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.
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.