By ERIKA ANDERSON Special to the Bulletin | Published February 6, 2014
ALPHARETTA—It was during a night called “Family Friendly Friday” that Father Michael White finally snapped.
The Lenten event drew a crowd to his Maryland parish, like most of the activities that filled the Church of the Nativity’s calendar. But when one attendee complained to Father White about the free food he was receiving, Father White realized they were doing something very wrong.
The story of how Father White and his passionate lay associate Tom Corcoran drew inspiration from Protestant mega-churches and turned their struggling parish into a thriving destination for Catholics is outlined in their book, “Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter.” On Jan. 16, Corcoran shared their story with an overflow crowd at St. Thomas Aquinas Church.
The event was sponsored by the parish’s Aquinas Council of Total Stewardship (ACTS) and drew staff members and parishioners from 26 local parishes eager to hear more about how Father White and Corcoran brought their parish back to life.
In his talk, Corcoran talked about the key strategies that drove transformation at the Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Md. Corcoran said things started to change when they started asking “why” again.
“In the busy-ness of life we’d stopped asking why—why does the church exist?” he said. “If you’d asked Father White and me back then, we probably wouldn’t be clear on our answer. We’d probably have said the church existed to make church people happy. We were filling up our calendars. We were doing all these programs, yet nothing was different after. We lost our why. And when you lose your why, you lose your way. God said go and make disciples—not potlucks, not middle school lock-ins.”
They realized their why was in the words Jesus himself had said to his disciples—to love God and others and make disciples.
“When we looked at our church, we realized we weren’t succeeding. We weren’t making disciples of Jesus, we were making consumers of religion,” Corcoran said.
He and Father White started researching and visiting successful Protestant mega-churches, including North Point Community Church in Alpharetta and Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif.
In visiting these popular churches, they developed the strategies that, still anchored in the Eucharistic center of the Catholic faith, helped them turn their parish around.
The first strategy was to change their focus from church-going people to people who had given up on the church or who never belonged to a church. They created an example of a person they called “Timonium Tim,” someone who grew up Catholic, but stopped going to church in high school. To get him to church, they had to compete with football games and golf outings. And they had to make sure he felt welcome when he got to the church.
“The unchurched person does not know he is welcome there unless we tell him,” Corcoran said.
To compete against other Sunday activities, Nativity had to develop its second strategy—prioritizing the weekend experience. They focused on the liturgy—the music, the message and the ministers.
“People are coming to church for an experience,” Corcoran said. “If they have a boring and bad experience on Sunday, why would we expect them to come to anything else we offer? That’s where we have to give our very best efforts.”
Corcoran and Father White started with the music, which Corcoran called “the water on which the experience sails.”
At Nativity, they learned that what was needed was not a music program but music that was worship and musicians who were worship leaders.
“Music has the incredible ability to touch people’s hearts and souls like nothing else can,” he said. “You have to have people who are good at it. Music is really hard and really important because it can have such an impact for God’s kingdom.”
The message, or the homily, is also essential to the experience.
“For priests, the message forms people’s attitudes toward Scripture. This is your opportunity to provide spiritual direction to a vast majority of people,” he said. “We know they are being fed by the Eucharist, but they also have to be fed by God’s word.”
The lay ministers at Nativity are especially important to the church-goers’ experience, Corcoran said.
“When people walk into our church, they see a place that is organized and ready for guests. And they are welcomed—the message begins in the parking lot,” Corcoran said. “We are creating layers of welcoming.”
Nativity has a café where parishioners can sip coffee before and after Mass and an information desk where people can learn more about the parish. Several children’s ministry options are also available and cater to specific ages.
“All these ministries work together to create an environment people want to be a part of,” Corcoran said.
Church attendance has almost tripled at the parish, and they say that giving and serving have grown also.
Both Corcoran and Father White have become popular speakers at Catholic stewardship conferences around the country. Jeff Morgan, chair of the ACTS council, said he first heard of Corcoran when their pastor, the late Father Austin Fogarty, introduced the book to them. Corcoran’s sister, Colleen Jones, is a St. Thomas parishioner.
“I think there were a couple of things we wanted to accomplish by having Tom speak to the community of parishes. The first was to try and create positive energy around what Father White and Tom were saying,” he said. “They developed and tested ideas that now give parishes a valuable blueprint to begin ‘awakening the faithful, reaching the lost and making church matter.’ Second, we all are trying to grow the Catholic community, so we thought it would be wonderful to share it with the other parishes.”
Morgan said more than 220 people from more than two dozen parishes attended the event.
“I believe it really benefited the attendees to hear from someone who actually lived through all the trials and tribulations of setting a new course for a parish,” he said. “Their knowledge will only help guide us as we move forward in our journey.”
Bernadette Flowers, associate director of parish life at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Atlanta, read “Rebuilt” a year ago and has slowly been incorporating changes at the cathedral. She was struck by the enthusiasm of the attendees.
“There is an earnest desire to not sit idly by while mega-churches take parishioners away from us because of our benign neglect,” she said. “Tom gave a simple, clear definition of our mission as Church—to go make disciples—people who come to know and follow Jesus more each day than they did the day before and will do more so tomorrow. All our efforts have to be focused on the mission or we fail, no matter how successful we might appear.”
“It takes a tremendous investment of time, prayer and personal commitment to make disciples. I think we tend to think of quick fixes, but it’s really a one-to-one, person-to-person ministry. Jesus took three years to form his disciples,” Flowers said. “These efforts take time. We tend to be impatient, but when I look back, we have made remarkable strides in the year that we’ve pursued some of these strategies.”
Visit www.rebuiltparish.com for more information.