Everyone I talk to in church circles would like to increase attendance at Sunday worship, but I don’t see a whole lot of success stories out there. So I was intrigued when Paulist Evangelization Exchange linked to a story at Catechist’s Journey that described a 64% increase in attendance at one parish in Chicago this year, and reported the steps this parish took to increase their Mass attendance.
These efforts included direct mail, email, witness talks, youth choir, “Sports Mass” (not sure what that is) plus—get ready for it—prizes! The kids in the parish school got both individual and classroom prizes for attendance. The result? They showed up, and they urged each other to go. Increased Mass-going became an all-parish project, especially among families.
Now, you may say (you will say) that people ought to go to Mass for the sake of the Eucharist itself, and I would agree. What more of a prize do you need than communion with our Lord and Savior? But, human nature being what it is, people tend to look for short term gains, and this parish supplied them with additional incentives to go. In short, the shot at a pizza party brought the kids in, whereas relying on the merits of the open door and two millennia of tradition did not.
I know there is a strong assumption among many pastoral leaders that says “if you get them in there, for any reason whatsoever, you’ve got a chance at them staying for a better reason.” This reasoning suggests that anything that gets people through the door is worth doing.
I’m not quite sure about that, myself. Historically, Catholics have gotten people through the door by offering schools, and they fell away after graduation. We’ve offered beautiful venues for marriage vows, and they cared little for the faith after the picture-perfect wedding. We’ve used the stick as well as the carrot—threatening damnation for failure to attend—and thereby increased skepticism rather than increased faith.
But at the same time I know it’s important to come together in season and out, and habits don’t form without community support. It’s not unpardonable to work with nature — our human nature that loves pizza and sports and being together — in order to open a pathway to heavenly food and “being together” with the God who loves us.
What do you think? Is the chance that faith will be “caught” inside our doors sufficient warrant for incentivizing Mass attendance by giving perks for it in the parish school, or somehow linking it to sports? Does a witness talk at every Mass sound like heaven to you, or like purgatory?
The drama of this one-year increase did drop off somewhat in the parish after the initial push, but the level of attendance has remained significantly higher than it was. This suggests to me that something is working. Could it be that so many people were involved it really did become a community project?
The pastor wrote about the experience, thanking everyone, and he observed that “A number of families told me that after 4–5 weeks of going to Mass, that future attendance was moving from a “hope to” to a priority.”