It's Too Complicated to Join!
Early in our parish's walk along the synod journey, a young family came for Holy Thursday, on my invitation. I was late getting there and so only had a few minutes to welcome them and orient them to the space and the liturgy. They are seekers…one is not Catholic. Three kids under 5. And I fear their first impressions did not leave them feeling as if this is a place they can seek, they can bring their active and unchurched children…they can belong. So far I've not gotten another chance to help them enter in, feel belonging and so to see themselves seeking the Living God among us. So this blog post is me talking to me and to my parish, as much as it is for you! I’m preaching to myself…about invitability and joinability. About connection, healing, belonging and eventually #participation.
For those of you looking for how to "get started" in the #synodjourney and for those of you whose parish leaders are uncertain or opposed to this Pope Francis ordered direction, here's a way to improve your organization's life and connect to the synod through a focus on "participation." My assumption as I began writing this is that parishes/dioceses need to take a good hard look at how they enable connection-healing-belonging and therefore participation. Since one of the foundations of synodality is that the Church is a listening place, where all the baptized can be truly heard, and therefore can be connected to Christ and the Church, it's important to examine just how easy or hard that is to connect, to be even willing to be listened to...from the outsiders' points of view.
And if the statistics are even partially correct from a recent survey, there are more and more "outsiders" who are Catholic than we'd like to recognize. What will the find if they choose to look again at us...to consider any connection?
First, you’re right…”invitability” is not a real word. Rich Birch made it up to capture the idea that some churches seem to be easier to invite friends to than others. On one end is the parish whose people never invite friends to join them and on the other end is the parish whose members are constantly inviting people to “what’s happening this Sunday!”[i] We are going to take a look at this concept, adapted for Catholic parishes because one effective means to reach out to others is by invitation. But the hard question is, what kind of parish am I inviting another to?
Why is “invitability” important? “The factor separating churches that are growing from those that aren’t is that growing churches have a robust invite culture.”[ii] I know, I know…Catholics just don’t do that. People come to the Catholic Church on their own, because they are Catholic and Catholics go to Mass, right? Perhaps, for an increasingly small number, this is true. But we now know that is not enough. In a previous blog, I noted that people join organizations when there’s something in it for them. So what’s happening in your parish that is so good others need to be invited to share in it, to take another look, to re-engage or "come and see"? And how deeply do the currently engaged parishioners understand themselves as responsible for going out and doing the inviting, as Jesus commanded?
Catholics will need convinced that offering invitations to connect to Christ through the Church is part of their responsibility as a baptized person. Explaining why inviting is important is part of this persuasive work. So why is inviting important?
The Living Word: It’s part of the Great Commission. It is through active, engaged members that Jesus saves the world!
Sacrament/Mission: It is part of the baptismal responsibility of every Christian, to go out, reach out…to invite. We are all co-missioned with Christ to reach out, invite, connect!
Vitality: It is a means for growth. It is the way that parishes grow (or re-grow) membership. Ever been to an evangelical Protestant church for ANY kind of gathering? You'll experience this vitality and the "ask" culture in place, coming from all who call that community "home!" It works.
So how do we convince ourselves this IS our work? Faith communities, make sure there's an open, life-giving, healing and helpful encounter when folks come. Pastors, preach this. Adult faith formators, teach this in sacramental preparation for Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. Parish staff, co-mission some to be ambassadors for the parish and equip them with the skills and the information to invite others. Participants, witness to this! What did you do and with what result for you as a disciple and for another?
And remember, Catholics don't have much history with this, so this will definitely feel like the shoes are on the wrong feet...that we've gone "Protestant"...which would be a testament to our ability to admit where we've failed and embrace sound practices from our brothers and sisters in Christ. We have wonderful communities with the Eucharist at our center...an encounters with the real sacramental presence of Jesus Christ! Let's learn to invite others...to encounter Him through us!
So, if you are reading this, my guess is that you care about your parish. You may even be a leader. And I bet you are wondering "How do you measure invitability?" Well, here's one approach. Have a group of engaged parishioners and parish leadership answer these questions to gauge the level of invitability in your parish:
1. When was the last time you invited someone to your church? What happened when you asked? What happened when your guest came to church? If you have not invited someone recently, why not? What is holding you back?
2. When was the last time someone you know in the parish shared with you a story of inviting someone to church? What part of that experience was positive? What part was hard or negative?
3. How urgently does your parish see the need to go out into the community designated by the parish boundaries? If it’s low urgency, what would raise that level? If it’s high urgency, with whom are you connecting and does the connection include a consistent invitation to "Come and See?"
What did you discover? Spend some time with these discoveries, asking the Holy Spirit to open your eyes and ears, and to point the way to go now.
OK...so you've determined through that listening process that you'd like to be effective in increasing your invitability. What parish "invitability factors" are people most likely to talk with their friends about? These four factors emerged from a Gallup poll that asked people to rate the reasons they attend church.[iv] How well does your parish fare in these areas?
Homilies that unpack the Scriptures so that listeners feel better educated and inspired. Are timeless truths grounded in Scripture and Tradition shared on a regular basis? Can you trust this will be so and therefore are comfortable inviting someone to come and hear?
Homilies that connect faith to life. Does the homilist compellingly answer the question “What difference does this make in our lives today?”
