"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Monday, December 11, 2006

How parishes thrive

Rev. Jack Wall is leaving Old St. Pat’s in Chicago after 24 years.  He found four people when he arrived, now there are 3,000.  It hosts the famed “ass mass,” attended by spouse-seeking young Catholics.  It’s solvent and thriving, which is no small thing in our time.  Wall is off to the Extension (bishops’ missionary) Society, where his exquisite marketing skills should find an outlet.

Yes, marketing.  Wall has not let his light remain under a bushel, to adapt his Leader’s phrase.  Not only has he worked hard, beginning by hands-and-knees scrubbing of an encrusted rectory-kitchen floor.  He has demonstrated entrepreneurial shrewdness of the first order, finding a niche and filling it.

A, he has ridden the Irish-heritage pony hard.  The place reeks of Celtic ambience and draws disaffected or wandering Irish people from far and wide.  B, he has made it a hot gathering place for the young, whom he dispatched sometimes to various help-neighbor works such as tutoring kids at nearby, historically all-black St. Malachy’s parish on the West Side — historically not since its start, which was as Irish as St. Pat’s but declared black in the wake of black migration.  C, he has raised money and made important political connections, such as with the incumbent Mayor Daley and family.

None of it would matter if he and the other staff did not preach and teach and work hard for their own people, inspiring them to work for others.  But neither would this preaching etc. have mattered without the marketing.

His is the first of the Chicago Triumvirate of niche-marketed parishes which have been immensely successful in the last 30 years.  St. Sabina on the South Side is a black cathedral.  Rev. Michael Pfleger has made of that once-Irish bastion a gathering place for the well-heeled but race-conscious black community.  Al Sharpton has “preached” there (scare quotes by me).  So has “Minister” Farrakhan, who we presume did not make his crack about what’s under the Pope’s cassock.  But believe me, apart from these distractions from The Message, that St. Sabina jumps with Christian-related noise and joy.  Solomon in all his glory had not an orchestra like Sabina’s.

The other of the Three is St. John Cantius, whose modern founder and pastor, Rev. Frank Philips, who had been sent there by his Resurrectionist superiors to close the place — farsighted and idealistic they were, indeed — went to Wall for advice.  About niche marketing of The Word, to be sure, though Fr. Frank did not use the phrase when he told me about seeing Wall.  St. John C. is traditionalist, has had Latin masses (in addition to English) from the start of its renovation by Fr. F.  It has become a mecca for Catholics enamored of old-time Catholicism who also like splendid music.

All three churches are grand and old and sparklingly renovated.  All three parishes are busting with Catholics.  God hath wrought this in part through marketing skills of his ministers.

6 comments:

Matt Huisman said...

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…

No doubt there were to be a few marketers in that mix too. The negative connotations associated with the niche church (let’s say they tend to be a bit…um… isolationist) have always struck me as being a little unfair. (Though the specifics of Father Pfleger’s niche may not help my argument.) To demand diversity in each church is to turn each one into a fast-food franchise. Sure there will still be some variety - one might be a McDonald’s and another a Wendy’s - but they’ll most likely be a far cry from what they might have been.

Evanston said...

Does the Word even enter into these enterprises? Hmm...as a denizen of Chicagoland, I'm skeptical and there is nothing in Jim's summary that is the least bit encouraging. Who cares if more people are attending? WHAT are they getting once the priests get them inside the cathedral?

Matt Huisman said...

Important enough question, Evanston, if we’re seeking to define the truly successful ministry. But the application of “marketing” does not make a church any more or less likely to meet our highest ideals.

No one should be satisfied with the Church of the Panderer, but we don’t need to be dismal purveyors of the Word either. Getting people in the door is real kingdom work too - as long as it is done with the Truth – and nichification seems to me to be a legitimate (vital?) means of revealing/reinforcing the attractiveness of Christ.

Evanston said...

Matt, is this "nichification" or "bait & switch?" -- Let's get folks to show up because church is such a good time place, catering to my special interests, and then once in a while mention the "dismal...Word?" Wow. No wonder Roman Catholicism has a patron saint for every nation and every human activity and every animal and masses who think attending mass is what makes a Christian.
For truly Christian "marketing" then look to Colossians 3:11 and the like.

Jim Bowman said...

On the other hand, we have ideals -- Colossians 3:11's "neither Greek nor Jew," etc. in this case -- and grim reality. Ministry is trying to bring the two together -- a Herculean task for one faced with Augean stables of such magnitude.

Evanston said...

Jim, no doubt we must lead people as they are, and from "where" they are. I used to tell younger Marines that if you think you're a leader, but you're outside of shouting distance from your men, you're not a leader. Hardly an original idea, but one that worked in that context.
Getting back to the original topic, I totally understand the importance of making a church attractive. For example, I spend a lot of time helping with my church's sports ministry. Strictly speaking, "sports" is not a Biblical topic. Nonetheless, most people recognize its attraction and that if supervised properly, it can teach many Biblical principles. One practice we follow strictly is that the Gospel must be preached at each sports gathering. This is where I believe the Roman church fails. We have loads (at least 1/3) of former catholics at my protestant church, because they were fed habits instead of content for their faith.
Your most recent post (18 December) is particularly pertinent, along with older ones (on Cardinal George, for example).