Millennials and the Parish Festival

Spring rushed by us without a word this year—with too many warm-ups and cold-snaps to count. Now, even though the calendar claims the summer solstice is not for weeks, summer is upon us on our side of the city.  I know this not because of buzzing lawnmowers, blooming irises, or even billowing checkered flags tacked above my neighbors’ garage doors.  I know summer is here because we have entered into the great battle of the parish festival yard signs.

A yard sign is a simple thing, yet it boldly makes a statement regarding identity, allegiances, belImage result for parish festival yard signonging, and, in good old-fashioned Catholic politics, parish boundaries.  In our little corner of the city, there are no fewer than four parishes competing for festival attendees with their various “fun festivals,” “summer fests,” “Junefests” and the like.  Our neighborhood alone, technically divided between two parishes (St. Anne’s and St. Mary’s*) hosts three different parishes’ festival signs (St. Bernadette snuck in there, too).   I was proud to note earlier today that my own parish (St. Anne’s) is the winner so far—I counted five yard signs on my morning walk with my daughter.

Things can get ugly, too, with these signs…in fact, St. Bernadette’s festival signs mysteriously showed up on the lawns of both St. Mary’s and St. Anne’s!  Even worse, the infamous upstart Our Lady of the Angels stole St. Anne’s festival date!  Our little parish was forced to do the unthinkable: change our festival date to another week of the month—giving up the date we’ve held since time immemorial (or at least 1983).

Now, these festivals clearly hold clout amongst certain members of the parish—and even I, unrelenting introvert and newcomer to St.Image result for parish summer festival 1980s Anne’s (you had to literally be born and baptized in St. Anne’s to not be a newcomer) have pride in my parish and want to support it.  I proudly toted that yard sign home and stuck it in our lawn.  But…to be honest…I can’t stand parish festivals.

I think, in theory, I love the idea of the parish bazaar: booths with food on sticks and sticky children conjure up nostalgic images.  I won a gold fish at a coin toss once, we could always find my dad and uncles in the beer tent, and I remember racing my brothers through a giant giraffe-shaped bounce house at my home parish’s “fall festival” in south central Indiana.

Yet, parishRelated image festivals—at this moment in my life—hold little attraction for my family: I have no interest in winning a gold fish, my husband has no desire to hold a beverage-filled solo cup in the beer tent, and there is no way I am lobbing my 7-month old in the “bounce house” for at least half a decade.  But, aside from these drawbacks, I find that festivals seem to cater to extreme ends of the parish demographic: those with school-aged children who might make use of the games, etc., and those parishioners who are identified as members of generations prior to mine, who all know each other, and have been hosting this same parish festival since I was a 7-month old myself.  I find myself an introverted outsider to my parish festival of the present!

Perhaps it is just my shyness that makes it difficult for me to enjoy a large lot of semi-strangers. And, I promise, we are very involved in our parish!  But, maybe it’s not just me.  Maybe it’s my generation.  I wonder if the parish festival attendees (families with school-age children, and families composed of at least “Generation X” Catholics) somewhat mirror Mass attendance?  Are Millennials (with whom I reluctantly identify) going to St. Anne’s Summer Festival?  Are Millennials going to St. Anne’s for Mass?  What is it about the parish festival that ultimately alienates me?  Is it a personal introvert thing, or are my feelings matched by other “Millennials”?  Do Millennials go to your parish festival?

These questions have been prompted, in part, by a fascinating new volume I’m reading, Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century (Oxford, 2017).  This volume seeks Catholic Parishes of the 21st Centuryto illustrate parish life in the 21st century much like the well-known Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life did 35 years ago (when my parish’s festival began).  The statistics of this new study conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, have been surprisingly informative, particularly as they paint, with numbers, a clear picture of shifting parish needs and populations, the proportionate decrease in active priests and increase in lay ecclesial ministers, and the profound slowness with which the “brick and mortar” churches move in response to rapidly changing people who compose parish demographics.

Is it just me, or does it seem odd that the parish festival is still “the” social event for Catholic parishes of the 21st century, as it was for Catholic parishes of 1983?  I wonder, in short, if the parish festival is a “brick and mortar” gold fish coin toss of the past?  Or perhaps, if there were a festival in the present, would it change in any way which might make me, introverted Millennial, more compelled to attend?  Perhaps the better question to ask is, rather, how long will there be parish festivals, if a key and explosive demographic within the Catholic Church is not as interested in attending?

I don’t have an immediate answer to my questions—and have a healthy suspicion that this aversion to the “Junefest” may be “a personal problem.”  Nonetheless, I’ll continue to ponder the parish festival…and, in the meantime, we’ll be shunting the lawnmower around our St. Anne’s festival sign, stuck out in our front yard.

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent!

16 comments

  1. Ugh, I have a hard time getting revved up for my parish festival, too. And I’m completely with you on the demographic spottiness. My kids, who are young adults and teens now, enjoyed it when they were bounce house and three-legged-race age. Once they graduated from that – which is a pretty narrow slice of childhood and flies past quickly when you’re an adult – they completely lost interest in the proceedings.

