Over the summer many churches reported a spike in attendance — the result, it turned out, of an influx of Pokémon Go players.
Now that this phenomenon has started to dissipate and Mewtwo and Pikachu are once again lapsed, religious leaders are back to Square One: In a society where there are so many demands on our time and choices for how to occupy ourselves, what makes people attend a house of worship and, perhaps more importantly, what makes them put down roots in a religious community?
Which raises the question of what exactly Catholics are looking for in parish life. Given that almost 13 percent of Americans are former Catholics, the issue isn’t academic. Catholics who have left the church make up the second-largest religious group in the United States.
Some leaders may be tempted to try a lot of new bells and whistles to bring them back or to attract new followers. But some recent studies suggest that the church would be better off going “back to basics.”
According to a recent Pew study, more than two-thirds of Catholics said the quality of sermons played an important role in their choices of house of worship, and 71 percent said feeling welcomed by church leaders played that role. While many religious communities are worried about playing more contemporary music or building a better Web site or being more active on social media, the truth is that the people in the pews are looking for a significant spiritual message on Sundays and a community they’ll feel at home in.
Indeed, many Catholics seem to be looking for the kind of neighborhood church that used to be more common.
According to Pew, “for Catholics who have looked for a new congregation, no single factor is more important than location.” More than three-quarters said location was a major factor.
Parishes used to be assigned by neighborhood, but now it’s really more of a choice for worshipers to find a place they like. Today, though, in the quest to find a welcoming community, the neighborhood church may simply have an advantage. Younger people especially are looking for more and more of their lives to be in walking distance.
In a new book called “Great Catholic Parishes,” William E. Simon Jr. looks at the question of what makes a vibrant parish. Simon and his team asked the pastors of 244 thriving churches what made their parishes work.
Their answers mirrored the responses to the Pew survey. According to Simon, “They excel on Sundays.” Which means not only that they focus a great deal of attention on their sermons, but also “they are visible, prepared and present during the Sunday experience.”
Simon also reports that these growing parishes “share leadership.” With the number of priests still in decline and one in five parishes not even having a resident pastor, sharing leadership with lay people is a matter of necessity. But it’s easy to imagine how this sharing might also lead to more welcoming communities.
Lay people joining a new parish might find there are more opportunities for them to participate, and the chasm that used to exist between the clergy and the laity might be closing.
Simon also notes that those who haven’t attended a Catholic service recently might “be surprised by the huge emphasis the most successful parishes place on active evangelization within and outside the parish. Catholic churches are much less passive than they used to be.”
In a recent study of 250 evangelical, mainline and Catholic churches, researchers at Fuller Theological Seminary actually put together a list of “things your church doesn’t need.” They included “a trendy location,” “a big budget,” “contemporary worship” and “a big modern building.”
For those who are worried about the future of the Catholic Church and other religious institutions in America, this is good news. When it comes to finding a spiritual home and growing in it, Americans are not a superficial bunch.
?Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.