The simple truth about getting more RCIA inquirers

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIAIf you have noticed a decline in the number of inquirers you have had in recent years, there is a very clear reason. From the inception of the modern catechumenate in the 1970s, the number-one source of new Catholics has been people who marry into the faith. However, while the Catholic population in the United States has grown significantly since the 1970s, the number of Catholic weddings has declined by 64 percent. In 2013, 154,450 Catholic marriages were celebrated in the U.S., compared with 426,309 in 1969.

For most of our history as RCIA teams, we have relied primarily on engaged Catholics inviting their prospective spouses to become Catholic as the source of our new inquirers. Now that source has greatly diminished, and many parishes are left wondering where they will find new inquirers.

We have to start inviting new people in

The simple truth is the only way we will get new inquirers is by inviting new people into the church. In other words, we need to evangelize.

Evangelism is still a scary word for many Catholics, even those of us on RCIA teams. For example, we almost always refer to the first period of the process as the precatechumenate. The official title, however, is the Period of Evangelization and Precatechumenate. In movie credits, the biggest star gets top billing. So too in the first period of the RCIA, the biggest star is supposed to be evangelization.

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It’s time to use words

As Catholics, we are not known for our evangelization skills. We tend to be quiet about our faith, careful not to offend or make others feel awkward. We absolutely love the meme, “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.” That notion seemingly lets us off the hook about talking about our faith. Can’t we just live by example and let that serve as our evangelization?

Another popular meme is the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. What we are currently doing is not working. Therefore, we have to try something different. Here are some simple suggestions for inviting new people into the church.

  1. Change your perception of yourself. Instead of identifying yourself as an RCIA team member, think of yourself as someone who shares faith with others. For example, if asked, “What do you do in your parish?”, reply: “Primarily, I share my faith, and I help others grow in faith.” Even if you can’t bring yourself to say that out loud, think it to yourself before you reply.
  2. Pray every morning that the Holy Spirit will give you a chance to share your faith with someone.
  3. Talk to strangers. Talk to people at the grocery store, the coffee shop, on the bus or subway, or at a restaurant. Set a goal for three, four, or five conversations a day with strangers.
  4. Talk about everyday life. You don’t have to begin the conversation with a deep religious question. Use Jesus as your model. He didn’t walk up to the woman at the well and begin by asking her about her faith life and her many husbands. He asked for a drink of water. Just ask for a drink. Or comment on the weather. Or what you had for dessert. Or the latest victory of your home team. Just start things off, and see where the conversation goes.
  5. If it feels right, ask a deeper question. Don’t force the conversation to a deeper level, but don’t shy away from it either. What’s the worst that could happen? Here are few example questions, but come up with your own that fit your personality and interests:
    1. How are your growing personally?
    2. What single thing would you like to make absolutely certain you do (if at all possible) during your lifetime?
    3. How do you think a person can keep from becoming a workaholic?
    4. What do you consider to be two major turning points in your life?
    5. What is something you consider to be a great personal success? Why was it so significant?
    6. What is the key to maintaining balance in your life?
  6. After you ask a question, just listen. Try to hear the answer beneath the answer. Pope Francis says our job is to bind up the wounds. Listen for the wound. You don’t have to do anything about the wound right now. Just deeply listening is a healing action.
  7. If it feels right, offer to pray either with or for the person about what they shared with you. Again, don’t force prayer upon someone who isn’t open to it, but don’t automatically assume they aren’t interested in your prayer, even if they said they aren’t religious. Let the Holy Spirit guide you.
  8. If it feels right, invite the person to join you at church this coming Sunday.

Make this process your goal everyday as you leave your house. Ninety percent of your conversations will never get past comments about the weather. But some will. Calculate the numbers with me.

Can you attract more than 150 inquirers a year?

If you have three people on your team, and you each commit to five conversations a day with strangers, that is 105 conversations a week (3 x 5 = 15; 15 x 7 = 105). If ten of those conversations move to a deeper level, one of those ten might move to a conversation about prayer or faith. That is one potential inquirer per week. Which is 52 potential inquirers a year.

If you want to be a little bolder in your thinking, imagine getting just one-half of one percent of your parishioners to make the same commitment. If you have 1,000 people in your parish, half a percent is five people. Plus the three of you on the RCIA team. If you do the same math, that could result in 150 or more potential inquirers a year.

The truth is, you won’t always manage to engage in five conversations a day, and you probably won’t be able to find even just five other people outside your team who will commit to this kind of engagement. Maybe you won’t even get your team to commit.

Be like St. Francis

However, when St. Francis set out to rebuild the church, he just showed up, by himself at the ruins of an abandoned, broken down chapel near Mount Sabasio and began to lay one stone on top of another. Every day he showed up, picked up a stone, put in place, and then did it again. If you want to be a witness to your faith primarily by example, be like St. Francis. Show up every day to one stranger who might need rebuilding, say hello, and then do it again.

Your thoughts?

