Increasing Family Attendance at Mass: What Works?

families at Mass

Since buying a lake house in Wisconsin a year ago, my wife and I spend most weekends away from our home parish, Christ the King, in the Beverly neighborhood of Chicago. So, recently, when I attended Mass there, I was surprised that the crowd seemed bigger than usual. Sure enough, in the parish bulletin that week, the pastor, Fr. Larry Sullivan, wrote about what he was thankful for in 2017, and one of the top items was the increase in Mass attendance. Since this is one of the top issues of concern for all pastoral ministers and especially for those of us in catechetical ministry, I asked Fr. Larry to share his strategies, which he has graciously done.

First, a little background. The Archdiocese of Chicago is undergoing a re-structuring/renewal process called Renew My Church, which is requiring all parishes to work together in local groupings and eventually to emerge with plans for viability that may involve mergings or closures. Suffice it to say that all parishes are feeling pressure to prove their viability. Christ the King is not a huge parish and is grouped with another, much larger parish. While the parish school has sustained growth in recent years, overall Mass attendance has been in decline. Every October, parishes in Chicago are to count attendance at every Sunday Mass during the month and to submit their “October count” to the archdiocese—a number which will be crucial in evaluating viability.

It would be easy to take a cynical approach to this and say that Fr. Larry’s only concern was to bump up the October count and that he only relied on “gimmicks” to increase the numbers. However, knowing Fr. Larry and his associate, Fr. Matt Litak, I know that both of them are passionate about the primacy of Sunday Mass and the Eucharist in the life of Catholics. So while their efforts certainly were timed to increase the October count, their overall goal is to create a culture in the parish that places Sunday Mass and the Eucharist at the center of people’s lives. Likewise, while it would be nice to see the language of “discipleship” and “evangelization” peppered all over the place in Fr. Larry’s strategies, it must be noted that using those terms—while important for our overall thinking—is not very effective or appropriate in the pre-evangelization stage when what is most needed is a welcoming atmosphere.

Having said that, the parish experienced a 64% increase in the 2017 October count over 2016—nothing to sneeze at, for sure. And while that number has not been sustained at that level beyond October, there continues to be a sustained increase in attendance. Here is how Fr. Larry describes their approach. (Look closely at the last line of Fr. Larry’s message.)

Joe, we took a multi-faceted approach.

  • Sent weekly e-mails to all of our parishioners inviting them to celebrate the Eucharist.
  • Put a flyer in everyone’s mailbox.
  • Each week, at one of the Masses, we had a well-known parishioner give a short presentation on “What CK Means to Me.”
  • Sports Mass and pizza party.
  • One of the organizations sponsored Saturday night Mass and pizza separate from the Sports Mass.
  • Debut of our new student choir.
  • Each week offered anyone in the school a special prize if they had a picture taken with one of the priests at Sunday Mass: out-of-uniform pass or homework pass.
  • On the last Sunday of October, if 75% of a particular classroom came to Mass, the classroom was given a treat and game time with Fr. Matt or me. If 90% of the class came to Mass, then the whole classroom got a pizza party. It was great to see the kids encouraging each other to go to Mass.

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.

Thanks,
Fr. Larry

Kudos to Fr. Larry and Fr. Matt and the parish of Christ the King for making these efforts. I share their strategies with you to begin a conversation: When striving to increase attendance of families at Mass, what works?

Please share your strategies in the comments space, or send me an e-mail at joe(at)catechistsjourney(dot)com.


The My Own Mass Booklet from the God’s Gift sacramental preparation program guides children through the parts of the Mass. Encouraging participation, small hands will find this booklet easy to use and follow along with the congregation.

About Joe Paprocki 2257 Articles
Joe Paprocki, DMin, is National Consultant for Faith Formation at Loyola Press, where, in addition to his traveling/speaking responsibilities, he works on the development team for faith formation curriculum resources including Finding God: Our Response to God’s Gifts and God’s Gift: Reconciliation and Eucharist. Joe has more than 35 years of experience in ministry and has presented keynotes, presentations, and workshops in more than 100 dioceses in North America. Joe is a frequent presenter at national conferences including the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, the Mid-Atlantic Congress, and the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership. He is the author of numerous books, including the best seller The Catechist’s Toolbox, A Church on the Move, Under the Influence of Jesus, and Called to Be Catholic—a bilingual, foundational supplemental program that helps young people know their faith and grow in their relationship with God. Joe is also the series editor for the Effective Catechetical Leader and blogs about his experiences in faith formation at www.catechistsjourney.com.

31 Comments on Increasing Family Attendance at Mass: What Works?

  1. At the neighboring parish where I am a catechist there at “Theme Masses” (now called “First Communicant Mass” where the children preparing for FHC and their families are particularly invited to attend one of the 2 main Sunday morning Masses. These Mass are the 2nd Sunday of the month from November to May. At Mass, the children line up in the back of the nave and process in before the celebrant. The homily is especially directed to the children. With the previous DRE every Mass the children were asked to bring food for the food pantry and they brought the food up to a bin in the sanctuary at the Offertory. Also, each child received a lanyard and a charm relating to the Gospel of that Mass was given out. This year there is a different ‘activity’ for each Mass: blessing of First Penance or First Eucharist booklets, Blessing of Baby Jesus imagines, Consecration to Sacred Heart of Jesus, Placing Flowers in front of Divine Mercy image, etc.

