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3 Ways to improve parish outreach to potential converts


Catholic Diocese of Saginaw | CC BY-ND 2.0

Casey Chalk - published on 01/09/18

The “open secret” among Protestant converts to Catholicism is that many RCIA programs are underwhelming, if not deeply disappointing.

A friend of mine, a born and bred Southern Baptist, is currently in a Catholic adult confirmation class. He has a lot of passion for learning about and understanding the Catholic faith, but feels stymied by some aspects of parish life. He’s discouraged by lackluster RCIA instruction, a dearth of intellectually engaged Catholics, and his difficulties in finding a Catholic social group where he and his family feel welcome.

His experiences remind me of my own, after my “reversion” to the Catholic faith of my youth. Our similar experiences suggest that our parishes could stand to improve outreach, both to potential converts and the “fallen-away” Catholic, too.

Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults

The “open secret” among Protestant converts to Catholicism is that many RCIA programs are underwhelming, if not deeply disappointing. My own experience with the program seven years ago was terribly frustrating. The RCIA coordinator was a lovely woman, but the priest providing most of the evening lectures was easily distracted, and the conversation often devolved into long digressions on Civil War history. My Catholic girlfriend at the time attended with me once. Afterwards, she felt compelled to apologize on behalf of the Catholic Church for the poor instruction.

This experience is not unique. Catholic author and speaker Matt Fradd, who runs the popular “Pints with Aquinas” podcast, noted in a recent podcast episode that many listeners tuned in because their RCIA instruction was so unsatisfactory.

This should not be! Priests are shouldering a great deal; why not encourage pastors to identify those Catholics who are truly on fire for the faith and recommend them to the bishop for diocesan training (and certification) in order to helpfully facilitate the RCIA programs?

Biblical literacy

The notion of a widespread biblical illiteracy in Catholicism is a constant refrain of Protestant apologetics, and it is way overblown. If a Catholic faithfully attends Mass — and better yet, reads the daily Mass readings — he or she will have read a significant part of the Bible. In truth, most Catholics know more scripture than they realize.

Yet, there is some truth to the idea that Protestants, particularly evangelical Protestants, know their Bibles better. I’ve found that the people leading Bible studies in Catholic parishes are frequently Catholic converts from Protestantism. Since my reversion, I — a former Calvinist seminarian – have had the experience of hosting a Catholic men’s Bible study in my home, and these men were hungry to explore it.

The influx of scripturally knowledgeable evangelicals has been a boon to many parishes, but there are already plenty of Catholic resources for scriptural studies and personal spiritual growth (e.g. Lighthouse media, Catholic podcasts). It is not a difficult thing to use those resources as a springboard to bringing Catholics together  to grow together in the spirit. Bishop Robert Barron’s Catholicism series is a great place to start.

Finally, every parish should have a robust Bible study program, to enrich the understanding of the faithful, and to emphasize to potential converts the “fullness”: Catholics have the Word, in both Book and Flesh.

Out-socialize the evangelicals

As I’ve recounted in an article in The Catholic Thing, I struggled to find the kind of community in Catholicism that I had experienced in my small, tight-knit Presbyterian congregation. The parish I attended after my reversion never had any kind of welcome event for visitors or potential converts. I would go to Mass, sit alone, and leave alone. No time for fellowship, because the next Mass would be starting, soon.

To be fair, many Catholic parishes have social functions. My current parish has coffee-and-donuts just about every Sunday after Mass, which is great. But we can do better. In the Protestant communities in which I was involved, finding, greeting, and welcoming visitors was always a top priority. In some, it was practically impossible to remain anonymous.

We should seek to replicate that in our parishes. We need not out-socialize the evangelicals – nor need we be overbearing to people who come to Mass looking for a bit of silence before and after – but parish halls and other congregating areas need to be better utilized to build a true sense of community and belonging.

Let’s reap the harvest at our parishes

My parish has a sign visible as one drives out of the parking lot: “Now Entering Mission Territory.” This is true — but it can overlook the fact that our parishes are also fields ripe for planting and sowing, especially during the Easter and Christmas seasons. After all, “Continuing Adult Formation” goes hand in hand with “continuing adult participation” in the Mass and the life of the parish.

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