5 Things Parishes Can Do To Stop Losing Young Families


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.