A couple weeks ago as my wife and I approached the entry doors to our parish’s “Gathering Space,” which leads to the church proper, the parish social hall, and the parish offices, we couldn’t help but notice the signs that were prominently placed on all the doors: “Please refrain from playing Pokémon Go while inside the Church and Gathering Space.”
My first thought was “Seriously? We really need to tell people that?” But after thinking about it for a minute, I understood the reason for the signs. Our parish is trying to become a more modern and welcoming “Catholic Community.” Sometimes when people feel too welcome and comfortable they engage in activities that are not really appropriate for the venue.
Today, more and more, the sense of propriety—what is acceptable behavior and what is not—that was once part of our American culture has gone the way of the rotary dial telephone and black & white TV. This is not all that surprising since what was once considered immoral is now considered perfectly normal. It just stands to reason that what was once also considered inappropriate (like the use of certain words in polite conversation) is now “no big deal.” Such is the current state of our society and culture.
I have been wondering for the last few years if our parish is perhaps trying too hard to be modern and welcoming. For many years now the only music performed at our Novus Ordo liturgy has been modern hymns, accompanied by piano and guitar. But now we also have a big screen behind the altar and a large flat screen TV to the side of it (to accommodate the folks who sit at a right angel to the altar). Lyrics to hymns, responses, and even the words to some prayers that everyone should already know are projected on the screen and displayed on the TV during Mass. There is also a flat screen TV in the Gathering Space that scrolls through the parish news 24/7.
Our parish also has one of those most modern of all contrivances—a “mission statement”: “Guided by the Holy Spirit, we welcome the gifts, talents and presence of our [insert parish name here] Catholic Community. We strive to create a nurturing environment of inspiration, faith and service for all God’s people.” If that’s not welcoming, I don’t know what is.
I didn’t think our parish could get much more modern or more welcoming but then I read an article in our parish bulletin that was a jaw dropper. Apparently our Parish Council has been working on a “branding strategy” for our parish. Someone or some firm had already designed a new parish logo and now a new mission statement for our parish was being written as part of this new, all-encompassing branding strategy.
As the article explained it:
Creating a brand is not just designing a logo nor selecting an appealing color scheme. It is a process of identifying the unique aspects of who we are, who we want to be, and weaving these attributes together in a way that is consistently expressed in everything we create. Branding is not something that is just nice to have, but rather is essential to attaining success in the digital and social world we live in these days. A cohesive and well-executed brand is significant to our success because it creates a consistent experience for our visitors and builds trust and loyalty. The branding should tell people who we are and what we are about, but yet should have a strong sense [of] style and be unique. It should say that we are in touch with today and should say unapologetically who we are.
I’ve always thought Catholicism was a pretty conspicuous “brand” with pretty unique attributes—a pope who is the Vicar of Christ, a magisterium, dogma that is unchanging, seven sacraments, and so much more. So why would a Catholic Church need a “brand” all of a sudden?
The article goes into more detail about why branding is so important, the intricacies of logo and font selection, adaptability, and so on. Yet every time I read it I just end up scratching my head.
If our parish was brand new (no pun intended), there might be a need to establish an identity and attract new parishioners, but our parish is not a new parish. It’s been on the same corner for almost 60 years. So why it suddenly needs “a brand” is a bit puzzling.
Originally our parish was in a rural Republican district, but growth in the area has turned it into a suburban parish with almost 10,700 members. In fact between 2000 and 2008 the population in the township in which our parish is located grew by almost 50 percent, making it the state’s fastest growing major municipality, and we are now the second largest parish in the archdiocese. So people seem to be able to find our church without any problem. It has even been remodeled and rebuilt a couple times to accommodate all the new parishioners. On the other hand, two groups of parishioners partitioned off from our parish (one in 1992 and one in 1996) to form new parishes, so maybe all the modernism and welcoming stuff didn’t appeal to everyone. Indeed, these two groups of Catholics who lived in our parish were willing to worship in secular buildings over several years while awaiting official word to form a new parish rather than worship with us. During the same time period, anecdotal evidence suggests that new parishioners from the city were bringing with them more progressive attitudes that ultimately transformed the character of the parish.
The old joke that the camel is a horse that was designed by a committee always seems to pop into my mind when I walk into our new, more modern church. Maybe we need a “brand” to distinguish our church from others in the area since architecturally we look a lot like a non-denominational Protestant church.
Whatever the reason, our parish council is now spending who knows how much money to develop a branding strategy for our parish so we can attain “success in the digital and social world we live in these days.”
After mulling this over for awhile a somewhat ironical thought occurred to me: maybe our parish, and others as well, now have to employ secular strategies to “compete” in a secular culture to overcome catechetical failures. For many people today, one religion is just as good as another. Far too many Catholics really do not see the differences between Catholic and Protestant beliefs, while many heterodox Catholics feel that church doctrine is just plain wrong and needs to be changed to get with the times. For all we know heterodox Catholics may now outnumber orthodox Catholics in the U.S. We know from Pew research that nearly half of Catholics leave the Church at some point in their lives. Even Joseph Ratzinger predicted way back in 1969 that the Church of the future would be smaller but more faithful. So given the dire situation we face, maybe it was inevitable that parish councils would increasingly reflect the progressive shift in the culture.
One danger posed by a collegial style of church governance that allows democratization at the parish level is that people with poorly formed consciences and heterodox beliefs can now make their way into positions of authority. When the progressives in a parish take over the parish council, the result can be a parish that loses track of what’s really important. Under such circumstances, it is difficult for a good priest to resist, although this trend is more likely in parishes with a likeminded pastor. Because successful parish priests consult their parishioners before making major decisions, it’s important that orthodox Catholics become actively involved in the life of their parish. No priest, however well-intentioned, can manage his parish completely on his own. His burden is greatly lightened with the support of the faithful. And a parish with an active coterie of orthodox lay volunteers will be a bulwark against the influence of progressive ideas.
Progressive thinking says the Church needs to become more modern to compete in a “digital and social world.” It needs to have a “brand” so it can achieve success. But how is this “success” defined? Is it by raw numbers and more members, or by more Catholics that actually understand Catholic doctrine and live their faith? Could a growth in membership really be sustained over the long run without the cultivation of a sincere faith?
The progressive arguments for modernism often place greater emphasis on superficial matters like marketing while ignoring questions of substance like whether the faith is actually being taught. They say: “we need to become more modern because young people are so much more into technology today; we have to keep up with the times or we are going to lose them.” But this is pure nonsense. Children, teenagers, young adults and even middle-aged and older adults abandon their faith because they’ve been lured away by the glamour of evil justified by the philosophy of moral relativism they’ve been force fed in our public schools and reinforced by the entertainment industry. The chances are good that far too many Catholics today never really understood or appreciated Catholic teaching to begin with because of a failure of catechesis. Technology is no substitute for teaching the faith accurately and with confidence.
The difficulties modern parishes face highlight the relevance of Romans 12:2: “And be not conformed to this world; but be transformed in the newness of your mind, that you may discern what is the good and acceptable, and the perfect will of God.”
Our parish mission statement should probably read something like: A Catholic Community where Teaching the Truth & Living the Truth is Our Way of Life. What will they come up with? I suspect it will say nothing that might offend or challenge a modern sensibility. Given what our parish already says about itself, I can’t help but wonder how much more “welcoming” and “inclusive” we could possibly be.