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5 Things Parishes Can Do To Stop Losing Young Families

July 6, AD2013

\"Joel

Matthew Warner recently discontinued his blog at the National Catholic Register. In his second-to-last blog post, Why the World Doesn’t Take Catholicism Seriously, he charged that the Church has gotten bad at making saints. “We Catholics don\’t look or act any different than non-Catholics. It\’s that simple.” How many of us really lead lives so compelling in holiness and joy that, by our very witness, others want to know what we have that they don’t?

This change won’t happen overnight. It requires widespread conversion of heart, and the solution, as Matthew rightly asserts, will not come solely from the institutional Church. It has been said that all politics is local, and the same might be said of conversion. To effect such conversion requires local influence, real in-the-flesh, person-to-person evangelization. It needs to be a grassroots effort that bubbles up from our local parish communities.

Fortunately, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, knows something about going for the heart. Inspired by his first encyclical Lumen Fidei (Light of Faith), we suggest five tangible things parishes can do to stop losing young families and start raising up the next generation of saints.

1. Get the Sacrament of Baptism right.

A former parish Director of Religious Education once remarked to us how much he enjoyed facilitating baptism classes. Why? It’s the parish’s best opportunity to catechize young adults who have drifted away, perhaps not even stepped foot in a church since their wedding day. Shouldn’t all baptism preparation be characterized by such zeal? Sure, this ministry often relies on volunteer facilitators, but they can’t just be willing. They must be able, too. The bar has to be set well above pushing the play button to start a 30-year-old videotape.

Similarly, many parishes, often for the sake of convenience, celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism outside of Mass. Why? Theologically, this makes no sense. The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly states, “The whole ecclesial community bears some responsibility for the development and safeguarding of the grace given at Baptism” (CCC 1255). Baptism is a communal sacrament; the whole assembly actually participates in the rite by renewing their baptismal promises. Plus, baptisms are one the most joyful occasions in parish life.

Children are not capable of accepting the faith by a free act, nor are they yet able to profess that faith on their own; therefore the faith is professed by their parents and godparents in their name. Since faith is a reality lived within the community of the Church, part of a common “We”, children can be supported by others …. The structure of baptism, then, demonstrates the critical importance of cooperation between Church and family in passing on the faith (LF 43).

2. Stop offering childcare during Mass.

Yes, you read that correctly: S-T-O-P. Send us your hate mail if you must, but we really need to begin thinking differently about this whole dynamic. What kind of message are we sending if, after welcoming babies into the community of faith in baptism, we relegate them to another room until they are old enough to be quiet and sit still? We can’t allow the baby-hating mentality, so pervasive in the culture, into our parishes.

Parents, you need enough backbone to not be intimidated by the unfortunate dirty looks you may receive when your toddler inevitably acts up. Offer up your suffering for your child’s sanctification or, better yet, for the conversion of Mr. or Ms. Stink Eye. Walk your child out if necessary, and then come back when ready. Your witness of suffering for your children and for the Mass is more inspiring to most people than you realize. “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Mt 19:14). Children belong in Mass. Period.

In the family, faith accompanies every age of life, beginning with childhood: children learn to trust in the love of their parents. This is why it is so important that within their families parents encourage shared expressions of faith which can help children gradually to mature in their own faith (LF 54).

3. Provide childcare at adult events.

Have you ever planned an adult-oriented parish event or program and wondered why so few people participated? Did it ever occur to anyone involved to arrange to provide childcare, so parents of young families could attend?

Case in point. Lisa recently contacted an existing parish ministry, proposing to partner with them in an initiative to help the parents of young children attend Eucharistic Adoration together. The ministry would have been responsible for helping coordinate just one hour of childcare per month. Rather than seizing the potential opportunity to serve, the resistance was immediate, without even investigating the possibility. The initial response had something to do with the parish getting sued. If a parish’s primary concern is lawsuits rather than service, the parish might be getting things backward.

