A simple walk through the Church of the Nativity makes it clear that the Timonium Roman Catholic Church aims to give its parishioners a different worship experience.
A full-band setup, including an electronic drum set, sits beside a seldom-used organ. A production booth tucked in the back right corner controls the video feeds on flat-screens set up in the hallways and projection screens on the walls behind the alter.
But to simply note the surface differences between Nativity and the Archdiocese's more traditional parishes ignores over a decade of slow, thoughtful reform by the church's leadership to modernize its practices and engage the community in a way that would attract new members.
The decade-long process of turning the Church of the Nativity into a local leader in growing a more culturally relevant church is recounted in a book written by its pastor, the Rev. Michael White, and Tom Corcoran, associate to the pastor, titled, "Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter."
The book, which was officially released on Feb. 25, details the events that led up to and followed the church leadership's decision to change its approach.
The fruits of the book — and the labor that led to it— is evident at every Mass, when around 4,000 people pass through the church doors and auxiliary seating must be set up all through the building, Corcoran said.
Corcoran, a Loyola University Maryland graduate, said the leadership began to decide it was time to change in 2003 after White became frustrated by a parish community that was difficult to satisfy.
"We came in and tried to do a lot of things and kind of keep busy, but as we talked about in the book, we created consumer demand," Corcoran said. "People started coming to church and demanding more from a very small staff, and we were spending a lot of time and energy on things that weren't really impacting people. They were just kind of making people want more stuff at church."
For White, the tipping point came during the "Family Friendly Friday" events, Corcoran said.
"We worked real hard, we gave away free food, and people were complaining about the free food," Corcoran said.
At that point, White and Corcoran, then the church's youth minister, looked to other churches that were having success drawing people to worship, including Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in California, Willow Creek in Chicago and North Point in Atlanta.
After visiting those mega-churches, the pair returned home struck by the rather traditional notion that "church is really just about relationship, and relationship with God," Corcoran said.
In the book, Corcoran and White recount several years of slow changes. They established small groups that allow parishioners to build relationships with each other, and brought a renewed focus to preaching, which Corcoran said is a 20-minute block during Mass that allows for real connection.
They make an effort to provide child supervision in a set of playrooms during Mass, allowing families to worship without attending to small children for the entire service.
All of these changes were done in an effort to bring "Timonium Tim" — any non-churchgoer — into the building and get him to join their community. Though they don't have much empirical evidence, Corcoran said people approach him an announce that they are, in effect, "Timonium Tim" — that person who has not been attending Mass.
"We get people coming back and say, 'Hey, I'm back in church for the first time in a long time, and I wouldn't be in church if it wasn't for this church,' " Corcoran said.
And though some of the people these practices attract haven't worshipped in years, others see the modern, engaging service and come from other parishes. Corcoran said it's not the church's intention to "steal fish" or pull people from other churches.
"Our main goal is not to steal fish, but to reach new people." Corcoran said. "And we wrote the book to be a help to other churches, too. That was one of the main points of the book, that something's working here. We want to share it."
One thing that's working is an energetic, engaged staff, which includes Director of Student Ministry Chris Wesley.
Wesley said he joined the staff right after the church leadership traveled west in the mid-2000s, What he thought would be a two-year gig has extended for nearly a decade.
"It's kind of who we are, but it's amazing," he said. "I'm having fun, I love my job, I love the people I work with. It's like a family."
Wesley said his young worshippers learn that their parish is a special one. This is clearly evident when, while on vacation, the family attends Mass at a more traditional church.
"They know not to assume that every place is like Nativity," he said.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun