John Schwob, the "numbers guy" for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, offers one word to address the decline of Catholics' participation over the years.
"Evangelization," he said, succinctly.
The director of the Office of Pastoral Planning, Schwob churns out, mines and analyzes data in massive amounts. Virtually all of the statistics in the archdiocese run through him: demographics for a parish, an area or the archdiocese as a whole; enrollments for Catholic schools; plus, baptisms, first Communions, confirmations, marriages, offertories, Mass attendance and more.
You name it, if numbers are involved, he has it ... or knows where to find it.
His latest data collection involves weekend Mass attendance, an annual and actual count for parishes each October. Of 181 parishes in the archdiocese, 162 participated in October 2016. Over a three-week span, attendance was counted at a parish's weekend Masses and divided by registered parishioners to achieve the percent of Catholics who worship on an average weekend.
In October last year, Mass attendance was 29 percent of registered Catholics archdiocese-wide, nearly a one-percent drop from 29.9 percent in October 2015 and nearly two-percent down from 30.9 percent in October 2014. The recent figure represents a three-percent fall from October 2011, when the Mass count was initiated in conjunction with the national "Catholics Come Home" campaign.
Catholics Come Home was a rousing success in the archdiocese. Mass attendance increased to 34 percent early in 2012 from 32 percent in October 2011; results were similar on a national basis. However, by October 2012, the numbers reverted to levels from the previous October, both locally and nationally according to national studies and surveys followed by Schwob.
Though Catholics Come Home succeeded in the short term, the advertising campaign cost millions of dollars nationwide and therefore proved unsustainable. In the absence of a big bucks ad campaign, grassroots evangelization might be the way to go.
"It's reaching out to people where they are," Schwob said, echoing the words of Pope Francis. "It's sharing the Gospel with them and finding ways to get them to come back to worship. There's a lot of different things you can do."
"Getting young people involved with some kind of social group or outreach," Schwob said. "Young people are attracted to helping others; you can do it within the construct of a parish. 'Our parish does this, come help us out.'"
Regular Mass attendance and offertory contributions skew to older parishioners, though Catholic education increases young adult participation in a parish.
In addition, ushers might serve as greeters at weekend Mass, offering a handshake and a warm, personal greeting. A welcome committee also might deliver parish information — not just a bulletin — to new families in a neighborhood. Or members might visit non-active parishioners at home, with an all-ears approach to listen to their stories — to meet them where they are.
"Evangelization is really one person, one soul at a time," Schwob said.
Rural parishes and small parishes in suburban and urban settings buck the trend of declining participation, with peer pressure perhaps having an influence. Some parishioners believe that attendance or non-attendance might be noted by other parishioners. Rural parishes also have multi-generational families, with people connected from Baptism through adulthood and old age. In suburban or urban parishes, families are on the move, and many young adults exit and return to a church based on marriage, baptism and their children's education.
In addition, Mass count data show that when a parish reduces the number of Sunday Masses, attendance drops three times more than at parishes with unchanged Sunday schedules. Schwob describes this as a "double-edged sword," because a Mass count might indicate the need to reduce the number of Masses; the factual data of the Mass count might confirm a pastor's observation of a church less than half-full at weekend Masses.
An interesting aspect of the recent data is that though Mass attendance has declined, offertory giving has risen. Why? Perhaps less engaged Catholics and less financially contributing Catholics don't attend Mass as often. Or maybe electronic giving is a factor: parishioners are still giving but not regularly attending Mass. Or both.
Some parishes take Mass counts on a regular basis, often weekly. Pastors and parish officials quickly identify trends and strategize to address them, which Schwob cites as a big benefit for parishes using his numbers.
A mass count "gives us data," he said, simply. "'This is what Mass attendance is now, so let's set some target goals and develop plans and strategies to make that happen.'"
In each October since 2011, parishes in the archdiocese have counted attendance at weekend Masses and divided the average Mass attendance by officially registered parishioners to arrive at the percentage of Catholics attending Masses on any given weekend. The numbers ...
Dates Oct. 2011 Oct. 2012 Oct. 2013 Oct. 2014 Oct. 2015 Oct. 2016
Catholics at Masses 32.0% 31.6% 30.7% 30.9% 29.9% 29.0%
Source: Office of Pastoral Planning
>> By the numbers
Want to know more about demographics, statistics and other fun numerical stuff? Follow John Schwob on Twitter @NumbersGuySTL. Yes, he's the Numbers Guy for @archstl or to be official about it, the Director of the Office of Pastoral Planning.