Q: Dear Father Joe: I have friends who don’t seem to be interested in returning to church since the quarantine ended. How do I convince them to come back?
A: Your question reflects a heart of love, and I am so grateful for it. I think the best thing for me to do is walk you through a general idea or two and then some specific strategies.
In general, I am a big believer in offering your “why” to others. Why did you go back? Why is it important to you? What difference does it make in your life to go to church?
I learned this important lesson over time: A heartfelt explanation goes a long, long way.
I recall an interview on NPR with an atheist who was asked by the interviewer if he ever rethought his position in regard to God. He shared a fairly powerful story of how his dad sat him down one day and shared how his faith made him a better person. The atheist talked about all the theological and philosophical things that had been thrown at him and how, to that day, none of them moved him like his dad’s simple, heartfelt explanation.
A second general principle would be a bit more blunt: Namely, when they were baptized or when their children were baptized, they made promises to God that they would follow through with this baptism by being “faithful members of his holy people.” There are three distinct times I can think of in the baptism ritual where Mom and Dad promise to practice the faith.
Parents are not asked if they’ll practice the faith when it’s convenient or when they feel like it, but rather, if they will make a commitment to doing so. Think of it this way — if you only show up for your spouse or friends when it’s easy or when you’re getting some benefit from it, then how long do you think those relationships will last? Jesus is always faithful, but we have to show up if we want to have a relationship with him. And we promised we would. There is nothing wrong with doing what we are called to do even when we don’t feel like it or even want to: In fact, that is virtue. So, you gently remind them of their promises to God.
Sometimes, we’ll hear people say that they feel just as close to God in nature or in some other situation as they do when they are in church. But again, this isn’t about feeling, it’s about commitment — not only to Christ, but to each other. When we are baptized, we become part of the family that is the Church. We have a responsibility to our brothers and sisters to show up at the table. If we’re not getting anything out of our experience at our parish, maybe take a moment to think about what we’re putting into it. How are we making the parish and the Church a better place?
The most common situation I have experienced in regard to why people may not be returning has to do with some genuine failings of the Church, which I’ve discussed in previous columns. It appears that for a lot of people, this time away from the Church revealed something deeply, deeply sad: their life feels easier/better without their parish community because they were disappointed by their priest.
If this is the reason your friends stopped going to church, then prayer is the best answer. Don’t defend indefensible behavior. Don’t equate clergy with Christ. Instead, focus any discussion on hearing them, processing their pain with them and praying for them.
Should they ask for a defense of the Church, point to the ideal we strive for. We are called to be holy, and a broken Church cannot prevent that. Like you and me, the members of the Church are people who are capable of astounding holiness and shocking sin. In the same way that you are not your failures or sins, the Church is not her failures and sins. She is the bride of Christ. There is no perfect Church in this world because we are all sinners. We all have things to learn, and we all need to grow in holiness. Be merciful to your clergy. Be merciful to your friends and family who failed you. Be merciful to yourself.
Don’t leave because of what people have done or not done; stay because of Christ. Grow in knowing him and imitating him. This is the answer God has given you and me for all the struggles around us: Be Christ.