“They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Acts 2:1 – 12; 42-47
Do you ever wish that you could go back in time and be with those early Christians, experiencing church life the way they lived it? To experience the “exultation and sincerity of heart” that the early church felt as they met together, shared with one another, worshiped God and prayed for one another?
How would it have felt to accompany those early Christians as they went into the marketplace and told others about the new life they had found in Christ? To be a part of lifting up the downtrodden; ministering to the sick; providing food, clothing and shelter to the poor? Imagine how it might have been to accompany St. Paul on his missionary journeys; to watch as multitudes listened and responded gladly to the teachings of those early apostles and evangelists. How great that would be!
Unfortunately, church life today is all too often a dim shadow of that ideal. Pews are half empty, the median age is well over 50, funds are tight, and pastors must spend precious time administering the “business” of the parish instead of devoting themselves to prayer, the administration of the sacraments and the spiritual welfare of parishioners.
In his book, The Dynamic Catholic, Matthew Kelly states some bleak statistics: only 6.4% of registered parishioners contribute 80% of the volunteer hours. Further, only 6.8% donate 80% of all financial contributions. And to further exacerbate matters, there is an 84% overlap between these two groups! No wonder the leadership is exhausted and discouraged. If these statistics hold true for your parish, too many parishioners are just going through the motions: fed-up, checked-out, and sitting on the sidelines, neither engaged in mind and body nor inspired of spirit. How could this scenario be the image God wants for his church today?
In fact, Christ Lowney strikes an alarming comparison in Everyone Leads:
“Even a cursory review of the landscape reveals the magnitude of our predicament. In one after another of the world’s economically developed countries, church attendance has plummeted to historic lows, and tens of millions of adults have deserted Catholicism entirely. Not since the Protestant Reform, five centuries ago, has Catholicism suffered defections on so devastating a scale.”
Lowney goes on to observe the thousands of parishes and schools that have been shuttered, the dramatically shrinking population of priests, and the continued attacks on the Catholic hierarchy’s credibility. He concludes by making a self-admitted faulty but nonetheless revealing analogy:
“Any major corporation that was losing customers at a similar pace would long ago have been catalyzed into an urgent quest for solutions. Everyone from chief executive to junior staff would know key facts and be enlisted in the fight to reverse damaging trends. New approaches would be tested and their results monitored closely. Inexplicably, nothing like this is happening in our church.”
The State of Stewardship, Generosity, and Engagement in the Church
So how does the current state of the church connect to our attitudes on generosity, stewardship and engagement? Jesus himself tells us, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Jesus is speaking a deep truth here. He does not say, “where your heart is, there will your treasure be.” Rather, Jesus reminds us that actions and habits influence us to our very deepest core, our hearts. He states quite clearly: that which we value the most – our treasure – is where we will find our true selves – our heart.
If the state of the church is dire, perhaps it’s time to look more closely at what we as American Catholics value. And not by our words, but by our actions.
Recent studies by the Catholic and Pastoral Research Initiative at Notre Dame University can serve to inform us of the thinking and practices of many of today’s Catholics. The study, conducted in 2010, consisted of a representative survey of the religious attitudes of about 2,000 Americans on the subject of stewardship and generosity. The following statistics and observations were gleaned from three reports, published from the data collected in the study during the years following 2010. These reports, Unleashing Catholic Generosity, Generosity Inside and Outside the Church, and Steps in the Journey to Becoming a More Generous Person are quite revealing on attitudes toward stewardship and generosity in the church as well as some indicators that may point to a path to address these concerns.
Attitudes and practices by many Catholics toward stewardship, involvement and engagement are shocking. This study found that:
Unfortunately, Catholic parishioners, compared to members of other American faiths, currently report a lack of communication regarding the mission and vision of their parish.
In comparison to other faith communities, Catholics also report lower levels of involvement in and “ownership” of their parishes.
The study also suggests some of the causes and dynamics at play which fosters such low levels of engagement in the local parish:
American Catholics tend to compartmentalize: they tend to separate money from matters of faith and to think that money and material possessions have little to do with spiritual or religious issues.
Some ways of discussing money in parishes tend to be unhelpful. A “pay the bills” culture that focuses on the parish’s need and scarcity is associated with less spiritual engagement with money among parishioners and consequently with less financial giving.
The Keys to Unlocking A Vibrant Future: Engage the Mind; Inspire the Spirit
So what is the path forward for us today? Quite simply, we need to “put our money where our mouth is.” It’s time to stop talking about change and invest in change.
And once again, the 2010 studies by Notre Dame provide valuable insights:
When Catholics become “spiritually engaged” with money, they become more likely to give to the church.
One decisive factor that promotes financial generosity among Catholics is purposively deciding to give away more money.
Those who made a prior conscious decision to give more money away donated three times as much money in the previous twelve months than Catholics who “just happened” to give.
Another factor that promotes financial generosity is adopting habitual, systematic practices of giving.
The results are astounding. An in-depth analysis of the data from the Notre Dame study revealed that:
Catholics who do engage with money as a spiritual matter – and who see their money as ultimately God’s – are much more financially generous, reducing the Catholic-giving gap almost entirely. Discussions in Catholic parishes should not center on meeting basic organizational needs, but rather on spiritual growth and personal and world transformation.
What Could Happen Here?
The few Catholics left in many of our parishes are exhausting their resources on the current needs of the parishes they attend. Seven percent of the parish can no longer support 80% of the mission and financial needs of the mission of God. As one well-known Cardinal said, “Our ways of doing things got us in this mess. Perhaps it’s time to do something new.” So borrowing the lead from Matthew Kelly, I ask you:
What could happen to our ministry and mission in our parish if just one percent more were inspired to give in the coming year?
What could happen to our ministry and mission if just one percent more were challenged to engage more fully in the coming year?
Big movements often start from small events. And with the current dismal state of generosity, engagement and stewardship in parishes today, a one percent shift — just a one percent shift — would be significant.
The good news is that such a shift – even more than a 1% shift – is possible. Four key elements have been identified in parishes that are transforming parishioners:
Parishioners report that they feel informed and involved in the day-to-day life of the parish.
Parishioners report that they are growing spiritually through inspiring Masses, challenging catechesis, and calls to daily devotion.
Parishioners report that they are consistently encouraged to become engaged in ministry through the parish.
Parishioners report that they understand the larger mission of the church and want to invest personally in that mission.
The strategies to transform you and your parishioners are available. Thousands of parishioners in hundreds of parishes have experienced such a life-changing journey of discovery. All of our programs encourage transparency and involvement by parishioners. At every step of engagement, we teach time-tested, scripturally sound principles to engage your parishioners and inspire them spiritually.
By example and through personal involvement, parishioners are challenged to deepen their relationship to God and to His Church. As a result, we have seen parishioners who experience this process changed in two significant ways. Parishioners 1) become more spiritually responsible for their resources and 2) become more fully engaged with the mission of their parish. And through that transformation, parishes find the resources they need to fulfill their mission.