Not so long ago, neighborhood and nationality were everything when it came to church membership. Either your street address or your ethnic identity tied you to a particular parish; it was what determined, pretty much automatically, whether you would be baptized, married, and buried at the church of St. Luke or St. Ladislaus. Nothing was a matter of choice. If you were stuck with Father Can’t-Understand-Him or that strange DRE who wears long, black skirts even to the grocery store, you just hung in there and hoped for something better in the years to come.
Not anymore. Much to the annoyance of many clergy (and the delight of many lay people), parishioners are “church shopping” like never before—and I, for one, think it’s a wonderful thing, even though it is still important to guard against adopting a purely consumerist ethos to churchgoing. Let me explain why a bit of choice is not a betrayal of the gospel.
First, discerning parishioners challenge the leadership of parishes to keep on their toes. Gone are the complacent days when pastors could rely on Catholics who would show up for church no matter what—Catholics whom neither rain, nor snow, nor inclement liturgy would stop. These days, more and more are realizing that stimulating preaching, prayerful liturgy, community involvement, and educational opportunities—for adults as well as children—all contribute to higher attendance at Mass. Today’s parishioners are not mere consumers but educated congregants, many with degrees in spirituality and theology and religious education. Parish leadership has a corresponding obligation to be professional, honing requisite skills and awareness through personal development and continuing education.
Second, church shopping encourages parishes to develop their own “personalities.” Families with young children might be attracted to St. Rita’s, where there’s a vibrant religious-education program, while those who prefer their Mass in Latin, with a side order of Palestrina, can gravitate to St. Mark’s. After all, if several parishes exist in one community, is it really necessary that each one offer a bit of everything? Why not develop more distinctive parishes that concentrate their efforts? One church might excel in youth ministry and another in bereavement support, making the best use of limited resources.
Third, a little bit of competition just might make parishes “nicer.” Most of us have heard a horror story along the way about this or that act of rudeness or coldness that turned someone away from a parish. You’re not supposed to yell at kids, for instance, especially not kids with special needs. You’re not supposed to refuse Communion to the daughter of the deceased because she attended the funeral with her wife. You’re not supposed to welcome new parishioners by bluntly asking about their annual salary in order to determine an appropriate tithing. I wish I were making these incidents up, but alas, I’m not. The point is that a little kindness and sensitivity go a long way—and knowing that your parishioners have other options just might help you make the extra effort to proffer it.
Finally, church shopping allows room for people to grow. Spirituality is not one-size-fits-all to begin with; and our spiritual needs change in life just like all our other needs. The faith community that satisfied you when you were just starting a family might no longer fill your glass after your children are grown. Sometimes we need a little diversity and sometimes we ache for kindred souls. Might not the twists and turns on the pathway to God also lead through different parishes at different times?
So if your church salt has lost its flavor, if your spiritual lamp is being dimmed, I say, go ahead and look around! Visit a few places and find somewhere else to plant new roots. There’s a lot of variety out there. And—no matter what you might be hearing from some pulpits—it’s a big church, with room for all. Good luck!