Spiritual programs geared toward children and teenagers. Raising children is a universal human experience. Parents desire the best for their children, and this includes passing on the Good News of Jesus Christ in compelling ways. Does the parish offer a wide variety of ways to support parents in their desire to raise children in the ways of faith? Are those offerings compelling, according to the children and teens? (As an aside, I know that children and teens talk with one another about experiences that are compelling...concerts, classrooms, community. I've heard them. When they are moved, they are moved to speak. What's their messaging as they leave encounters with your community?)
Ample amounts of community outreach and volunteer opportunities. Remember, people join organizations to make meaningful contributions toward things that matter. Define your missional focus. Tie your ministries to elements of the mission. Structure them so that there are both short and long term commitments, things that can be done without formation and ministries that require formation, mentors and companions. Identify works that ecumenical households can do together (remembering that upwards of 50% of married people in your parish are married to one who is not Catholic).
Once you have identified your invitability strengths and weaknesses, equip your involved parishioners with words, written invitations, calendars, and suggestions about when and where to invite. It does not come naturally to most Catholics, but it is constitutive of being a Christian: to invite others to share in the Good News of Jesus Christ, lived out here and now! And remember, there’s a loneliness epidemic that this invitation might just assuage. Another personal anecdote...recently I realized I've not seen some of my little "flock" that sit around me most Sundays. After that recognition, it still took me a little while to really miss them...to miss them enough to reach out. So I did something so old-fashioned...I wrote then notes. Yep..snail mail, with stamps, on personalized stationery. I shared that I missed them and what specifically I missed. Here's one part of a response: "I must tell you that your card touched my heart, made me smile, and hugged my soul. I miss you, too. I will be back..." I don't know why she's not returned...but her next step back is for us to have lunch together... stay tuned!
OK---so you’re working on invitability. Once they come to take a look, how easy is it to connect? How "joinable" is your parish?
One of the first things I noticed about the Catholic Church "back then in the 1980s) is that, if you wanted to join an activity, a ministry, or the parish, you had to be willing to take a fair number of steps, on your own, and those steps were not always clear or simple. Call a number, go to a website, find a person in a certain location, fill out a card and wait for a response, get a background check, obtain a copy of your baptismal certificate, and the list can go on and on. My point is this: joining needs to be made as simple as possible initially. And the simplest? A personal invitation to come along with you. (Invitability…this time on the inside!) You’ll continue to invite, this time connecting with those already in the door, and accompany them, if they express interest, until the person is connected to more than you.
So how “joinable” is your parish? Ask yourself these questions:
1. How many steps does someone have to go through to connect to an interest or an event? How many of those steps can be done while the person is first engaged with the idea/invitation? Are there people there to accompany them?
2. Is it possible to participate in an activity or an event without belonging to the parish or being Catholic? Is that clear?
3. If an invitation is offered or a request made for participation, how hard or easy is it to find the right people to connect with? How long does it take? How welcoming are they? How fast do you get started? (Bonus: Click here for a bonus- 7 ways to make it easier to join up/join in )
4. Are skills, expectations and time commitments clear?
5. Are there mentors, companions and buddies offered to accompany folks?
6. Do relationships precede requirements/paperwork? (A coffee date, a walk, a phone call or email precedes commitment. Is there genuine delight in getting to welcome someone different/new into life in Christ in the parish?)
7. Is it easy to learn about various entry-points to connect to the parish on the website? Facebook or Instagram?
8. And is it possible to serve Christ outside the works within the parish and still find people with whom to connect within the Church? Do people who care about the environment, animals, diseases, gardening, education etc. have a way to find one another and connect?
Invitability and joinability…two elements in the process of building relationships between the parish and its people. It’s up to parish leaders to figure out “now what?” What needs enhanced and highlighted? What activities need warm, welcoming people to be their first connection? What needs a better system or process to connect? Who has experienced really great invitability, joinability and companionship? Where do we find them? How can we learn from them?
Many parishes do not have great participation from those who have “come back.” Other parishes are not seeing their registered parishioners return. Since one leg of the synodal stool is participation, it's a great place to start on the #synodjourney. No matter where you find yourself in these times, remember:
1. We have Good News to share: Jesus and a community to whom you may belong, now and into eternity!
2. We have Good News: Jesus and the community are antidotes to the loneliness epidemic!
3. Good news! We have meaningful, important work to do: to create vital touchstones that transform people’s lives, and then to equip our engaged members with the tools to go out and invite others.
4. And we have a challenge as early adopters of the changes synodality require: to evaluate and adjust invitability and joinability elements so we are prepared to gather our brothers and sisters in just as God gathers us in.
Synodality is about journeying together. Let’s do this work together around initial invitation, relationship, connection and then commitment so that we actually journey together, on purpose, by design! Don't walk alone. Join us and other early adopters of synodality. We are making this synod road by walking together...and the more of us who begin to walk, the easier it will be for others to join us. To close...here's a little throwback or an introduction to a classic, a little musical inspiration from "The King and I"...
Next up...a look at belonging from outside the "tent."
[i] Rich Birch. “5 Questions about Invitability and Its Impact on your Church.” April 30, 2019 Unseminary. https://unseminary.com/5-questions-about-invitability-and-its-impact-on-your-church/ Accessed 5/21/2022 [ii] Ibid. [iii] Ibid. [iv] https://news.gallup.com/poll/208529/sermon-content-appeals-churchgoers.aspx Photo by C. Alengula on Unsplash