One of our regular readers, Rachel Barber, wrote in with a question that touches on the connection between outreach and liturgy. This topic is undeniably of interest today. Often the subject of music looms large in the discussion of how to attract and keep people coming to Sunday worship. But what are our best strategies and responses?

Here’s the background: At the request of the pastor, parish staff members were asked to read the book Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, Making Church Matter  (Notre Dame:  Ave Maria Press, 2013). The description on the book cover states, “Drawing on the wisdom gleaned from thriving megachurches and innovative business leaders while anchoring their vision in the Eucharistic heart of Catholic faith, Fr. Michael White and lay associate Tom Corcoran present the compelling and inspiring story of how they brought their parish (Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland) back to life.” Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, who wrote the foreword, gave a glowing endorsement to the book. As of this writing, the book is ranked #2 in books on ministry at

Rachel writes:

At almost 300 pages, the book touches on many issues, but I’m going to zone right in on music.  I should preface the recommendations by including the description of the music program at Church of the Nativity:  “[w]e have five nearly identical services led by [one of two bands]. Both bands include drummers, keyboards, bassists, and various others….Typically the bands play current “praise and worship music because that’s a style of music we’ve found is attractive and engaging….And, of all the musical genres we’ve used, the vibrant and joyful cast and smooth melody of this contemporary style also has the power to get them singing.”  The authors do note that they’re not advocating any particular style of music, and later explain that Nativity also uses Gregorian chant for acclamations and other spots in the liturgy.

I wonder what Pray Tell readers think of the following advice:

“–Make sure you have the best musicians you can find (paid or volunteer) and use them; do the difficult thing and ask people who are holding your program down or even making it worse to step aside….

–Raise your music and your musicians up in prayer. Fast for them.

–Whatever the style, make sure your music is worship and your musicians are worship leaders.

–Take care with the selection of your music and do it in view of the liturgy as well as the lost.  You need to be talking to your musicians about the music. It’s not about what you like or they want; it’s about the lost.

–Don’t be afraid to repeat music from week to week. In loving ways, encourage your congregation to sing and sing with them.”

For the last item, the authors note that “[t]he music that we use is selected with the input of several people on staff including, but not limited to or directed by the musicians. It usually remains consistent from week to week in the course of a season, which, we’ve found dramatically increases participation.”

And don’t forget the video screens.

What do you think of this advice?


  1. The advice points were all excellent, in my opinion – consistency, quality, and music as prayer.

    What actually stood out the most to me was the mention of “five nearly identical services”. I would submit that this enables the parish to gain a certain communal feel and reputation – a sense of musical identity, if you will. I believe that his is a major factor in improving the vitality and sense of community in a parish. Of course, the criticism that can be leveled against such a parish is that by aligning so strongly with one musical ethos, it tends to attract like-minded people – a more homogeneous crowd. In other words, the parish is more unified and vital because at least one hot-button issue (music) has been resolved without compromise. Is homogeneity within a parish (with the understanding that in real life people ‘shop around” for a spiritual home) a good idea? Or is it better for one parish to try to market to various internal constituencies – on a typical Sunday a mostly spoken early Mass, a “high” choral Mass, a 5 pm “youth” Mass with P+W? Or perhaps a mishmash of styles in each liturgy – entrance hymn, offertory P+W, communion antiphon, etc?

    This entry (to the extent it accurately summarizes the book) tells me that it “works” to focus on doing one kind of thing well at all Masses.

    1. @Jared Ostermann – comment #1:
      How can a parish give witness to unity among diversity? How can a parish witness that it is not “all hand” or “all eye”? [Sorry, Paul…] Why must we equate unity with conformity? Is there an invisible sign at our doors which reads, “You are welcome but check your personality at the door”?
      A diversity of liturgical styles isn’t ‘marketing’ but recognizing that one key does not open all doors. Diversity says, “We will try to respond to your needs, not make you fit into our mold.” Diversity respects individuality, identities and admits to the fact that we are not all alike, and that the path one person chooses to walk to God may not be the path another chooses. Diversity helps teach acceptance and tolerance.
      I know of a multi-ethnic/national parish whose liturgies are as diverse as could be yet is a parish of enviable unity, cohesion and commitment to service. A diversity of people truly call it ‘home’ and find elements of their home at worship.
      If there is ‘one thing’ a parish does really well, what should it be? Music? Preaching? Education? A mighty effort to meet people at their level of spirituality?

  2. Of possible relevance is this recent quote from the Mystery Worshipper website, written by a non-Catholic after visiting a Catholic church: “The music consisted of the usual artless, tuneless ditties that line the bottom of the pit into which the rich musical heritage of the Church of Rome has fallen…”

    (Here’s the link, for those who are interested:

  3. My usual non-musician music points:

    1. The people have to be familiar with most of the music and they need to like most of the music, otherwise they are being asked to a concert or a choir practice instead of a liturgy.

