The problem with parish-shopping

I was reading an article this morning from First Things David T. Koyzis titled, “The Death of the Parish,” lamenting a current trend toward parish-shopping that occurs, leading to mega-churches and perhaps a tendency for pastors to try to attract new consumers, or parishioners, by offering the products and services — such as sermons on topics people want to hear about — that the consumers demand.

He makes some great points, I think, although his solution — having all churches do away with parking lots so that people will be forced to walk to a church in their neighborhood — is more than impractical.

As a Catholic, I love the fact that no matter what parish I might visit for Mass, it a participation in the same Eucharistic feast that occurred on Holy Thursday and continues at every Catholic parish in the world today. Still, I’ve seen a kind of erosion of parishes that can occur with church-shopping as people flock to the parish that the deem nicer than the one in their own neighborhood.

Personally, I think biggest problem with church-shopping is the focus on what we get out of it, instead of on what we are there to do. Our focus ought to be on worshiping God as He deserves to be worshiped, not on what is in it for us. While is one of the great ironies of God that the more we seek to give Him the praise and worship He is due — even though none of this enriches Him in anyway —  the more gifts He pours on us. Yet, it is all to easy to become preoccupied with the gifts God gives rather than the God that gives them.

It becomes a bit like visiting distant relatives rather than close family members at Christmastime because those relatives happen to give nicer Christmas presents. It is one thing to fly out to see our Great-Aunt Mathilda because we know that she is all alone for the holidays and that our own parents already have a full house. It is quite another to do so because Great-Aunt Mathilda has more money to spend on us.

Worse yet, when we focus on what our parish has to offer, we tend to focus on all the wrong things. We go where the priest is entertaining, where the music is to our liking, where the pews are comfortable, and where there are social activities we enjoy. We go where the homilies say what we want to hear, where the right sins are criticized (the ones we aren’t inclined to commit anyway) and the right virtues extolled (the ones we like to think we have). We are drawn toward those gifts that make us feel good, that comfort us, rather than those that challenge us to become holier. We shop for what we want instead of relying on God to give us what we need.

This consumer-style focus can also lead us to overlook what God might be calling us to do in our own back yard. If we notice something lacking in our parish, perhaps there is something we can do to make it better, instead of looking for a new parish.

I also worry about the trend toward parish-shopping making Catholic parishes less catholic in the original sense of the word. I was told by an older Hispanic gentleman at my parish that, at one time, the number of Hispanics who attended Mass at our parish was very small, even though a large number of Hispanics lived inside the parish boundaries. This, he said, was because they did not feel that they belonged in our parish, so they went across town to a parish in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood.

Fortunately, this is no longer the case, and our parish now has vibrant and visible Hispanic, English-speaking, Vietnamese, Filipino and even Indonesian communities. Still, we have to be careful not to allow these communities within the community overshadow our unity as one Catholic parish, and more importantly, equal members of the one body of Christ.

St. Paul told the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendant, heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)

Christ called us to be one body, united in him. If Catholics are traveling to other parishes because they don’t feel welcome at their own, we need to find ways to be more welcoming.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “The problem with parish-shopping

  1. I travel to a parish quite a ways from my home parish, because my home parish doesn’t offer the traditional Latin Mass. But even before I started attending the traditional mass, I would go to the closest parish I could find which offered a dignified and reverent liturgy. What do you think of those reasons for “parish shopping”?

    • I don’t consider it my place to judge another person’s decision to attend Mass at another parish. If attending Mass in Latin (so long as the Mass is celebrated licitly) helps you to grow in holiness, I’m not going to second-guess that decision. I just feel that this trend of “parish shopping” comes at a cost to parish communities, as described above, and I’d urge people to consider those costs before doing so. I found an EWTN Q&A by Father Edward McNamara that suggests that even if we decide to attend Mass elsewhere, we still have an obligation to support our home parish: http://www.ewtn.com/library/liturgy/zlitur158.htm.

      I am curious about your use of the phrase “dignified and reverent.” The implication is that you’ve found Masses that are undignified and irreverent. Were there omissions or additions to the Mass in violation of the rubrics? If so, perhaps it would be worth raising the issue — maybe mentioning it to the priest first and moving it up to the bishop if need be. Otherwise, the problem will just persist, and another generation of Catholic will grow up thinking that is the way Mass is supposed to be.

      • I agree that parish-shopping comes at a cost, and I think it’s unfortunate that it’s so common. I also think it became more common when so many optional variations in the manner of celebrating mass were introduced. If mass celebrations were more standardized than they are, then people would have less reason to look elsewhere for a mass that suits them.

        As it is, you have mass in this language and that language, and this musical style and that musical style — folk masses, choir masses, teen masses, etc. It’s this “mass for every taste” which, I think, causes people to believe they have a right to the type of mass which suits them. And if that type of mass is not offered at their home parish, they feel they have the right to look elsewhere for it.

        In other words, the notion that the mass is something that laypeople create to suit themselves is what makes people shop around for masses that suit themselves.

        IMHO, going to a traditional Latin mass doesn’t fall into this category, since the TLM is very standardized. I do have a choice of two parishes which offer the TLM, one of which has a much better choir than the other. But I go to the one with the less good choir because it’s at a “normal” time for mass, i.e. 10:30 a.m.; whereas the other is at 1:00 p.m. In other words, I’m not picky about which TLM I go to; as long as it’s a TLM I’m content, even if the singing is bad.