One of the greatest joys of my life is serving my friends and neighbors who grew up in the Catholic Church but are now, for whatever reason, looking for God outside the church of their youth. Knowing how to reach searching Catholics has been a huge learning experience for our church.
I must admit that when I was growing up I didn’t know too many Catholics. That’s unfortunate. But that’s Columbus, Ohio for you.
Know Your Context
While I was in high school, my dad was the coach of our church’s softball team, and when the time came to play St. Mary’s Catholic Church down the street, he didn’t view it as just any old softball game: five hundred years of theological debate was on the line! If we lost to the Catholics, in my dad’s mind, it would be as if we were endorsing the crusades or encouraging people to pray to Mary, or—worse—validating playing bingo in church. With the entire Protestant Reformation in jeopardy, my dad did what he knew he had to do: he asked me and a few of my friends on my high school baseball team to come as guest players to trounce ’em.
On one particular day, the St. Mary’s team was chosen to provide the umpire. The score was tied in the final inning with bases loaded. My friend Deron stepped up to the plate and hit a rocket to the infield. St. Mary’s second baseman, probably on summer break from Notre Dame himself, fired the ball to home plate as our player came barreling toward the base. With the crowd on its feet, tension in the air, the debate over the existence of purgatory on the line, our player slid into home plate, clearly ahead of the ball. The umpire yelled, “You’re out!” and St. Mary’s won the game. Everyone on our team went nuts! My dad, furious at this seemingly blatant attempt to cheat, ran to home plate, threw his hat down, and screamed, “Are you blind? Come on!” I ran up behind him and said, “Dad, calm down. I think that umpire is their priest.”
Understand Your Background
Growing up in Protestantville Columbus, Ohio, playing softball with St. Mary’s was my only exposure to Catholics. I had never met a priest until that day. I had no Catholic friends in my public school. I never once went to a Catholic mass. The only Catholic I knew in our neighborhood was Wendy, the hot gal one year older than me that wore cute checkered skirts and attended a school named after a saint whose name I couldn’t pronounce.
God surely has a sense of humor because in 2000 he called our family to plant a new church in the suburbs of Philadelphia, a metro area home to 5,000,000 people (roughly 4,999,995 of them Catholic). Now my daughters are the only ones in their public school classes who aren’t in CCD. Around the neighborhood we feel like the odd ones out. In fact the Catholic influence in our region is so strong that my oldest daughter’s best friend jokingly made up a Catholic name for her so she would fit in.
How to Reach Searching Catholics
For the past fifteen years we’ve spent a great deal of time and energy trying to understand how to contextualize the gospel and welcome searching Catholics into our church.
Let me be clear: I am in no way insinuating that Catholics aren’t Christians and that they can’t find faith and grow into Christ-likeness inside the Catholic Church. It’s just that so many have given up on it and are looking to new churches like ours for help in their journey. Are you ready to help them?
Here are a few things we’ve discovered that will help Catholics feel welcome in our communities of faith if they choose to attend:
- The Sermon and the Lord’s Supper are the most sensitive things we do. Recently we conducted a survey among searching Catholics in our congregation and asked “What did you like best about our service?” and “What made you come back?” The number one answer to both questions was “the sermon.” Communion was a close second. Both are things they grew up with.
- Don’t have 5,435 greeters. There’s a fine balance between being friendly and appearing cult-like to searching Catholics.
- Don’t be surprised if your spouse has difficulty making friends. To them you’re the priest or married to the priest. It’s hard for searching Catholics to envision becoming chummy with either, at least initially.
- Explain the format of your services. Catholics expect rituals because it makes them feel safe and comfortable. Go overboard explaining why you do what you do.
- Teach the Bible. Who cares how you do it – three points, Stanley’s Me-We-God-You-We, MacArthur’s spend 34 years preaching through Colossians approach – just teach the Bible. Most searching Catholics NEVER open a Bible prior to coming to our churches.
- Don’t force them to break ties with the RCC. Encourage them to allow God to work in their lives gradually. Most will keep sending their kids to CCD until they are confirmed anyway. That’s okay, unless, of course, you need them to play on your church’s softball team.
Having the right expectations and understanding how to reach searching Catholics will prepare you for what will end up being one of the greatest joys in ministry.