After several years of false starts and missteps (Episode 2 of the Rebuilt podcast indicates that it took about 5 years of “messing things up” before things began shifting at Nativity), there was a period of learning from other thriving churches (another five years), followed by another five years of implementation (It’s the authors’ hope that the book will help parishes with the learning curve). While there were plenty to choose from, some of the more notable decisions/strategies that stood out to me were:
- They took the time to find out who specifically was in their congregation and what they were thinking, i.e., KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. While their first five years on staff at Nativity may have been an uphill battle, I do think it’s commendable that in their first year, the authors of the book knew enough to work with Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostalate (CARA) to survey their congregation. Click here to read more about CARA’s Parish Planning Surveys and Services. Something I found hilarious but sad was that 96% of Nativity’s parishioners named “convenient parking” as the number one reason why they were at Nativity (see Rebuilt, pp. 5 and on for more results from that parish survey). It makes me wonder how many of those parishes with full parking lots on Sunday mornings may only be full because parking is convenient, or because homilies at this particular Mass are super-short.
- They recognized and acknowledged that they were not relying on God’s leadership. In response to the survey mentioned above, Nativity went through several years of spinning its wheels and bending over backwards to re-callibrate their programming to better suit their congregation’s needs. In their words, “We just kept pushing harder on the systems and the procedures that had always been in place, even though they were no longer working” (p. 19). They ultimately recognized they were being “more obedient to broken systems and the wrong culture than [they were] to God’s will for his Church” (p. 28). How many parishes have made broken systems and procedures their idol, their golden calf? How many are in need of turning away from the “this-is-how-we’ve-always-done-it attitude” towards intentionally discerning how God is challenging their communities to impact the world around them? How many parishes need to break out of their auto-pilot mode in order to step out in faith towards the God who calls them out of their comfort zone?
- They recognized the Spirit working in other Christian churches, and sought to learn from them. In their words, “Strategically, the most important decision we ever made was to go out and aggressively learn from growing churches” (p. 29). While being very explicit about their obedience to the Catholic Church, the authors also recognized that a thriving/growing/healthy/fruitful church was a sign of God’s Spirit working (see Mt 21:45 and Acts 2:47) . They had no reservations in finding out more about strategies (some of which I’ll enumerate below) that non-Catholic Christian churches were employing to keep their churches in the best position to receive God’s grace. An insight that resonated with me: We don’t make the parish church grow; only God does that (see 1 Cor 3:6-7, 9). The question is not, “How do we make our church grow?” Rather, it is, “What is keeping our church from growing?”
- They re-discovered and sharpened their focus on the Church’s original and central mission: to love God and neighbor, and to make disciples. Taking a page out of Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Church, Nativity went back to Scripture to learn more about what Christ’s intention was for his followers, namely the “Great Command” (Matthew 22:37-39) and the “Great Commission” (Matthew 28:19) (see Rebuilt, p. 39). Following this recovery of what the Christ’s followers’ mission is, they evaluated all of their programs against this central mission, did away with programs that were not relevant to the mission, and re-tooled programs so that they were more aligned to the mission. How many parishes regularly evaluate their vision and mission statements? How many explicitly refer back to their mission statements whenever new programs are launched? How many parishes intentionally catechize their parishioners about their mission statement and how the mission is being carried out?
- They made Christ’s example of reaching the lost (i.e., the poor and marginalized) a priority, more specifically, in their ministry to the spiritually poor and marginalized. While the Catholic Church has a great track record for ministering to the materially poor, there is a lot of room for improvement when it comes to ministering to the spiritually poor (i.e., to dechurched people who no longer go to church or unchurched people who never did). In planning weekend liturgies, catechetical programs, the first thing Nativity would consider was, how would would this come across to someone who has never been to our church? They even constructed a representative person, “the quintessential lost person” who they dubbed “Timonium Tim” with an entire set of details about his life that would help sharpen their focus in their programming (see Rebuilt p. 72). According to the authors, “…countless times, after people have come back to church, they’ve said to us, ‘I’m Timonium Tim'” (p. 73). Some resulting changes that took place were: developing a parking ministry so that people would immediately feel welcome and know where to go and upon driving onto the parish campus, setting up an information center on the weekends, instructing existing parishioners to leave more convenient parking spaces open for Christmas service so that those who don’t normally attend Nativity would have ideal parking spots.
While I could go on and on about ways in which paradigms literally shifted at Nativity, I find it even more exciting to take a look at the concrete ways in which Nativity is approaching their mission of impacting their community for Christ. Here are some that stood out to me:
- The Weekend. Since the weekend was the main time in which people were physically at Nativity, they focused on making the whole experience of the weekend a priority. This included requiring all relevant staff members to be present for the weekend, and making sure that everything from the parking lot to the lobby/narthex to the Mass itself was as accessible and engaging as possible. One happy accident: Setting up an Information Desk completely manned by volunteers during Mass times significantly cut down on foot traffic during the week, to the point where they don’t even employ a parish receptionist or secretary anymore.
- Preaching. They invested a significant amount of time in researching for and developing “message series” according to the season and what was going on in the community (e.g., a Back to School series in September), while still adhering to the Sunday readings. The implication is that the same message is preached at all Masses so that the entire congregation “grows in the same direction.” The way that Nativity chooses to do this is that the pastor preaches at all Masses, and subsequently, they have chosen to cut down on the number of Masses over a weekend in order to make it possible for one person to preach. Something else that is notable: the pastor relies heavily on his pastoral associate, a lay person, to do the background research in order to prepare for a homily. Even more notable: they prepare message series a year ahead of time. While I’m not sure how feasible this is for every parish, I do think that there are great opportunities for creativity and collaboration with the laity in developing more effective homilies.
- Money. They no longer practice/talk about “fundraising,” rather, they talk about raising givers. While they are explicit about catechizing their parishioners about tithing (they don’t hesitate to preach about it when it comes up in the lectionary), they only specifically talk about parish finances once a year, and that is on Stewardship Sunday, celebrated on the weekend before Thanksgiving. Interestingly enough, Nativity does not take up second collections — instead they tithe 10% of the entire collection and give it to whatever organization is meant to be the recipient of the second collection for that weekend. While I am still in the process of personally discerning what it means to tithe (i.e., 10% of what you earn), I do think that there is something to speaking frankly with parishioners about money and the role it plays in our discipleship. The fact is, Nativity seems to be flourishing financially because of this practice, so I am inclined to re-look at how I am being a steward of my family’s income.
Again, I could go on about all the great ways in which God is clearly moving at Nativity, but the best way to find out is to read about it yourself. Additionally, you can find other resources here:
- Rebuilt Resources – At various points in the Rebuilt book, readers are directed to supplemental videos and “You Can Do This!” features. You can find all of those resources and more by clicking on this link.
- Rebuilt Podcast – Description: When their parish reached a breaking point, they asked themselves how they could make the Church matter to Catholics, and they realized the answer was at the heart of the Gospel. Join hosts Tom Corcoran and Chris Wesley as they discuss strategy, lessons learned and offer encouragement to those in ministry.