What’s Wrong With a Drive-Thru Parish

The Catholic faith is a community, not a commodity.

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When I was an Anglican country priest on the Isle of Wight in England, the church was in the center of the village. The ancient idea of the church parish was that it was coterminous with the geographical parish. People lived around the village church, and the community of families also comprised the community of faith.

No more. At least not in America. Instead, with the suburban motorcar-driven society, we church-shop. Furthermore, there are plenty of Catholic shops on offer.

In our town, for instance, we have one church that offers traditional liturgy influenced heavily by the Anglican tradition. They enjoy a beautiful building, excellent servers, fine music. Then we have the Franciscan parish with gospel music, a strong emphasis on peace and justice, lively preaching and involvement with the poor.

Across town we have a couple of typical American suburban parishes — easygoing contemporary music, large and active congregations, busy youth work, Life Teen Mass, a huge CCD program. On the other side of town a parish offers the Extraordinary Form every week — indeed, every day. The parish school is thriving and a busy, enthusiastic traditionalist crowd fills the pews.

So people church-shop. 

It is a reality.

Church-shopping has its strengths and weaknesses. The  downside is that we lose the natural diversity of a natural local community that has been part of Church understanding for eons. People are scattered and it’s hard to get them together. On the other hand, if people church-shop they are more likely to end up in a church they like and more likely to be committed to that congregation and ministry. Or so the theory goes. In fact, I have noticed something else creeping in which makes my job as a pastor even more difficult.

The church-shopping has started to disintegrate. Not only do people church-shop in order to find a church community to which they want to belong, but they church-shop from week to week. I have an increasing number of people who say, “I belong to two parishes.” or “You may not see us every week, Father. We divide our time between three different parishes.” Or “We’re glad to belong to your parish, but we often like to go to the Latin Mass elsewhere,” or “I like this parish, but I also like Fr. —’s homilies, and we go there sometimes too.”

Even more disturbing are the people who cherry-pick the different ministries from different churches. “We go to — for the youth group and really like — here in your parish for our middle schooler. Your parish school is great, but we like going to Fr. — for Mass.”

How on earth is a pastor supposed to build any kind of community in a parish when people treat the church like a hamburger joint? You can’t even address this very easily because Americans are a nation of shoppers. They are used to having it their way. The customer is king and they are used to being royalty. They don’t like being told what to do. They will shop and choose what they want where they want it  —and you’d better deliver, or they will go somewhere else.

Now, I don’t mind being the servant of the servants of God, but I can’t be their servant if they aren’t servants as well. The  Christian ideal is that we serve one another as we serve God together. I’m getting the impression more and more that I’m serving the tables for some rather demanding customers — and furthermore, if things don’t go well you better believe I’m not going to get a hefty tip.

Catholics in America need to understand that the Catholic faith is a community, not a commodity. I sometimes feel like putting a drive-thru window in our new church. I could pipe some organ music over the PA system while they’re waiting in line, then hand over the sacrament with a little leaflet containing a Bible reading and short meditation.

And you know what? It would probably be a roaring success. Furthermore, if I charged the amount most people would pay for a car full of folks at a drive-thru each week, we would have no money problems.