The Catholic Church isn’t exactly a grass-roots organization—quite the opposite in fact. But tactics in a new outreach effort underscore that grass-roots isn’t just for small, upstart organizations.
The church, led by a new generation of Millennial seminarians, is reinventing itself in the hopes of appealing to a broader group of spiritual seekers. This rebranding effort, dubbed “Renew My Church,” borrows many fundamental grass-roots concepts on outreach, such as reconfiguring the organization’s image to reflect its new target demographic. For example, Father Matt O’Donnell, 30, redesigned the façade of Chicago’s St. Columbanus Church to feature rich mosaics depicting black and brown faces, in addition to white ones. This aesthetic alteration better represents the cultural shift that the church is undergoing; in Chicago, 44% of Catholics are Latino, whereas only 14% of priests are, according to Georgetown University’s center for the Applied Research in the Apostolate.
Moreover, there is a fundamental shift in ideology among the new crop of church leaders. They are not required to adopt liberal or conservative viewpoints, and show sympathy for views that the church once considered heresy. Most importantly they are encouraged to evangelize with kindness, putting their community first instead of getting bogged down by bureaucracy or constrained by outdated traditions.
This change in thinking can be largely attributed to Pope Francis. As Father O’Donnel proclaims about the Pope, “He models to me what I want to be as a priest, the ability to be creative, imaginative and not bet stuck in what has to be.”
This is new ethos that the young, idealistic seminarians aim to solidify within the staid—perhaps even rigid—institution of Catholicism. In fact, it is this perceived rigidity that has driven away many who view the church—and Catholicism is not alone–as a judgmental and unaccepting body looking down on them and disapproving of their lifestyle choices.
But that sentiment is fading fast, and the new outreach is part of the reason why. No longer straitjacketed by austerity and outmoded formalisms, young people are free to embrace the raw spirituality they so desperately seek elsewhere. And they can do so thanks to the guidance of the next generation of ministers. They are the new messengers—the vessels of the new Catholicism. As Pope Francis puts it, the new batch of priests are to be “living signs of God’s merciful love.”
Catholicism’s rebranding effort is also coupled with an embrace of social media—a tactic also pulled strait from the grass-roots playbook. Pope Francis is the first Pope to actively use Twitter and Instagram to share his messages and his young priests are giddy to follow his lead.
Simply put in outreach terms, new message + new platform to spread message = successful rebrand.
The Catholic church may be thousands of years old, but its latest makeover suggests that any organization—no matter how conventional—can reinvigorate itself and, more importantly, expand its reach (and its number of supporters) by embracing grass-roots principles of flexibility and imagination. All it takes is a re-evaluation of your target audience, re-shaping of your core message, and careful selection of the media you use to deploy that message.
That’s grass-roots at its core.