recorded messages about the parish and current message series, and gradually be drawn into attending Mass. The café is both a connecting place for current members and a transitional, non-threatening space for seekers.
Technology is highly integrated into all aspects of life at Church of the Nativity. Large projection screens on the sides of the sanctuary display song lyrics, illustrations of points in the message, live close-up views of the action at the altar, ambo, and font, and announcements between Masses. The Mass is broadcast throughout the facility in what they call Video Venues and is streamed live on the internet. They produce several weekly podcasts and have a substantial website and social media presence with information for guests/visitors and in-depth spiritual resources. They also produce DVDs related to each message series for use in small group discussion and in their various ministries.
Some of their practices may run contrary to liturgical sensibilities. For example, one may question their casual style of worship, their use of contemporary music, technology, and evangelical-style preaching in a liturgical environment, their assertion that beautiful churches and beautiful vestments do not make disciples, or their practice of encouraging parents to send their toddlers to the nursery during Mass and their kids to separate children’s ministries. Pray Tell readers may wish to discuss the premise of their approach: to focus the majority of their energy on people who are not (yet) members of the church. Taken to logical conclusions, this viewpoint can lead to dramatic shifts in priority. Noting that the three nights of the Easter Triduum are attended primarily by “church people,” Tom Corcoran suggests in a Rebuilt podcast that parishes should invest 98% of their efforts during Holy Week into Easter Sunday in order to target C&E Catholics.
Whatever one’s opinion of their particular practices, one cannot dispute that their efforts are bearing fruit. Now fifteen years in to this rebuilding process, they have turned a declining parish outside of Baltimore into a bustling center of Catholic life. In the past twelve months, they have welcomed more than 1,500 visitors and registered 562 new parishioners—many of them fallen-away Catholics or those who had never attended a church before. They have recently launched a $12 million campaign to build a new 1500-seat church, a larger gathering space and café, redesigned space for children’s ministries, and expanded parking. As they say, “God is doing great things” in their parish.
Pray Tell reader Scott C. Pluff is Director of Music and Liturgy at St. Teresa Catholic Church in Belleville, Illinois.
COMING at Pray Tell: Fritz Bauerschmidt will report on his attendance at Mass at the rebuilt parish of the Church of the Nativity.