Parishes are only as strong as the families that comprise them, and families are only as strong as the marriages upon which they are built. Parents become stronger when they are able to actively engage in the life of the parish. It’s fine for husbands and wives to have their individual parish activities, but how much better could it be if they were able to participate together, not just building their individual spirituality but also their marriage in the process? The domestic church is the cornerstone of the parish church.

Faith is no refuge for the fainthearted, but something which enhances our lives. It makes us aware of a magnificent calling, the vocation of love. (LF 53)

4. Actively promote Natural Family Planning.

The contraceptive mentality permeates the culture at large, and even more unfortunately, it permeates the Church. However, in so many cases, it seems not to be a matter of obstinacy as much one of ignorance. So many Catholics have genuinely not been taught what the Church believes about human sexuality. They haven’t been properly exposed to the beauty of these teachings, so they haven’t experienced the joy and freedom that comes from living them.

Putting the Church’s teachings into practice in marriage in the form of Natural Family Planning, however, can be scary for many couples. Getting started requires a significant investment of faith, knowledge, and communication. Unless a couple is connected to good resources, including a community of “practicing” couples, the initial investment can be intimidating. It feels so much easier to just keep contracepting, because it’s familiar and widely accepted by so many presumably “good” Catholics.

Rather than starting an informational class, a “social group” approach just might be the best one to convert couples to Natural Family Planning. Knowledge is good, but it’s not nearly as powerful as witness, which communicates heart-to-heart. Without question, accurate information is important, but it doesn’t bring about conversion by itself. That has to happen in the heart, not just the head.

This union is born of their love, as a sign and presence of God’s own love, and of the acknowledgment and acceptance of the goodness of sexual differentiation, whereby spouses can become one flesh (cf. Gen 2:24) and are enabled to give birth to a new life, a manifestation of the Creator’s goodness, wisdom and loving plan (LF 52).

5. Proclaim a Year of Marriage and the Family.

Does this sound rather \”institutional Church\”, like some diocesan initiative? It is where we live, but why wait for the rest of your diocese? Do it now right in your parish. This doesn’t have to constitute a new, large-scale program, with lots of overhead to get it started. Instead, commit every parish ministry, from social justice to catechesis, to attracting and serving families in some new way.

Does your parish have an Art and Environment Committee? Get families involved in decorating the Church for the various major feasts and liturgical seasons. Does your parish serve a homeless shelter, soup kitchen, or food pantry? Such ministries provide excellent service opportunities for whole families, especially around holidays. What about your homebound/hospice ministries? Few things make the ill and elderly feel more alive than the presence of children. Does your parish have a ministry dedicated to providing meals to families with new babies? If not, organize one.

The possibilities are literally only limited by your creativity. And if you’re feeling ambitious, go ahead and start something completely new.

Absorbed and deepened in the family, faith becomes a light capable of illumining all our relationships in society. As an experience of the mercy of God the Father, it sets us on the path of brotherhood (LF 54).

Do you see any of these working in your local parish? Do you have other suggestions or stories of initiatives that have been successful? What about ones that tanked, despite the best efforts of those involved? Join the discussion below!

© 2013. Joel and Lisa Schmidt. All Rights Reserved.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Joel and Lisa Schmidt co-founded The Practicing Catholic, an antidote to the perception that piety is boring or that the Church is filled with “sour-faced saints”. In their writings, the Schmidts provide witness to the adventure of living an integrated Catholic life ... not just on Sundays. For more about the Schmidts, please see their individual bios (Joel's bio; Lisa's bio).

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  • Angie

    I disagree with you on not having childcare during mass. As a mother, who takes her four young children to church alone, finding a church that had childcare was something I needed. When I decided to come back to the Catholic church, with children ages 6, 5, 4, and 2 – the thought of having all four kids in the pew overwhelmed me. Childcare during mass was a lifesaver for me. Now, five years later (still attending mass without my spouse) I have all four children in the pew with me. Not every family has two parents who attend mass – a lack of childcare could be what keeps them away from church.

