The Problem with Parish Shopping

Have you been in the same parish for years, or maybe even decades? Or do you like to hop around between parishes in your area? In our increasingly mobile society, parish shopping has become more common, as Catholics move from one parish to the next due to a preference for the pastor, the ministries, or the style of worship.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker, a blogger and parish priest in Greenville, South Carolina, has written about parish shopping and the problems it causes priests in their efforts to build up parish life. Fr. Longenecker stopped by Morning Air® recently to discuss the problem of parish shopping.

“Parish shopping, while we understand it and the need for it, at the same time it makes building a parish very difficult,” he told host John Harper. “As a parish priest, one of the things that we try to build up in the parish is something called community. Which means a commitment to a communion of people.”

“But we Americans are consumers. We are inveterate shoppers and we bring the shopper mentality to everything. Our healthcare, our retail choices, our food choices, our shopping choices, our restaurant choices, our travel choices – we have choice and the customer is king. So this consumer mentality just seeps over into our parish life and we find it difficult to actually make that commitment.”

One of the reasons that our commitment to parishes has changed is because the way we live in society has changed. Rather than having roots in our communities and relationships with our neighbors, it is much more common to pick up and move more frequently. And as we grow accustomed to commuting to work, commuting to a parish doesn’t seem like a strange idea.

Father Longenecker explained, “Parishes were originally established as geographical entities. In other words, you lived within walking distance of your parish before cars were invented. And so that’s where you belonged. You belonged to an extended village and an extended family, and the church parish was part of all that.”

“Well, in modern America that has just disintegrated completely,” he continued. “Because we have cars we drive from place to place and shop for a parish we like. … This has really destroyed typical parish life. And it’s really hard, therefore, to build that community back again.”

Many will ask, what’s the big deal? As long as people are receiving the sacraments and are on the path to heaven, what does it matter which particular parish they go to?

Fr. Longenecker’s response to this question was, “The logic is there. If you’re shopping around for the most lively youth group, the nicest choir, the best preaching, it’s not long before you’re saying, ‘You know what? That big box church that is only two miles down the road from us in the suburbs has a fantastic youth group. And I just love the rock band they have on the weekends, and the pastor gives the most wonderful sermons from the Bible, which really nourish me. And it’s OK, because we’re on the path to heaven.'”

Fr. Longenecker recognizes the problems that come with parish shopping, but he doesn’t expect the laity to be the only ones to change the way they do things. He explained what he and other priests in his area are doing to reach their increasingly mobile parishioners.

“One of the things we’re doing, for instance, is we’re using the FORMED program from the Augustine Institute, and various other things like blogs and podcasts, which provide this mobile congregation with sustenance, catechesis, nurturing, Bible study on the go,” he explained. “So instead of expecting them to come to us in a building somewhere, to get in their car and drive, we deliver to them where they are. In their homes, in their car, on their tablet and cell phone, and try to minister to them out and about.”

Listen to the full conversation with Fr. Dwight Longenecker below:

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