Why compare movie theaters and parishes? And how does such a comparison give us any insight into parish ministry? The similarities and differences among movie consumers and Catholic churchgoers may surprise you! Even more, it just may give parish leaders a few ideas on how to attract more people to your local parish.
For one, people go to the movie theaters- more or less on the weekends -for an event; namely, the showing of a movie. Similarly, Catholics go to a weekend event at their parish; namely, the celebration of the Mass.Interestingly, the participant’s behavior of both events does bear a striking similarity: People who attend a movie on Saturday night or a Mass on Sunday morning rarely talk to people other than those they attended the event with. In other words, John and Jane Doe may talk to each other at the movie theater or the parish, but rarely do they engage in meaningful conversation with other people. They simply attend the event and return home.
What should be obvious is that this event-driven behavior does not lend itself to community-building. Yet, the interesting thing to note is that this pattern of behavior has not hurt the movie industry in any way; but it has taken a toll on parish growth!For instance, in 1990 the number of Catholic parishes in the United States peaked at around 19,620.Interestingly enough, the number of indoor movie theaters during the same year was estimated to be slightly higher at 22,904.
If we can take the number of parishes and movie theaters as a kind of measure, it can be argued that in 1990 the demand for services that the average parish provided was about the same as the public demand for movies in indoor theaters.Yet, over the next twenty five years the number of indoor movie theaters doubled while the number of parishes decreased by at least two thousand.
There are many reasons for this growing disparity but one reason stands out above the rest: No one expects to meet new people, make new friends or to be a part of a meaningful community at a movie theater. People do not go to the movies for community-sake but rather for its entertainment value. And to be sure, this is part of the reason why there has been an increased demand for more movie theaters over the decades. The entertainment value of seeing a movie is self-evident to most viewers. They can articulate what movie they just saw, the story that was unfolded and why they liked it. However, the same cannot be said for most people who attend Mass.Most Catholic churchgoers do not know why they dip their fingers in holy water in order to make the Sign of the Cross, why there is a procession before Mass begins, why the priest kisses the altar, why the congregation is greeted with the words, “The Lord be with you” and why the people respond, “And with your spirit!” In other words, the spiritual value of participating in the Mass is not self-evident. Indeed, the Mass does not explain itself quite like the average movie does.
For this reason, the celebration of the Mass at the parish- unlike the showing of a movie at the local theater –cannot be the only religious event that churchgoers are exposed to or it will cease to be relevant to them.Yet, the vast majority of practicing Catholics that attend Mass on a weekly basis connect with few parishioners before or after Mass. To be sure, they head home right after the closing hymn.Like seeing a movie at the local theater, they go to the parish for the main event and only for the main event.And yet, this exclusive focus on just going to Mass week in and week out is slowly undermining Mass attendance itself.Why? Well, because the Mass was never meant to be celebrated apart from a meaningful community of fellowship and discipleship. But, sadly, the infrastructures of many parishes in North America are such that the Mass is the first and only exposure newcomers and seekers have of the Catholic faith.
Furthermore, parishes are not set up to identify the newcomer or seeker; to accommodate them by answering their questions; to immediatelysupport them through fellowship; or to give them an invitation or some incentive to return the following week.As for the latter, movie theaters do this well by showing previews of upcoming movies. By showing previews of movies yet to debut, they are offering a tangible incentive for movie consumers to come back. But what are parishes doing to incentivize newcomers and casual churchgoers to come back? I’m afraid that offering the Mass, by itself, is not a compelling enough incentive for most people to give the parish another try. There has to be more! It’s just too easy to be an anonymous visitor.
Bear in mind that the Mass was never meant to be an introduction to Catholic spiritual life or the only thing that is offered to newcomers and seekers. On the contrary, the Catholic Church has always taught that the Mass is the summit of Christian life; not the vestibule of Christian life. In other words, this spiritual summit, like a mountain, was meant to rest on a wide and deep foundation. Before the summit can be reached, one must first arrive at the base of the mountain first and then ascend its slopes.
These initial steps at a lower altitude necessarily include encountering Christ through prayer, fellowship, evangelization, and discipleship in a small group or community within the parish.To have such a service immediately available to newcomers and seekers- in addition to the Mass -is to value them as individuals where they will be remembered and accompanied in their spiritual journey.
This, no doubt, will take on different forms and will vary from parish to parish. But getting started will greatly increase the odds that more people will regard the parish community as being even more essential to their lives than the local movie theater.