Yesterday I wrote about my opinion about an article about keeping young families in your parish. Today I'm using my experience with two different parishes to say what I think parishes need to do to both attract and keep young families.
Right now I am attending Mass rather frequently in two different parishes. One is my parish. It is in suburban New Orleans. Within a five mile radius of it as the crow flies are at least five other parishes. It is in a working class neighborhood that has families of all ages. However, unless it is a school function, if I go to something other than mass, I'm one of the younger ones there (and I'm over 50)--for that matter if you lined up everyone at most masses by age, I'd be a lot closer to the young end of the line than the old. The parish is struggling financially and I know of families who used to attend our parish who have gone down the street.
The other parish is the only one in the Mississippi town where I grew up---though there are other Catholic churches close enough to drive to if you so desire. The church is packed with people of all ages. Collections are very good. People from other places drive to attend Mass there.
What's the difference? Is it the preaching? No, their pastor is a rather mediocre preacher, but he doesn't talk too long. My pastor is probably a better preacher. Is it the wonderful inspiring music? Nope, they do the same mediocre job of singing the same songs that everyone else sings. Do they have programs no one else has? I can't think of any right off hand. What's different? The pastor. Despite the fact that St. Thomas is a rather large parish, Fr. Louis knows everybody. If he sees a stranger, he introduces himself and he has his staff trained to do the same. He goes to things and talks to people. Now, he is gifted. He remembers names and people in a way that most people can't. Last time we were there he thanked my nine year old by name (in the handshake line after mass) for bringing me to Mass. She glowed, and she always gets in the line to shake his hand rather than rushing out of church. During the Prayers of the Faithful he mentions the sick by name, and also asks us to pray, by name, for those celebrating birthdays, anniversaries etc. He prayed for the high school kids on prom night. During the collection he has a pickle jar near his chair and the little kids come up and put money in it--and they get a hug from Father. He is present at community events and talks to people there. Everyone knows Fr. Louis and everyone knows he, and by extension, the Parish of St. Thomas, cares about them.
In contrast, though my pastor is at everything in the parish, he is an introvert and just doesn't know how to reach out to people and make them feel welcome. One of his recent projects was to put "no trespassing" signs up on the fence. He wants to remove the playset that sits outside the church, close to the road, because people walk off the street to use it. He isn't a bad guy, he's just not outgoing and welcoming, nor is anyone on the staff. While visitors or newcomers are asked to raise their hands right before everyone is asked to silence their phones, like in many Catholic parishes, there is no follow-up. If someone wants to get involved s/he has to proactively seek it; no one invites folks in and makes them feel welcome. Registering for the parish gets you envelopes; nothing else.
I realize a parish isn't a social club. I realize that if it doesn't teach the truth and lead people to Jesus, it is useless at best and a millstone around people's neck at best. I think people are hungering for truth and that it is the job of the parish to present the truth. However, you can't teach them if you can't get them in the door and far too many of our young families don't darken the door of the church except for milestone occasions. Make them feel welcome, make them feel like you care and give them a reason to come back.