Book Review: Rebuilt

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.

23 comments

  1. Great article Scott~ how does support of those in need fit into this model? I realize their focus is on bringing people into the community to become disciples. What then do they do as disciples in the community, beyond reaching out to those seeking faith? How is social justice and care for the poor acted upon?

    Thanks for all this info. It appears to pattern the mega church model, with similar attentiveness to evangelical outreach, hospitality and care for children while adults worship, etc.?

    Some mega churches have mission trips for youth youth and raise money for different needs, so that might be the case here? Thanks again. Good writing~

    1. @Denise Anderson – comment #1:
      They have an interesting take on service. On one hand, they do not operate any service organizations (food pantry, etc.) since this would take away from their focus on reaching the lost and forming disciples. But they do form strategic partnerships with social service organizations in their community, region, and foreign missions. One can get involved at a basic level of a few hours serving a local need all the way up to overseas mission trips. They have a full-time Director of Missions to direct the flow of volunteers and funds to these partner organizations, so I assume they have a high level of participation.

      1. @Scott Pluff – comment #13:
        It is said that the fall away rate from the seeker churches is quite significant… It would be interesting to know their ongoing stability as a community…

  2. Not everything in Rebuilt will work for every parish, but it sure opens the doors for thoughtful discussion and action.

    The second book “Tools for Rebuilding” is similar … 75 ideas that are worthy of serious discussion and consideration. Some are so simple they really beg us to ask, “Why are we not doing this?”

    We have about 300 people attending weekend Masses but our town shows over 4500 who claim to be Catholic. There is work to do, but we spend all our energies looking inside, focused on reasons we cannot change, and none of it opening doors.

    Soon, even the dust, will have memorial plaques on it.

  3. Whenever I hear about the transformation of a parish, praiseworthy as most examples seem to be, there remains the nagging thought that the next pastor could undo everything. So much seems to depend on the personality, vision and charisma of a pastor – here today but gone tomorrow.

  4. I’m sure there’s a lot we can learn from the evangelical mega-church model but let’s not forget that we’re Catholic. If the only reason people come to Mass is because the Hillsong concert is sold-out, what’s the point?

    Moreover, there really are lots of people who are turned off by evangelical-style worship, especially cradle Catholics. Even most non-Catholic adults would probably be drawn more towards Taize-style worship.

    1. @John Mann – comment #4:
      You post raises a few questions for me. Not necessarily confrontational, but …

      Are we Catholic first? Or are we Christians first? Or are we believers, heading to being disciples first?

      As for your question about Hillsong, the thinking might be that God will touch people by grace through the concert experience. If that’s all a concert does, then yes, your question is apt: what’s the point?

      On the other hand, if people come to Mass because they think it is required, again we might ask: what is the point? In other words, does it take people to the next step? Seekers to believers, and believers to disciples. And beyond.

      I’ve read the Rebuilt books too. My sense is that people will respond to high quality in music, regardless of genre. The response they seek is not to applaud at a good performance, but to be confident in their abilities to sing the music.

      Keep in mind these Rebuilt guys are in suburban Baltimore. Church music is extremely conservative in the East, and they’ve decided to appeal to what they might see as the rejection of traditional (read: organ and choir) music. They are willing to pay good dollar for music leadership that will get people singing. I lived in the East until I was almost 30. I remember what parish music was like, and possibly still is. Their discernment on this point is not a surprise to me.

      For me, the good efforts at quality are aimed at evangelization, at casting the net very wide, and inspiring people to stick with Catholicism long enough for it to “take.” There are not oodles of unchurched people out there looking for plainsong, no matter how much they identify Catholicism = Gregorian chant in movie soundtracks. They want accessible music, something that meets them where they come, not where the church legislation thinks they should go.

      If the Church is serious about reaching the unchurched, then I’m afraid SC 116 is pretty much out the window, out of necessity.

      1. @Todd Flowerday – comment #5:
        “if people come to Mass because they think it is required, again we might ask: what is the point?”

        It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation.

        The warm fuzzy feeling is great but it really isn’t the point.

      2. @John Mann – comment #7:
        Right, just, duty, and salvation? Nice words, but what exactly do they mean for a seeker? They seem like motivational fare to keep people in the pews. Just where is Jesus in it?

        I don’t discount the role of human emotions to open a doorway to something deeper. It’s at least as good as the human intellect, and possibly more trustworthy as a barometer of God’s grace … as opposed to things we learned in school.

  5. I think that what they’ve done there is brilliant and ought to be replicated. Look around- the evangelicals are growing like wildfire and the RCC is dying in the vine in a lot of places. Something needs to be done about this. Sure, those of us who are admittedly “church people” might personally be turned off initially by the changes that may happen as a result of “rebuilding.” However, we must ask ourselves is it about us or about the people who arent active in churches and would be attracted by those programs?