  2. We have great attendance at my church. At my church there is a dedicated nursery with volunteers and a kids program until 6th grade complete with their own musicians and homily. There are two full-time employees and 1 part time that run both programs. Powerpoint is usually involved in the service. Some of the older kids opt to attend the adult service. There is also a special program for kids with disabilities/special needs and special support groups for that as well. With each homily there is a corresponding bible study or essay to go through with friends, or on your own throughout the week. When you join, you are assigned to a small group for direct support. If it’s not a good fit you can switch. We combine forces with another church for community out reach; there are over 60 service programs to choose from. We also sponsor a low income school in the inner city for tutoring. There are bible studies for women, and for men, and sometimes for kids. There is also a 1 week Summer Camp. . .free of charge/donations only. There are separate middle school, high school, and college get togethers during the week, in addition to Sunday service. We run a coffee shop next to the main church building where we sell books as well. It really brings people together before or after service. If you think that I go to a protestant church. . .you are correct! My kids are 4-14 and I have always NEEDED a nursery and kids program if I am able to attend as we do not live in the same state as family (pretty common nowadays). I was raised Catholic, went to a Catholic university. I wish the Catholic church was as supportive of families as the protestant denominations, the way my catholic church in FL was in the 80’s. My parents didn’t go to church for 9 years after I was born. . .no nursery. “Cry room” was stressful at best. If I wasn’t crying someone else’s baby was! Anyway, just food for thought!

    • Jenny, thanks for your comment and for sharing your story! This is helpful and constructive as we look at how our Catholic parishes can sustain and increase participation.

    • Hi JM. While I appreciate you leaving a comment, I think your tone is unfair. You leave out the fact that the parish sent emails to every parishioner inviting them to celebrate the Eucharist and had people at each Mass giving witness talks. Nothing ridiculous there. In fact, those are very constructive evangelizing strategies. While some of the ideas border on “gimmicky” I still give them credit for creatively seeking ways to get people to Mass and to experience community with the Eucharist at the center. At too many parishes, there is no effort at all to invite people to Mass at a time when attendance levels are at an all time low. It is easy to criticize and do nothing but I prefer to compliment people for creative efforts that seek to convince people that the Eucharist should be the center of our lives.

  3. So, the Church established by Our Lord and built by the Apostles, Martyrs Fathers, Doctors and Saints is now so unappealing that its best hope is selfies with the pastors, pizza parties and sports-themed Masses? This is the best we can do? No its not – Tradition is the future.

    • Hi Andrew and thanks for leaving a comment, however, I think your tone is unfair. No one suggests that the Church and the Mass are unappealing. The fact is, people are not attending and it’s reaching a critical level. Likewise, no one suggests that these ideas are the “best hope.” They are a start. You also leave out the fact that the parish sent emails to every parishioner inviting them to celebrate the Eucharist and had people at each Mass giving witness talks. While some of the ideas border on “gimmicky” I still give them credit for creatively seeking ways to get people to Mass and to experience community with the Eucharist at the center.

    • At a time when young people have so little contact with priests, I think the selfie idea is a positive way to increase interaction between priests and young people. The New Evangelization calls for new ardor, methods, and expressions. We need to support ideas that do just that!

      • Philip, your comment is welcome but the insinuation that the liturgies offered at the parish in discussion are “watered down” is unfounded. Likewise, how are this parish’s efforts different from the experience of parishes back in the 1950s hosting dances for teens, Bingo for adults, and Smokers for the men? The parish was often the center of people’s social lives. Were those events “pandering to secular influences?”

  4. At St. Robert Parish in Shorewood, WI, we have a weekly Family Mass where we are intentional about encouraging families, especially those with littles to attend. We make it clear that it’s ok if the kids are wiggly or loud. They are welcome. We offer Children’s Liturgy of the Word so the kids get a kid focused message and the parents can really listen to God’s Word and the homily.

    We also have a monthly grade hosted Mass where the kids from the school and the religious education program do the readings, petitions, carrying of the gifts, greeting and provide hospitality. The kids love participating in the Mass and their parents have to bring them. The Mass is feeling more vibrant and people are connecting with each other.

  5. I remember one homily the priest said there was three reasons people don’t become Catholic. 1) Many people don’t understand what we believe. 2) Many people just have a prejudice against us. And the third; Many poor Catholics. Even the people that do attend Mass just seem to go through the motions and act like a soapbox derby car. We get to confirmation and after that all it looks like we do is coast and slow down.

