Sunday, November 3, 2013

Affiliating the Unaffiliated: When Catholicism Goes Churchless


By and large, Sky View posts are written for the average person. However, from time to time I like writing for the leaders in the Church. This post, Affiliating the Unaffiliated: When Catholicism Goes Churchless, has parish leaders as its target audience; especially as it pertains to adult faith formation.

The Spiritually Unaffiliated:

The Diocese of Green Bay's newspaper, The Compass, published an article, “Drop in Mass attendance a concern to diocese” in May of 2013. One insightful truth it unveiled is that 78 percent of Catholics think they can be good Catholics without going to Mass. This was confirmed by Ross Douthat, New York Times columnist and author of Bad Religion. He said “The United States remains a deeply religious country, and most Americans are still drawing some water from the Christian well. But a growing number are inventing their own versions of what Christianity means…”

Many parish leaders have already learned from Pew Research that this is a growing trend. “In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults.” The increase of the religiously unaffiliated is just another way saying that more people are seeking God outside of organized religion.

These statistical revelations are old news to many. However, they are an important reminder that there are trends which lead people away from the parish. This is most unfortunate because the parish, as Bishop David Ricken said, is the epicenter of where sacramental life of faith is to be found.

The good news is that most Americans are still deeply spiritual and as such, they put a high premium on their relationship with God and prayer. Given these considerations, there is something for parish leaders to work with. Indeed, it can be said that at least one challenge of adult faith formation in our parishes is to show how the sacramental life of faith elevates and completes the faith of the individual.

The Religiously Affiliated:


To be a religiously affiliated Catholic is to be, at the same time, an active member in parish life. And as we know, situated at the center of parish life are the lectern where the Word of God is proclaimed and the altar where the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is offered. However, church membership, by itself, is tenuous at best. Just as there are steps that should precede a marriage proposal, such as knowledge and love of the person, there are also steps- necessary steps! –in becoming an active member in the parish. Ideally, the soil on which a person’s membership rests is to be first cultivated by two things: relationship and discipleship. That is, pursuing a relationship with Christ and being his disciple. As we know, the moral obligation to attend Mass on Sundays or even the outreach of inviting people to join us at Mass is not sufficient.


A relationship with Christ presupposes a daily communication with Him in one’s own heart and in the privacy of one’s home. This working of God’s grace in the soul, sooner or later, wants to find an outlet. When a person experiences that which is meaningful as an individual, he or she wants that experience to be supported and even interpreted by others. This is when the parish becomes more relevant to the Christ-seeker. But without this one on one encounter and relationship with Christ, the parish is much less relevant.

Take, for instance, “Catholics Come Home”: The nationwide outreach of “Catholics Come Home” did a fantastic job in showing the beauty and relevance of the Catholic Church as she existed in the last 2,000 years. But the historic contribution of the Church, impressive as it is, is not always represented at the local level. To be sure, each parish has its strengths and weakness.

Fair or unfair, it may be that, at least for newcomers, the weaknesses of some parishes standout more than their strengths. And although the newcomers were impressed enough with the “Catholic Come Home” video to give Catholicism another try, the reasons that got them to Mass were not enough to keep them there. In other words, the institutional emphasis on the Church by “Catholics Come Home” could not sustain long-term membership.

Something more is needed; and that something is a personal relationship with Christ. Daily prayer and spiritual reading can help the individual overcome whatever limitations he or she experiences at local parish. They might say to themselves: “Albeit, the music is not quite to my liking; the sermons don’t always appeal to me; and the parishioners may not have welcomed me the way I would have liked, but there is something here greater than all of these imperfections. Christ is here! He is truly here! And it is this reason, above all, why I come to Mass.”


Relationship and discipleship better secures membership. Christ spent three years with the Apostles before he introduced them to the Mass, which is the center of sacramental life for the parish. He spent time forming relationships with them. By forming relationships with the Twelve Apostles, he was in the position to make disciples out of them. And what is discipleship? In a nutshell, discipleship is to think like Christ, to talk like Christ and to act like Christ. By its very witness and attractiveness, conforming ourselves to the likeness of Christ and being an active follower of his is contagious. It seeks to be intentionally communicated to others so that they too will be followers.

A relationship with Christ may begin at home, but discipleship is best carried out at the local parish. In the sacramental life of parish is where we learn to follow Christ as his disciple. But a desire to have a relationship with Christ and to be his disciple has to be awakened as a condition of being a member of the Church. Relationship and discipleship must either precede church membership or at the very least, it must be the foundation on which membership rests. As Adrian Von Spyer wrote in her commentary on the Gospel of John, “The Lord first of all forms his followers into disciples and only then baptizes them. He wants to baptize them when they have reached full awareness of the discipleship. The cleansing sacrament is not to be sprung them in surprise, but the desire for this cleansing is to be awakened first.”

Sacramental faith was never meant to be the cause of relationship and discipleship, but rather its natural outcome. Whatever adult faith formation programs we introduce in our parishes, therefore, it would seem that if we are to recover relevance of the Mass and church membership, we have to pour efforts into fostering a personal relationship with Christ and being his disciple. This, in large part, is how we affiliate the unaffiliated.