  6. I’ve actually attended Mass at Nativity (the Rebuilt parish) and it is a much more complex situation than you might realize. I find it especially an interesting conversation for a blog focused on the Catholic liturgy. I wrote up a very carefully nuanced description of what I experienced at Mass there. This is just a part. You might find it useful in this conversation:

    Its Just Me and the Screen.

    The sanctuary was empty (no statues) and very dark (to the point where I found it a bit depressing) and clearly meant not to in any way, “compete” visually with the very crisp, very bright screens (four) through which you are meant to experience 2/3 of the Mass. Even when Fr. Michael is preaching in front of the congregation in the not so large sanctuary, it is intended that you watch the screen rather than the living man (the words of the passage he is preaching about are often projected and he turns periodically to face the screen periodically to emphasize a point.) This is a Mass for people who spend most of their life in front of screens – just as I am communicating with you all through a screen. The focus is not the living Christian community. The focus is on the seeking individual or nuclear family. Those who have chafed at the “us” focus of post Vatican liturgical music and practices will have to admit that Nativity isn’t trying to do that during the liturgy. This is NOT the 70’s in any way, shape or form.

    3) This is not an experience of the Christian “community” worshipping.
    The volume of the music is pretty high and because there is literally not a second wasted between elements, the band actually drowned out some of the congregational responses. Not only can you not see your neighbor, you often can’t hear them either. Many people in front seemed to be singing (our groups was put into roped off seats to the left of the altar so I could only see those in front) but since the band drowned out the congregation’s singing, it was not unlike singing along with a DVD at home. (a bit more in a…

  7. Again, this minimizes your experience of anything but what is being presented to you by the “worship team”. You don’t have to worry about being distracted by coughing or a restless toddler because you can’t hear it and most of the children have gone to their version of the liturgy of the Word. This is an experience crafted primarily for 21st century adults who spend most of their lives immersed in media of some form. It was striking that no one leaves when Fr. Michael leaves because he does not process in or out – he slips away in the darkness while the band continues to play the last praise song. You leave the room when the screen goes dark cause that’s how you know its over. All the historical cultural Catholic responses of “I can make a break for it now cause I’ve fulfilled my Mass obligation” have been broken.

    Oh – you might find this interesting. Not only is the music done *only* by professionals but so are all the announcements and readings at all Masses which are all done by the same young woman who is their Director of Communications. “Crafted” is the mot juste. Ordinary parishioners have *no* part to play in the “weekend experience” – the Nativity term – at all. Fr. White preaches all the homilies. I’m not a liturgy maven and have no strong preferences – I occasionally read Pray Tell for other reasons. But I can observe that the difference between the Sunday Nativity Mass and the Mass I attended at the local parish the next day was literally disorienting. It is amazing how factors like the rate of speech, a little unoccupied silent time between elements, the visuals around the Eucharistic consecration change the whole experience of the same basic gestures and words.

  8. Maybe I’ll take a look at their live stream tomorrow. I assume “Wavelength” is what they’re calling Mass? Looking at their website, they aren’t just taking ideas from evangelical mega-churches. They’re imitating it verbatim.

    A word on small groups: I heard a priest once relate how in Korea, Catholic small groups are the envy of Protestants. For some reason, I can’t see it working in the US.

    1. @John Mann – comment #12:
      I believe Wavelength is the name of one of their message series. It’s true that they don’t use typical Catholic terms for things (message=homily, worship=Mass).

  9. Superficially, the approach seems heavy on the “meet them where they are” side of things, less so on the “take them somewhere new, deeper (etc.)” side. At least liturgically/musically it seems so. I have not read the whole, though. Can any who have speak more to this?

    1. @Orin Johnson – comment #15:
      I suspect that depth is found more in their small groups than in the big weekend crowds. Their youth ministry program exists as small groups engaged in faith sharing/study, and many (most?) adults are engaged in these types of groups as well. When someone joins the parish, they are immediately invited into a small group. Groups are continually forming and re-forming as people move in/out/between them.

      This model is used by many mega-churches. Their congregation may number in the 10s of thousands, but intimacy and depth comes in the small group meetings. This is necessary to avoid an anonymous and detached experience of a new individual lost in the crowd.

  10. There seem to be many praise-worthy aspects of the Rebuilt approach, worthy of emulation. If it brings people into the RC fold, great!

    But, re: the “demanding consumers,” i.e., existing members who probably liked the status quo, ISTM that the parish has exchanged that group for another who are just as demanding in a way, wanting an experience such as the mega churches offer, and the parish says, “Sure; have it your way!”