  • Kip Cheshire

    I’m sorry, but I whole heartily disagree with you. While our children need to attend mass and know who Jesus is, as well as develop an intimate relationship with hHim. Our adults also need to be filled with the Gospel, and God-willing a decent homily (and not always cheerios and complaints to go potty). You may be accurate about all the others but when it comes to no day care, you’ve missed the mark. My wife and I have no day care, no cry room, and nothing for families with 3 year olds acting their age. So we either get starred at and judged or, we wait outside like Zacchaeus trying to peer in but not being able to join in.

  • SisterMom

    THANK YOU for #2!!! We DO NOT have a nursery in our church and never will, thanks be to God! I am the DRE at my church and I have noticed the children who behave the best are the children who regularly attend and learn how to sit for the Mass. If they get restless, the parents can take them out to our vestibule, where you can hear the entire service and see (the back wall is all windows and there are speakers in the ceiling). They are not relegated to the vestibule and are welcome back in anytime! We LOVE hearing the little voices saying AMEN and participating. Parents are always so pleasantly surprised to find out our policy of welcoming ALL of God’s children. I believe this is why our church as almost doubled in size the past ten years. I might add, I also worked, part-time at two local protestant churches, which both have struggled keeping their nurseries staffed, the attitude toward little ones is appalling, which I regularly tell them. Their numbers have decreased significantly. They complain, sadly, but typically the older population (who seemed to forget what it was like being a parent, or to hear them tell it their children were almost as perfect as our Lord Himself!), about the kids with almost venomous distaste. Quite frankly, sometimes I would like a “nursery” for ADULTS who feel the need to come when they are sick as a dog, for the ADULTS who constantly check their phones, for ADULTS who have to say the prayers 10x faster than everyone else, for the ADULTS who think they can sing superbly so they sing louder than the musician can play, for the ADULTS who dress like they are going to work at Hooters afterward or going clubbing, I could go on. IN short, THANKS for #2!

  • Cindy

    My son was baptized during Mass on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. What a blessing! In that parish, not all children were baptized within Mass, but it was an option. Same true at my parish in NJ. Though some complained about the added length to the Mass, most found it a joy to truly welcome new members to the communities and feel the joy. In my parish in VA, where my son was baptized, any children present were invited to come forward and gather near the font–how much catechesis was that about the sacrament!

    I will respectfully disagree with you about the babysitting–though of all the many parishes I have visited over the years I only know 1 that had babysitting and it was the parish we belonged to during the ‘toddler time’ when he just naturally needed to move around. I didn’t use it for long, but it was a welcome respite to get some peace at Mass. I used it for a few months and gradually ceased. I don’t see much babysitting sitting but more so ‘cry rooms’ where the young children are segregated, no one in those roooms can have a hope of hearing what is going on during Mass and which in our parish is just a melee. Get rid of those! Other than those few months of babysitting, my son (now 18) attended Mass every week with us and when he was 3-4 yo until kindergarten I would often even take him to daily Mass.

    Thanks for the idea on Adoration babysitting–I will suggest it to our Adoration coordinator (while volunteering to do it).

    To me, as a parish religious education teacher for many years the problem is getting young families to Mass (instead of soccer games, cheerleading competitions and COSTCO shopping trips). Year of Marriage and Family!!!!! Send that idea right along to Papa Francis 🙂

  • Gary Adrian

    Michele, I agree with what you say. The priests in my FSSP run parish (Latin Mass), try to meet everyone as the leave, then go down to the luncheon or brunch after the masses to meet those there. If it is someone new, they try to make them feel at home. It is wonderful to have priests like this. The priest will have far more effect than anyone else. By the way, yes, the tone of a parish is set by the priests. Our parish has tripled in size in the seven years since our current priest has been there. He has truly been a blessing. This despite his very poor health. Sadly, he has a life threatening heart problem that continues to get worse, as well as, debilitating migraine headaches. We all pray for him daily.