    2. Familiarity generally leads to liking, so if one new piece at a time is introduced into the people’s repertory e.g. by having the choir sing it a few times, and/or the people are given an opportunity to learn it outside of Mass, they will generally end up knowing and liking it.

    3. The music repertory of a parish can be completely refashioned as long as one takes a lot of time like five or even ten years adding a new piece at a rate of less than one every other week.

    4. One should determine the favorites of the congregation. While one CAN fade them slowly into the background one should never completely eliminate them.

  4. I’ll be honest, it sounds like they have jumped on the evangelical bandwagon here, and this is evident from the language they use. Praise & Worship. Music = Worship and therefore the people who lead the music are Worship Leaders. There is a danger that the music dominants and it become more of a concert than a celebration. This approach has essentially infected churches across the board, so that contemporary essentially means a service described above. Such is defined as relevant, but relevance means catering to dominant culture, or borrowing from the contemporary culture. I find it very consumerist and individualistic, all the antithesis of what a celebration of the Eucharist is supposed to be.

    I am not sure what to make of the comment, “it is about the lost?” True and evangelism has an element to it, but what about “the saved?”

    Just some thought from my diversity of experiences in various churches.

    1. @Jeff BeBeau – comment #6:
      I rather agree with you here, Jeff, and I freely admit that my view of the megachurches is quite negative, so to the degree that inspiration is drawn from them I am inclined to be skeptical. In fact, I was recently reading a book about divine election that looked at some of the most successful megachurches and discerned a connection to a thin, thin version of election that would be very different if seen in a Catholic key. In short, theological presuppositions are embedded in some of the megachurches that Catholics don’t appropriately share. This, despite the fact that Catholics are recruited by them regularly,

      But, back to the main contention: Liturgy is never “about” any one subset, much less a group we identify as “the lost”: it’s the action of the whole Body of Christ, offering thanks and praise for what God has done.

      Aidan Kavanagh once warned us about “ministries” that swallow up whole churches, and I think the question here is the same. What is Church? What is Liturgy?

      OK, true confessions, I can’t stand projection screens either. Call me a dinosaur.

  5. I like music discussions, and in general, I think we can do a lot better than we do right now, but I question the tenor of the article which seems to suggest that packing ’em in to sing and enjoy the music is the same thing as saving souls. Good music is great for drawing crowds. So is great preaching and charismatic leadership, and in a perfect world I would want all those for our churches.

    The trouble is, none of those things can be the basis of a true faith in my opinion. If your favorite priest or musician moves for whatever reason, do you just change churches then? There has to be more.

    But a little more thought put into the liturgy in general and music in particular would be welcome and the four points Jack made in comment five get my full support as starting guidelines.

  6. I read the book earlier this week. I strongly recommend it for anyone in ministry. I think these guys are on the right track–and they admit they don’t have all the answers. Willing to be honest about one’s ignorance is probably why they are as fruitful in ministry as they are.

    I applaud the commitment to congregational singing, and to quality musicians in leadership. Quality, or lack thereof, is a bigger problem in the Catholic Church than any fight over genre.

    I think it’s possible to achieve what Nativity achieves in evangelization without the P&W music. But I do think they’re on to something by not having musical ghettoes. It’s intriguing that they use chant for the prelude and the Mass ordinary. Their Sunday liturgies are livestreamed. I plan to tune in. I’m deeply curious.

  7. Lets concede that worship is more than music. Let everyone who prefers to stress other elements of worship crow away. But I remember we’ll the days in charismatic renewal, I vividly recall the power of the praise music. It was definitely helping people be connected strongly to Jesus our savior. Whatever is missing in mega churches its not the music by which God is glorified. Every parish I have ever served features music sung with faith and enthusiasm. Our people know the primacy of a relationship with the savior and the music is an important part of that. This is not an abstraction that brings on a discussion about what music is more catholic or traditional.

  8. When I hear “unity among diversity,” I think of integration rather than segmentation. I think people of various tastes need to encounter others with different tastes, in an atmosphere of trust.

    As for “all about the lost”, the word choice isn’t great, but I’m definitely in sympathy with the idea. I’d go with “mostly for the wounded”. I would hope that “lost” doesn’t imply a condescending attitude. But I do think that we need to keep the pains of our community in the forefront of our preparation. I’ve been especially aware of this over the past year, as our diocesan leadership has gone through a phase of ridiculous cruelty toward many of its members. For better or worse, I’ve felt a strong need to counteract that.

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