What if they don’t come back?


Have you noticed there are a lot fewer people in church these days? Do you think they are coming back? I don’t.

Early on in the pandemic, I started to notice a pattern in my conversations with colleagues, pastors and even my own family. Someone would say, “Well, when things get back to normal and people come back … gosh, I hope they come back …” and then the conversation would continue. Ever so subtle, an acknowledgment of that pit in their stomach, a dreaded “what if” — what if they don’t come back?

I hope I’m wrong about this, but what I know and what I feel tells me people aren’t coming back, not all of them, not by a long shot. I think you know it, too.

So I want to ask you: So what? So what if they don’t come back?

I don’t ask that question with a callous disregard for the consequences. The implications of perhaps 30% or more of our people not coming back are many and significant. It will completely change the landscape of our Church, affecting every ministry, every parish and every diocese. Most gravely, souls are at stake.

Naming the fear

In order to explore the underlying power of this giant, terrifying “what if,” first we need to name the fear that prevents us from even asking the question out loud. Second, we have to ask the question differently, and third, we need to reflect on our answer.

So let’s name the fear — what if they don’t come back? During one sleepless night during the pandemic, I tried answering this question for myself, which went something like this: “What if they don’t come back? Churches won’t have any money. And then? Churches will have to close. And then? They won’t have any need for my ministry. And then? I’ll be out of a job.” Did you count? It only took two “if-thens” for it to be about my self-preservation.

Often the fear that lies in the depth of this question is not primarily in our care for souls but in our care for our own comfort. If we say it too loudly or too frequently, then we will also have to recognize that we cannot remain in the status quo and might be forced to change.

Beyond our personal concerns, we have larger mission concerns as well. Prior to this pandemic, the cry I heard from so many faithful parishioners was for the next generation. What if the Church is not here for our children and grandchildren? How will they know truth? How will they come to know the Lord?

Our fears are real and strong. But are they stronger than our faith and hope? Jesus told us that He will build his Church and the gates of hell will not overcome it (cf. Mt 16:18). He didn’t say how many parishes there would be or what priesthood would definitively look like. As far as I know, he didn’t mention Mass times or diocesan departments.

My friends, it’s OK to ask the question, “What if they don’t come back?” And it’s important to name our fears. But for too long, the Church has been asking “what if” to protect instead of progress, to mitigate risk instead of stimulating possibility. What if we offend someone? What if no one shows up? What if we close? These are all perfectly responsible, pragmatic to ask — that is, if we weren’t Christians.

Tremendous opportunities

So often we ask questions as if we are the audience instead of the actors and deny the incredible potential the Lord has placed within each of us. Worst of all, we ask questions as if salvation history began and ends with us, as though the fundamental, foundational, kerygmatic truth of our identity isn’t a factor. We ask “what if” as if the victory hasn’t already been won. This is not a new challenge for us because of COVID-19. This is a pandemic of doubt that has plagued us for decades.

But what if we chose to lead with different “what if’s”? We are a people who believe that nothing is impossible with God, who knows the victory has been won, who knows the reason for our hope. We are a people who ask the question “what if?” not with fear, but with wonder in God’s goodness and power.

During the pandemic, one pastor I know was struggling with how to reach out to his parishioners. Someone on his team asked, “What if we did a drive-by blessing for Mother’s Day?” Begrudgingly, the pastor agreed to try it, and 347 cars later, he was moved to tears. What if we called every person in the parish and offered to pray with them? What if we didn’t have four Masses to celebrate on Sunday, what could we do with that time instead? What if we didn’t have to coordinate the religious education schedule, how could we help our parents differently?

What if, in six months, we moved a mostly tech ignorant Church to a Church that’s at least semi-comfortable with technology? We did that! Parishes that couldn’t send an email have learned to livestream. Grandmothers are leading the Rosary over Zoom, and even my own mom now knows how to take herself off mute. What does that teach us about the tremendous opportunities before us?

But what if things don’t go back to normal? That’s an easy one. We don’t want to go back to normal. Normal was a three-decade sacramental free-fall. Normal was 60-70% of those baptized no longer practicing the Faith at all. Sure, we don’t want to wear masks everywhere, and we don’t want people to be afraid. But if we remember where we were, back when it was “normal,” was it all that God wanted it to be?

This is our chance to ask “what if” and write a new story. What are you afraid to lose? We have to ask “what if” with the same confidence the early Church had. The answer to that question is the same as it was then. We can’t lose everything, because for us as disciples, nothing can change our real everything, which transcends time, space and conquers death. The most important things we have as believers remain the same — our identity and relationship as beloved children of the Father. So why not ask a different what if — what if God is calling me to something greater?

This article comes to you from OSV Newsweekly (Our Sunday Visitor) courtesy of your parish or diocese.


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