  • Joel and Lisa,

    I agree with most your points but I don’t know if it’s realistic. I think instead of focusing on losing young families we have to look at ways of attracting young families. As someone who has many friends and sibilings who have walked away from the faith, the reason they won’t come back is because:

    1. They are afraid of being judged, and telling them not worry about the judgmental stares won’t help.

    2. There is nothing for their kids. I agree with providing childcare at adult events; however, also make venues in your church more family friendly. Make sure their is quality site and sound in the “cry area”, invest in your children’s liturgy of the word and if you do have a nursery program make it an opportunity to teach kids about Mass, not just watch them.

    3. We don’t make our environments welcoming. Have people opening doors, welcoming families and helping people get acclimated. So many times we leave seekers and the unchurched fend for themselves.

    If you focus on the insiders you’ll never please them. Focusing on the outsiders and you are making your church an evangelistic tool. Thanks.

  • KathleenBasi

    We just had to hire a sitter last night for an event at church. I often think that more young parents would participate if it wasn’t so darned expensive to get their kids taken care of! We lead a choir at our church, and thank God we have a wonderful family member who loves the choir babies and will keep them all in the nursery for minimal compensation when she’s available. I always say I don’t mind volunteering, but I mind very much paying good money for the privilege of volunteering!

  • RM

    Just a note about NFP. I had fertility problems related to undiagnosed health issues. Our NFP practitioner helped us realize that I needed to follow up with my doctor. The situation would have been more serious if we had waited longer.

    If we had not been using NFP after our first child was born I would not have 4 more. Using NFP helped me keep my marginal fertility intact AND allowed us to space our children when we needed to. It also gave us help with certain emotional and spiritual problems that we brought into our marriage.

  • Doctormom4

    Anyway, sorry to be so emotional in the previous post, it just really hit a nerve. It was the first time I had faced the attitude of children being unwelcome. I grew up in a large family and I never had anyone treat us that way, at least my mother never let on. I was very naive in thinking, “Well, of course children belong in Church.” It never occurred to me that someone, in the Church AND involved in faith formation would have thought different. I did mention it to the pastor, he was apologetic, but I don’t think he had the backbone to ever tell the man he was out of line.

  • Doctormom4

    You really struck a cord with number 2. I have never had a church with childcare, but one day I took my 5 year old to the bathroom during Mass and when I came back out I found my husband holding the new baby and my 3 year old outside. I asked him what he was doing he told me that the HEAD of the youth group had told him to leave because my children were too distracting for his teenagers. His teenagers texting, wearing flip-flops on the altar while “altar serving”. Oh, I won’t even get started on the wearing of bikinis instead of real clothes to Mass. What was worse is that we were actually having a phenomenal day in terms of my son behaving. He had only been fidgeting, he actually hadn’t said anything all Mass. Who does that?– tells a family to leave Mass? I told him to march back in and leave the jerk to me. He didn’t dare say anything after we came back in, I think he knew what was best for him.

    • Aquinas5

      I think you just touched on another problem within the Church, engaging our youth. There have been many articles and books written about how youth ministry is failing. One of the reasons cited is the lack of multigenerational contact that teens get within the Church. Instead of those teens benefiting from seeing your selfless example with young children, then witnessed an exclusionary example of a ‘lay minister’ overstepping his bounds. If we want young families to be there, we also need to help teens understand the faith.

  • Jennifer Fitz

    Overall I agree, but I’m going to join the group quibbling about childcare. As the Catholic parent in a disparity-of-cult marriage, and with significant health problems during the years my kids were babies and preschoolers, the parish nursery was the only thing that made it possible for my kids to even show up on parish grounds. I put the littlest ones in the nursery, and brought the big guys in with me. Eventually the littles joined us because it was the big-kid thing to do. Without the nursery, my choices would have been to

    a) leave the kids home

    b) spend Mass sitting out on the lawn = nobody gets to actually attend Mass.