    I enjoy spending time with parishioners, but I see them every Sunday, and the ones I do ministry with, I see more often. I don’t necessarily need to see them in their hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts and cross-trainers drinking beer. And I’m about as far at the extreme end on the extrovert scale as one can go.

    I do show up – I feel obligated. But I don’t come at the beginning and I don’t stay until the end.

    From what I can tell, our Millenials don’t come to the festival, either, unless their kids have reached bounce-house age. Some come to church on Sunday, but nearly as many as are out there.

    Thanks for the book recommendation – I’m going to buy it.

  2. Well, in my neck of the woods, except for Italian-American and Lusophone-American parishes with generations-old festivals around summer saints’ feast days, parish festivals if held seem mostly to occur just before or after the summer vacation season. And suburban parishes do seem to share the barbell-curve demographic (families with younger children at one end, retirees at the other, and with a demographic trough between them).

    1. Had to look up Lusophone, but I did learn something, so thanks for that! Portugal may seem like not much in today’s world, but its fingerprints are all over the Southern Hemisphere.

      1. And all over southeastern New England from Cape Ann around the coast to Providence – Portuguese mainland, Azorean, Cabo Verdean and nearby Lusophone-Creole countries, Brasilian, et cet. (with especially large representation in and near Gloucester, Cambridge, Plymouth*, New Bedford, Fall River and East Providence). Originally because: fisheries, as in it started with cod before the English settled the region, and then came the century when the region was the OPEC of the world courtesy of right whales and sperm whales

        “Kale soup” (the North American version of caldo verde) is as much a regional specialty as clam/fish chowder (and typically made better! what passes for chowder for tourists is typically sad glop instead of the real thing), and linguiça and chouriço (typically pronounced shur–EETZ-o or shur-EECE) are more common that brats on supermarket shelves; love of salt cod would have to be shared with southern Italians and Sicilians, of course.

        * The late great Rev. Peter Gomes, longtime legendary holder of the pulpit at Harvard’s Memorial Church, was a Plymouth boy (and proud of it) whose paternal line came from Cabo Verde (Gomes being the Portuguese cognate to the Spanish Gomez).

  3. In my experience, the goal of parish festivals (called parish picnics in my area) is to raise money. It’s not just A goal, but THE goal. It’s part of our impoverished understanding of stewardship: to be a good Catholic is to put on fundraisers and buy, buy, buy. Every family is required (using whatever the committee could think of to hold over your head) to donate a basket for the basket booth, a case of soda, and to work two shifts. Join us at Dairy Queen on Tuesday night when the parish gets part of the proceeds. More volunteers are needed at the Parish Bingo on Thursday nights. Buy your raffle tickets after Mass today–don’t wait! Come to the golf scramble next weekend, and mark your calendar for the fall dinner auction. Everyone is encouraged (expected? required?) to attend!

    Perhaps I should re-read the Acts of the Apostles–I missed the part where it says to fund the work of the church through picnics, raffles, bingos, and fundraisers.

    1. When Bernard Law came to Boston from Missouri in 1984, he quickly instituted two reforms, which were not well received, but one of which endured well, the other not entirely so:

      1. Ending multiple Saturday evening Masses without specific and evident pastoral need to accommodate different vernaculars. So no more 4PM/7PM Saturday Mass schedules unless it was English/Spanish/Vietnamese, et cet. That reform stuck.

      2. Ending bingo as a crutch of parish finance. Bingo declined in importance, but I don’t think it was eradicated to the extent desired.

    2. Spot on, Scott!

      Without going into a long post about stewardship and being a truly vibrant stewardship parish, basically I feel the parish festival points to an outdated model of parish and parish membership, that burns out parishioners and doesn’t add to the community.

      Our annual “parish festival” is 100% free, paid for out our Sunday financial offerings, and we have no other fundraising through the year, quite on purpose. We have caterers who bring food, wine, beer, etc. And it’s 100% free. People show up, including millennials, because who doesn’t like free food and drink? (And, of course, someone always steps forward anonymously to the bills.)

      But until you revamp an understanding of what it means to be a stewardship parish, you’re going to be dependent on 1 summer festival to keep the lights on. With, and mostly without, millennials.

  4. I hesitate to be hard on parish festivals. I believe these are needed, though perhaps not in the guise as they have been celebrated. Certainly not as fundraisers, but as gifts to parish members and visitors. In my parish, feasts of Guam, the Philippines, and Our Lady of Guadalupe are well celebrated with liturgy, food, and festival. Connections to parish liturgical feasts are important, even if a festival is a simple dinner coupled with multi-generational activities. I for one think that the obligation of holy days should be abrogated whenever a parish declines to support the observance of Assumption, All Saints, or Immaculate Conception with some sort of social festivity.

  5. I have found that the festivals and fairs of ethnic parishes have a lot more draw than the fairs of those of parishes that have no ethnic background and offer the same thing that people can get at the local Lions Club or Kiwanis carnivals. Food especially is a great draw, followed by ethnic culture and religious heritage. If there is something unique and different, people who wouldn’t necessarily darken the door of your parish on Saturday night (sic) or Sunday morning may be more inclined to visit you.

