Lessons for evangelization from Britney Spears’s journey with the Catholic Church
Recently Britney Spears made a stir in Catholic circles, when she told her Instagram followers that she had wanted to get married in a Catholic church in Los Angeles, but had been turned away.
Spears, who has since had her wedding to longtime boyfriend Sam Asghari in the backyard of her Beverly Hills mansion, didn’t mention what church it was. But reporters figured it out and asked for a statement from St. Monica’s Catholic Church, a vibrant parish community in Los Angeles. The parish said they had no knowledge of Spears ever requesting to get married there. In a follow-up post, Spears explained that she had asked her wedding planner if she could marry Asghari at St. Monica’s. She said in fact it was “the first request” she had put to the planner upon agreeing to work with them. Six weeks later, she had been told no by the planner and assumed the parish had rejected her request.
Now, some Catholics might see Spears as oblivious or uninterested in what exactly it means to get married in a Catholic church. “It’s not just a random venue,” one of her followers responded to the original post (which has since been taken down).
But Spears’ attraction to St. Monica’s was pretty clearly not just about getting a great spot for the ‘grams. In her original post, she wrote about her desire to go to St. Monica’s during the pandemic: “I wanted to go every Sunday,” she wrote. “…It’s beautiful and they said it was temporarily shut down due to COVID!!!! Then 2 years later when I wanted to get married there they said I had to be Catholic and go through TEST !!!!”
In her second post, she repeated that she has had a long-standing desire to go to St. Monica’s. “During the 2 years of Covid, I also wanted to go there … I was told no due to the pandemic …”
Pundits seemed to spend a lot of energy debating whether or not she had officially converted, but they missed the point entirely.
These aren’t the only times Spears has written in a positive way about Catholicism, either.In August 2021, she posted about attending a Mass: “I just got back from Mass…I’m Catholic now…let us pray!” Catholic commentator Austin Ivereigh kidded on Twitter, “Next on Catholic news: Britney Spears names her puppy #Traditionis Custodes.” (Tight tweet, Austin. So good.) Pundits seemed to spend a lot of energy debating whether or not she had officially converted, but to my mind, they missed the point entirely. She had been to Mass and was happy enough about the experience to mention it and kid around a bit.
In the case of Spears’ wedding, it seems that the parish had nothing to do with what happened. And if you’re ever visiting Los Angeles, I highly recommend St. Monica’s. Spears is right. It’s a great place.
Situations similar to hers come up pretty often in many of our parishes.Especially when it comes to weddings and funerals, there are times when people come to our churches wanting things that don’t necessarily fit our categories. They want a pop song at a funeral. They want a non-religious ritual included in their wedding. Or they want to get married here, even though they aren’t Catholic.
In the case of Spears’ wedding, it seems that the parish had nothing to do with what happened.
It can be very easy to get hung up on the specific problems of their requests, not only because some of the same issues come up again and again (raise your hand if you’ve had someone insist they need “Stairway to Heaven” at a funeral), but because many of our parishes are already overwhelmed with the normal demands of their regular parishioners. When you’ve got only one priest in a parish and maybe a pastoral associate, it can be hard to remember that whether or not someone’s desires fit our liturgical practices or are phrased the right way, there very well might be something deeply spiritual beneath the surface.
Some years ago I interviewed Matt Meeks, then the chief digital officer of the archdiocese of Los Angeles.In our conversation Meeks had a lot to say about what he called “the evangelization funnel.” When you’re doing marketing, he explained to me, there are three key phases that the evangelizer needs to to speak to: 1) general awareness—your potential parishioner isn’t in the market for something yet, and you’re trying to keep the faith in front of them as something potentially meaningful; 2) consideration—your potential parishioner is looking for options, and you want them to see what you offer; and 3) intent—your potential parishioner is about to choose a place and you tangibly help them come to you (i.e. here’s when our Masses and confessions are, and here’s what you need to accept or do before participating).
One of the things Meeks said that has always stayed with me is that the church often does not do that first awareness step well. “We’re up to our neck in stories, but we’re not telling those stories well.” What we tend to do instead is skip right to consideration, leaping into discussions of doctrine or rules that are way too much too soon. “If our goal is to pull in people who are not necessarily in the market for God (or, I might add, the Catholic Church), Meeks told me, “you’re too far down the funnel for them.”
The whole reason we build beautiful churches and decorate them with gorgeous art is to give people some glimpse of the God who loves us. We should not be caught off guard when unexpected people then show up.
When it comes to moments like weddings or funerals, similar dynamics occur. Our church buildings themselves give a fantastic taste of the beauty, hope and solace that our faith can offer. But then when people come in the door, we end up moving right into the rules—into what’s allowed and what isn’t—when we should be drawing out what brought them here, and thinking about how we can nourish that.
Put another way, the whole reason we build beautiful churches and decorate them with gorgeous art is to give people some glimpse of the God who loves us. We should not be caught off guard when unexpected people then show up at our doorstep.
But the same issues apply even among our own. When a Catholic says they want “Stairway to Heaven” at their dad’s funeral, or they want their marriage blessed despite what seem like some serious obstacles, sure, we could just shut that down. But the real question is why do they want that? What are they expressing under the surface?
Every time someone comes through our doors, we should be hearing them out, wondering in part what God might be trying to tell us.
We believe in a Holy Spirit that is moving in everything and everyone. It’s a big part of our job as Christians to listen for those movements and respond to them. Every time someone comes through our doors, we should be hearing them out, wondering in part what God might be trying to tell us.
None of this is to say that our churches should cast aside all their rules whenever someone asks for something. But maybe we do need some sort of middle ground—between yes and no—in situations like that of Spears, some kind of service or specific hospitality we can offer to people who don’t fit our normal categories. Because right now, it seems like we’ve got a system where our buildings might invite people in, but then we’re caught flat-footed if who they are or what they want doesn’t fit our categories.
Unfortunately, the media tends to pick up a story like this and makes it as superficial and controversial as possible, because that’s what sells. Every headline has tried to make this sound like a huge ugly mess, when neither Spears nor the parish has actually talked about it in that way. And in doing so, these reports make it easy to miss that there’s more going on here, both for Spears and for us in the church. If we don’t take visitors to our churches and Catholics with unusual ideas seriously, we’re missing an invitation—or maybe a request—that God is making of us. And, to paraphrase one of the world’s great pop stars, the results can be toxic.