    Instead, I’ve got four catholic kids, and a spouse who eventually reverted. I say my parish does it right on this count — one small nursery at the most heavily-attended-by-new-families Mass, a bunch of other options (ample front rows, small cry room, vestibule), and welcoming grandma-types to smile at the babies in the pews.

    Also we have a playground next to the church, and donuts after the 10AM. Frown all you like, I’m pretty sure the donuts were what kept my preschoolers sitting in mass so happily every week.

    • DJ Hesselius

      Sounds like a great parish!

      Oh! and I take that back what I said up there–one parish we went to for awhile did have nursery during the winter months. It was the one with the most “orthodox” priest in the area. Lots of homeschooling families went there at that time. (Baptisms were done outside of Mass.) Eventually due to age, he had to retire. He passed away shortly thereafter. The parish changed radically after that.

    • Joel Schmidt

      Jennifer, thanks so much for you comment. First thing, major
      kudos on the revert spouse and four Catholic kids. Second, we don’t claim that
      no good ever comes from childcare during Mass. There are exceptional cases in
      which some form of it makes sense. It sounds like your parish deploys this sensibly,
      in an environment of overall family-friendliness. Great! Our point is that
      routine childcare during Mass, which usually begins with the best intentions,
      can quickly become like a coat check, where parents genuinely feel compelled
      leave their young children. Third, donuts = motivation + fellowship. What’s not
      to like?

  • Br. Joseph

    I love your article. Thank you very much

  • DJ Hesselius

    Had to chuckle: no childcare during Mass (because its a “family faith” matter), but childcare needed during “adult events” like Adoration. Frankly, I think it would be much easier to have the children for 10 or 15 minutes at Adoration than 60 minutes at Mass. I recently attended my old United Methodist Church (the one in which I was baptised). My 10 year old was with me. The children are there at the beginning of services, then about 15 minutes or so in, are sent to their own Children’s Service. My 10 year old (who does have some learning issues) would much rather go to that type of service than Divine Liturgy (and especially Novus Ordo or Tridentine Mass) any day of the week. Not allowing child care (or cry rooms) at Mass but then encouraging it for other activities doesn’t make sense.

    • I chucked at your comment, too. Glad we are providing humorous moments for one another. The “adult event” example in the post was regarding strengthening marital spirituality through activities like couples’ Adoration. This is not at all the same thing as family/children’s Adoration, which we also greatly favor. It’s like the difference between date night and a family outing.

      Regarding children at Mass, I disagree that we should be taking our cues from the Methodists. We have the Eucharist, which makes all the difference. Other comments have addressed this, too.

    • DJ Hesselius

      I am not totally into taking cues from the Methodists either: let’s see–women “Reverends”, contraception, abortion, homosexual/gay marriage blessing. But perhaps taking our cue from our children instead and respond to what they need? My oldest son is the senior altar boy at our parish–the fellow in charge of the incense and holding the Lectionary whilst Father proclaims the Gospel. He actually probably missed more Church (due to the availability of Grandpa to babysit, etc) during his little guy days than my current not quite so little guy ever has (as Grandpa was too ill to babysit by that point.) He had no choice not to attend. Two different people: one feels a sense of accomplishment and worth at Liturgy. The other (who has, as noted, learning issues) lost and bored.

      Incidentally, I don’t think any of the Parishes I’ve attended (either Roman or Byz Rite) has ever offered childcare. If it had been available, I’d’ve used it and never once considered it part of the baby-hating mentality.

  • Aquinas5

    Great article and totally agree. I’ll be sharing with our pastoral associate. There tends to be a blind spot with Catholics within the Church concerning those of us with young children. We as a Church need to be more welcoming and especially accepting of children and your suggestions are definitely geared to that end.

    Just as a personal example, my husband and I are due any day with our sixth child. I’m 45 which means that I’ve been in and out of baby mode for over 21 years! I shouldn’t be the exception nor should it be difficult for me to participate in various aspects of parish life every time that another baby comes along. In some ways, I guess my own experience serves as an example to the parish since my husband is a deacon (something that you’ll be experiencing yourselves next year).