    But their way/preferences aren’t mine. I love the beauty of choral music, but don’t like the entertainment model of praise bands. (See “Why I Left the Contemporary Christian Music Movement” by Dan Lucarini for some thoughtful insights about the use of CCM in liturgy.)

    1. @Marilyn Ratke – comment #17:

      I think this is one of the main problems that all kinds of organizations face. Because the “business model” has taken over in so many areas, people see everything from the standpoint of “I’m the consumer and your job is to give me what I want, no questions asked.” This is true in modern worship, modern education, and many other arenas.

      I’m sure there are, as Scott said, individual items from these books that could be incorporated into most parishes. However, when I read this article and look at a parish that has incorporated nearly all of them, I see nothing more than a Protestant church with Catholic window dressing (and not much of that). Many RCIA people join the Catholic church specifically BECAUSE the church they left blew with the prevailing winds. I think that type of feedback is highly significant if we are really wanting to reach out to the disaffected.

      Projecting into the future, what happens when the current paradigm (or its local implementation) loses its novelty and the demanding worship consumer wants something new, fresh, and different? Will that parish undo all their changes and remake itself all over again into the next “model” of efficaciousness? Moving in this direction feels too much like a popularity contest to me. We are competing with each other in the marketplace of God-worship to get the most bodies into pews. Whoever accumulates the most “worship points” wins.

      If we truly believe what we believe, we have to be willing to accept Christ’s message of foregoing popularity for the sake of the Gospel. We are repeatedly warned against falling into this trap of doing whatever it takes to be “#1”. While I agree that we need to address and to meet people’s needs in some fashion, making worship into a commodity that caters to the latest ideas of the populace is, at the very least, fraught with perils. In the end, will those who rarely attend Mass be the ones who will decide Catholic worship theology?

  11. It’s interesting to think of Nativity as a mission church. If there are several Catholic parishes within a few mile radius, perhaps one or two of them could specialize in reaching the unchurched through this approach while other parishes could offer a more traditional Catholic experience. Inculturation on a micro level.

    Within the St. Louis metro area, there are four or five parishes that offer a weekly Latin Mass with a stable following. Perhaps four or five parishes could offer this style of worship for those drawn to this mode of prayer?

    Even if your parish is not interested in going the whole Rebuilt route, individual chapters can be a good study on communication, stewardship, preaching, youth ministry, etc.

  12. The distinction is exactly in the mission aspect. Seekers, by definition, are looking for God, and have mainly their personal likes and dislikes to be engaged or avoided … if we want to be successful in evangelization.

    Catering to non-members is somewhat different from cultivating a Culture of Entitlement among believers. Isn’t that sense of entitlement what got us into all this trouble in the first place?

    Scott, I feel nervous about the thought that we could create ghettoes among parishes. Wasn’t it bad enough to do that within parishes at different Masses in the 70’s? Maybe it’s a pipe dream, but I still aspire to a certain fusion of style where, if done with quality, liturgy would be broadly acceptable to most all Catholics.

  13. I have several worries about the approaches taken by the folks in Timonium, but that which I think should resonate most broadly with Pray Tell readers runs: is the liturgy supposed to be a “seeker friendly” locus of evangelization?

    Offhand, I think two data argue “no.”
    1) The practice of the early Church. Chalk the disciplina arcani up to fear of infiltration if you will, but the dismissal of the catechumens continued long after the threat of the sword. I think we could make a strong case throughout liturgical history that the Church has viewed its Eucharistic assembly as an affair of the believing baptized, not so much as an opportunity to expand those ranks.

    2) The conversion of the Rus. The fact that Christian worship is not primarily evangelical does not negate its attractive power, but our paradigmatic case of this power of liturgy seems to be derived from its *otherworldiness* rather than its familiarity. The messengers did not convince Vladimir by reporting “we felt welcomed and safe because this religion is hardly different from any other experience we have had.” Instead, they reported, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth.” Christian worship was *different* from what they knew, different in a way that revealed the power of the celebration.

    Discuss.

    1. @Aaron Sanders – comment #20:

      2) The conversion of the Rus.

      Unqualified +1

      It is true that the Rus converted to Byzantine Christianity in part to benefit from political and trade ties with Constantinople. Yet, the chant (and later chorale) of the Russian liturgy became an integral and defining part of Russian culture, both religious and secular.

      Can we say the same of three-chord, synthesized, autotuned pop music one can hear with a tinny four-speaker car stereo? Why bother to go hear this same music in a church when Christian Contemporary pop is ubiquitous in many media markets?

      Want profundity? Stand for the tone of the Asperges and follow what happens next.

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