Do you think you can find three to eight people in your parish who will commit to having conversations with strangers? How have you thought about evangelization in your parish? What successful strategies have you tried?

See also these related articles:

  1. 46 ways to accompany seekers even if you’re not in charge of the RCIA process
  2. Why dreaming together about the future is important for RCIA teams
  3. Tell the one story that RCIA seekers will remember for the rest of their lives
  4. What would happen if every parish had an ongoing (year-round) RCIA process?
  5. What is ongoing (year-round) RCIA, really?

Photo by Dogancan Ozturan | Unsplash

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  1. Marc Cardaronella says

    Nice post Nick! I completely agree. I also think this is an area where the parish could pick up more responsibility and the RCIA team could be “let off the hook” so to speak. Although, I’ve often seen pastors with this attitude. I think it’s a little unfair to expect the inquiry team to be the only ones “drumming up new business.” Why should that be the case…just because they’ll be working with them? They are the inquiry team. Their job starts when the people get there. Perhaps there should be an outreach team that’s making invitations. Also, shouldn’t that be the responsibility of every parishioner?

  2. Nick Wagner says

    Hi Marc. Thanks for chiming in! I would love it if the rest of the parish would step up and let RCIA teams off the hook. I think some of the most active parishes are working toward that. Often times, however, RCIA team members will ask me how they can find more inquirers. It can be unsatisfying to tell them to get the rest of the parish to start evangelizing. So, if like St. Francis, they start doing some of the heavy lifting themselves, perhaps other parishioners will be drawn to the work of evangelization. And, as you point out, evangelization is everyone’s work, including RCIA team members.

    Thanks for all the great work you are doing in evangelization. You’re an inspiration to the rest of us.

  3. Frank DeSiano, CSP says

    Many people in a parish are in contact with others who ask them about faith, the Pope, the Church. We can equip people in a parish with the ability to reach out and invite. Often ordinary Catholics feel stymied by how to approach others, but equipping them with invitations, brochures, and parish events to draw people, helps them find simple language to invite. The relationship with others is already there.
    I hope this article can help Catholics begin to feel a greater confidence in (1) all that they have to offer modern seekers; and (2) our ability to reach out to others. We Paulists have been thinking about these things for almost 160 years!

  4. Nick Wagner says

    Thanks for your wise words Frank. And thanks for all the great work you and the Paulist community have been doing to teach us about evangelization!

  5. Debbie says

    Hi – I found this to be so timely! I was helping at the name-tag table on Sunday with a parishioner from the host parish, whose husband had been baptized a few years earlier. The host parish, despite being one of the larger ones in our archdiocese, had only 3 catechumens. The parishioner lamented to me that the parish wasn’t personally reaching out to people, and that there was no follow-through with those that had been baptized (no mystagogia). Due to the noise in the room, and our duties to the people needing nametags, we couldn’t continue our conversation, but I was so tickled to see one of our questions addressed in this blog when I checked my e-mail later in the day. I have “friended” this parishioner on FB, and am going to share this resource with her. Though it is not the parish where I work, I feel obligated to share any helpful information with others in the vineyard. We’re all in this together. : )

  6. Kenneth Trabold says

    One subhead in the article mentions ‘using words’, particularly ‘evangelizing’. I agree strongly … but what follows wanders off into the reluctance of Catholics to share their faith. This is not evangelism.

    The core of evangelization is sharing a person, Jesus Christ. Meeting Him will then lead to embracing a church, hopefully the one true faith. Until evangelism is understood in terms of this personal encounter, it will not succeed. The fundametalist Protestants have it right in this regard and until we Catholics get it right, we will continue to be gutted, losing our best, brightest, youngest, and most enthusiastic believers to their churches. The old method going back to Peter still works: conviction of sin and judgment, then salvation in Christ!

  7. Deacon Kin Borja says

    I agree… a Church, we must be totally welcoming, even to those we see week after week in the pews but have never had any conversation.

    Isn’t it interesting that there are many times while in Church, the only time we exchange greetings is during the Sign of Peace.

    We come together to join in the wonderful celebration of our Lord’s Birth, Passion, Death and Resurrection….let us all rejoice and be thankful.

    Greet each other with the Love and Peace of Jesus Christ.

  8. Richard Peck says

    Excellent post, Nick. Thank you! Couldn’t agree more. Some time ago, Bishop Olmsted of the Diocese of Phoenix challenged Christians to think about how to tell their personal “story.” We all know that to truly be in Christ is a relationship, not simply jumping through the required hoops, as RCIA is sometimes viewed, to obtain parish membership.

    Once I realized I could tell my “story” in three phrases — Creating Love, Caring Intervention, and Constant Presence — I had business cards printed with the three phrases on one side and nothing but a website link/address on the other. I’ve given these cards to friends, but also to strangers like the man in a grocery store checkout line ahead of me on Ash Wednesday, who asked what happened to my forehead.

    One stone at a time, one card at a time, one person at a time, one day at a time. Thank you again for an excellent article and for your encouragement.

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