    1. It is hard to compete with the Greek Orthodox Church festivals for food…and they draw a lot of non-Orthodox.

  6. Perhaps parish festivals are a great event for the local neighborhood and community folks who are not members of the parish. The situation with Bingo reminds us that it serves many more important social, psychological and emotional needs than financial ones.

  7. On the subject of festivals as fund-raisers, I think we need to be more explicit about what exactly is being criticized here.

    I am aware that most ethnic churches that host festivals, at least in the northeast, were made up of immigrants who did not have ample economic resources, and so instead were giving their labor — and their cultural riches, in the form of cooking traditions and crafts, etc. — to support their church though these festivals. I do not look down on that. I admire it.

    Should we think that instead they should have paid tithes on the wages they got from the factory job or work as domestics or whatever? How private. How very non-communal. How little fun. It’s a bit like we are judging them from the vantage point of a prosperity they did not have. If the church needed a new roof, or the school needed a boiler, this was how they raised money. It’s a collective, collaborative effort, and personally I’d rather see this strategy than relying on a few deep-pocketed donors and having a parish beholden to the rich.

    Now if the complaint today is against prosperous churches where the people do have money to share with the church and are just being stingy, let’s say so.

    I also believe there is a cultural value to street festivals that breaks us out of our tendency to privatize. A richer public life benefits society as a whole, and I’d rather the church sponsored some of these things than leaving it all to secular clubs and business institutions.

    Bingo is another story. Now, with the Supreme Court legalizing sports betting, and every state raking in billions from gambling, with the result of the whole economy of the state growing dependent on betting in one form or another, we are clearly in a situation where the big boys have cornered the market. I don’t regret that. I was never a fan of bingo. But let’s also face the fact that secular entities are taking over everything the church used to do to build community and generate resources, except for what happens in the sanctuary.

    1. If we’re talking about festivals as fundraisers and that being wrong or sub-optimal, then we need to look at giving. If the parish is in an area that has sustained growth, say in a suburb, and still needs to put on a festival to make ends meet, why isn’t there enough in the offertory each week? Are parishioners being stingy? Are they giving at the level of their parents and grandparents, because that’s what they think is right? Are they withholding giving as a protest? Do they think that the church has enough already? Are they giving to other causes that they feel are more worthy and the parish just gets a token?

      I can tell you from experience as an usher in my urban parish how many people don’t even put a dollar in the plate when it is passed to them. And a lot of those are “Millennials.” What do we make of that? They have no idea how to give, or what it takes to sustain a parish at status quo, let alone grow it? They’re selfish? I don’t know the answer.

      1. I think these are all legitimate questions. Why don’t ends meet today, especially in communities that have resources? And when do people learn the importance of giving, or reflect on their means of support for institutions that they rely on.

        Another question that we might ask is: how does a parish use an outdoor event as an invitation to “come and see” the faith we believe in. Low-stress opportunities for outreach and general education can accompany some of these events.

        Milwaukee has a strong tradition of summer festivals. Every ethnic group has one, as well as a general “summerfest” that isn’t ethnic. While I was liturgy director at the cathedral there, we began holding a French Mass on the weekend of Bastille Days — a festival held on cathedral square park that was directly in front of the church. It was a huge success! Packed church. I am sure many were “the merely curious” or pretty marginal Catholics or even simply desirous of some air conditioning on a hot afternoon, but why not open our doors to them?

        I remember taking a tour of a Greek Orthodox Church in Wilmington during a Greek festival, and it was educational and friendly. Festivals are supposed to be occasions to invite neighbors and the public to come visit, and foster some friendly exchanges. Maybe we are getting so used to every encounter being mediated by a screen that we are losing the sense that the world is not already totally available to us through our iphones. 🙂

  8. “Why don’t ends meet today, especially in communities that have resources? And when do people learn the importance of giving, or reflect on their means of support for institutions that they rely on.”

    I think that these are legitimate questions too! But truly, people don’t “rely on” the Churches the way that they did even thirty years ago. Church weddings and funerals, as well as baptisms have dropped off precipitously. And the amount of people actually supporting a parish continues to fall, otherwise there would not be parishes closing by their dozens. And let’s be honest, people seeing the amounts paid out for abuse, even if it’s insurance money, could cause purse strings to close tight. But more to my point of watching people let the plate pass by during the offertory, it seems that they never do learn. I never would go to a service, no matter what religion or denomination, and not at least drop a dollar in the offering. Even in my lean college years. I was taught that by my parents, by my catechism, by the example of others. Where are those examples now?

    1. Those examples are more tainted by hypocrisy, and other more damaging antigospel messages. Again on festivals: the point isn’t to raise money, but to share enjoyment.

      As for material resources, the more valuable assets of the church are its people. Even in struggling parishes, you couldn’t pay people to do what volunteers and lay ministers do. Fruitful parishes know its more about discipleship than membership. Right now, we are competing with Elks Clubs and Kiwanis in their strata. In some cases, maybe it’s a miracle the Holy Spirit hasn’t pulled the plug on some of our communities by now.

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