    I have to admit, I’m also guilty of this. I think there is a point in everyone’s faith journey where we need to have renewal, something to re-ignite the faith fired engine within us. I’m sure there are many reasons for low Mass attendance but it seems to me it is a symptom more than the problem. We need to inspire the Catholics that do attend Mass to become evangelists to win over the minds and hearts of the Catholics in our communities that don’t see the Church as the place that can fill a hole in their lives that they try to fill with other stuff in the culture. We need people that attend Mass to understand the true gift that it is and to share that with their friends and family.

    It amazes me how passionate we can be about our sports teams but when it comes to our faith we are afraid to show it and hide it in the closet until we go to church on Sunday, even then most of us sleep walk thru it.

  6. I live near CK so this was interesting. Am curious if the trend will continue as the school year continues. Am concerned about how many went so their child could get the incentive.

    • Hi neighbor Tom! Yes, the ultimate question is how to sustain and that is something that requires much more than offering one-time incentives such as a pizza party.

  7. I approve of the use of small rewards and other reasonable treats to help parents motivate their kids to get to Church. At a former parish, kids in First Communion year could pick a small toy from the reward box if they brought in the weekly bulletin to prove they had been to Mass that weekend. I don’t think it is uncommon for kids to misbehave at Mass because they are bored and don’t really understand what’s going on, or for whatever other reason (eg they are hoping that if they misbehave enough their parents might just give up because it’s too much trouble). Anything that can reduce that activation energy for getting to Mass seems like a positive to me.

    I recognise that some feel that this is all gimmicky, and, sure, it is a bit. But I think it is ok to use these strategies because the Mass itself confers graces and because habits and familiarity imprint themselves on our memories. I too found Mass boring when I was a kid. But as an adult, the words come back to me automatically and that makes the Mass a place of comfort. Certainly there are young people who attend Mass weekly but drop it altogether when they move out of their parents’ house. But if they don’t attend frequently enough to develop that familiarity with the Mass, then I don’t think they are likely to be drawn back later on when they are mature enough to understand its underlying beauty. So I think increasing Mass attendance is beneficial enough that it is ok to use gimmicks to accomplish it.

    Of course there also needs to be a limit on what kinds of incentives or modifications are ok in order to increase attendance. Some modifications, such as removing kids to an entirely different service, are not really ok for Catholics, no matter how “effective” they might appear.

    • Hi Kay. It’s really a misnomer. It is a Mass for the sports teams of the parish. The students on the various sports teams attend mass, often join the opening procession, sit together with their team and their coaches, hear a homily that connects the Gospel to a theme such as teamwork, solidarity, unity, courage, perseverance, etc. Members of the teams participate as servers, ushers, greeters, and lectors, and representatives from each team bring up the gifts at the Offertory. It is simply a way of trying to help young people to see a connection between their faith and sports…something that (for better or worse) they are passionate about.

  8. In my native Mexico our Parish had a club with cinema, swimming pool, gymnasium, tennis courts, etc (Parroquia de la Sagrada Familia/Parish of the Sacred Family). All of the facilities were available to parishioners at a very modest cost but, if the boys/girls didn’t show up for mass on Sunday they were not allowed to the cinema or swimming pool. Seems the same strategy taken by CK, the result was a lot of long-lasting catholic marriages (very few divorced or none), a lot of boys became priests or nuns and large families with happy and decent children. I am one of those that attended Mass (and Cinema) and so my brothers and sisters and God has blessed us with good families and pious children, and I wish he had the same kind of programs here in The Netherlands where the attendance is so incredibly low, almost no families and unfortunately very indifferent priests that are more worried about Muslim “refugees” than their own Catholic flock.

    • Thanks for sharing, Juan. Traditionally, Catholic parishes offered a wide variety of activities to ensure that the parish was the center of people’s lives. The examples you give from your experience in Mexico illustrate that. Some people call it bribery. I see it as connecting faith and everyday life.

      • Hi Joe,
        In our parish nobody saw this as bribery, quite the contrary it was the way it should be, first the Mass then other activities. Our parish was run by Jesuits so it was a very orderly life, indeed religion was the centre of our everyday life, every Saturday morning pray the rosary, then go to the club, Sunday 8:00 Mass and then go and visit hospitals, jails, teach the catechism in poor neighborhoods then again to the club, our life were very stable and fulfilling, no waste of time. Carry on, CK is on the right path.

  9. I believe the more that Catholics know about their Faith, the more often they not only attend Mass every weekend, but are also are wanting to get involved in church life. I would venture to say that the average Catholic has no clue why we kneel, stand & sit at different parts of the Mass. Our pastor has begun spending a part of his homily explaining the details of items used in the sanctuary during Mass, why the presider, e.g. kisses the altar at the beginning of Mass. I’m up in the choir loft, but I can see some people leaning forward, on the edge of their seats in fascination. He does this at least twice a month and is now at the point where he reviews & asks questions of the congregation to see if they remember. And they do! I don’t know if this is why Mass attendance has been up since he started, but I’d like to thing it is. People don’t find Mass “boring” when they know what it’s all about.

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