They praised God and were looked up to by everyone. Day by day the Lord added to their community those destined be saved. Acts 2:47 NJB ________________________________________________________
The subtitle of this post is ‘Tall with glasses, sits near Jane.’ I’m not going to explain straightaway how it came to be called this, but anyway the post is about welcoming new people.
Everyone agrees that we want to welcome people. We want people to hear the Good News about Jesus Christ and come to share our faith. We want to see our Ordinariate groups grow. At least we say we do. But too often what we say is not born out by what we do. I want to think through with you how you and I could make our groups and our churches more effective in welcoming people to worship, and helping them to stay welcome, as they find their way into the life of the Church – as once we did.
Now there’s something – as once we did. None of us is worshipping in the church where we were baptised, confirmed, and brought up. So at some point we made our first visit to the church where we now feel so at home. Can you remember what it was like? What happened? How long it took? Why you stayed? And whether you tried anywhere else? For, you see, if you could answer these questions it would be invaluable in helping you to be effective in getting your group to grow.
So let’s think first about what sort of people are coming for the first time to your church.
These are people who have come from another church. They may have moved house; they may have fallen out with people at the other church; or they may be like us in the Ordinariate. What sort of welcome did we receive when we came into full communion? They will appreciate a friendly welcome – they will be looking for and trying to find information – so a welcome pack with details of your group and church may well be useful – don’t push Mass cards at them during the service, for they may well know the Mass as well as you do. You may never see them again, of course, because they may find the worship at your church a complete turn off.
Do remember that people who start coming to you because they have had a disagreement at another church are not an unmixed blessing. We are a competitive lot, and hearing someone tell us that they just couldn’t stay at St X’s because the new vicar was ?? – and that’s why they’ve come to you – this can be very flattering. Just occasionally such people are real trouble and before you know it they are creating just the same trouble as they caused at St X’s – though of course it’s never their fault. It’s another reason for not asking people to take on anything until they have been with you for a while.
You won’t see visitors again until perhaps next year. They may have dropped in because they saw your church as they drove to their hotel. So a big clear notice-board is vital for attracting visitors– and just as important these days, an up to date web-site. And remember, that they will talk about you when they get home. By the way, let me ask again why Catholic Churches often don’t advertise Christmas Masses on their outside board? It’s not enough just to assume that the regulars will read the Sunday Bulletin.
People lapse from the Church for all sorts of reasons – and then return. God touches them; there is a change in their life – and they come back. Treat them gently. Don’t rush their return and don’t immediately drag them back into jobs! If they left because of a falling out, that needs to be resolved. Priests, remember that making your way back via the Sacrament of Penance is not easy. Be sensitive and give people your time. There is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents!
You never know what draws someone over the doorstep, and you don’t know at what stage they are in their relationship with God. Be warm, but not pushy. Let them sit in the back row – which is why the regulars mustn’t be sitting there, they need to be up the front. If you are sitting next to someone new help them gently and discretely – no-one wants to be made to stand out as ignorant. Remember the times of awkwardness – like going to communion. If the person wants to stay where they are, that’s fine.
Not so many these days are the people coming for the ‘official occasions’ – a funeral, a baptism, a wedding. You might want to add those people who come just for Christmas. Make sure your Sunday Bulletin is up to scratch – and stewards, make sure they are taken home. And of course, the quality of the worship, the preaching and the sense of engagement by the people – remembering that you have an hour or so to touch these people, that’s all.
QUALITY OF THE WORSHIP
One Sunday, try to take part in the Mass at your church as if you were a new-comer. Can you hear the readings (why do people read without preparing and without understanding what they are saying?) Is the homily saying at least something to you? How do you know which of the three books and four pieces of paper you are supposed to be following? Why are people invited to coffee and then left to find the Hall which is 200 yards away round the corner?
Priests – why do you talk in that bored, sing-song voice? Why do you never smile? And I know that Fr Lacey Cotta never announced hymns, but could you not consider at least the first one? Not everyone these days realises that the board with a set of numbers on it refers to the green book with the funny title ENGLISH HYMNAL.
AT THE DOOR
Coming through the door will have taken a huge amount of courage. The role of the welcomers is absolutely crucial – in fact they are the first people that the newcomer meets. They need training. Learn to look people in the eye; smile; say, ‘Good morning, welcome to St Gloria’s.’ When you are on duty you may not spend time talking to your friends. That’s not what you are there for.
Let’s assume that on this Sunday you noticed a couple sitting near the back, and half way down the nave a youngish man. Who were they? How do you find out? Did anyone speak to them? Does it matter, anyway? Perhaps they will come back next week – or perhaps they won’t? Anyway – Father will have shaken hands with them, won’t he … w – eee –l – no, he didn’t actually, because Marjorie had button-holed him about the flowers at the Sacred Heart, and you know how she goes on …
Yet, even if we have got the welcome bit right – what about some after-care?
GETTING TO KNOW YOU – ETHNIC, AGE AND CULTURAL DIVIDES
Follow-up is difficult if no-one really knows who the newcomers are! And even more difficult if the regulars do not know each other. In our groups of 25-30 that ought not to be so difficult – if people really want to know each other. I know that these days people do not necessarily come to Mass every Sunday. For months and months our pastoral team, trying to keep a track of the ever changing congregation in our parish, used to put a tick beside someone called, ‘Tall with glasses, sits near Jane.’ Devout, regular at Sunday Mass, with very little English and no desire to come to socials or teach the Junior Church, ‘Tall with glasses’ stayed with us for about nine months and then was never seen again. Yet perhaps this reaction was the same as the three young Polish women who came to us for a month, and told me that they were returning to Poland filled with hope that the Church could be renewed and come alive because of what they had experienced on the four Sundays they had worshipped with us. ‘Go with God’, I say – we had done our part in their spiritual journey.
Here are some suggestions.
Get everyone in the congregation to accept that, as soon as the last hymn is over, they will turn to the visitor or stranger next to them, and say how good it is to see them. If they won’t, then include it as part of the notices. (Once when I was in France, the elderly lady next to me, said nothing – I expect she felt awkward because I was English – but held my hand and patted it. I suddenly felt part of a church where I had been going to, once a year for 15 years, and no-one had spoken to me. It doesn’t take much. But it does take something. And just a hello from the priest at the door is not it!
I suggest using a WELCOME CARD – if you have pews screw a couple of plastic holders to each one with a stock of cards and a couple of pencils – a bit like IKEA. If you have chairs, screw the holder on to the end chair. The WELCOME CARD asks for a name – and address – actual or e-mail. It asks whether the person would like to receive a WELCOME PACK or a HOME VISIT. You need a prominent collecting point just by the door. Early the following week a designated person – preferably the Parish Secretary or Administrator if you have one – goes through them – e-mails or posts WELCOME PACKS to those who have asked for them. And then gives the names and addresses to the VISITING TEAM to follow up within the next 10 days. These days it’s often a good idea to phone rather than just call. Even a card through the door to say, ‘Dave from St Gloria’s called to welcome you to the Parish’ is useful.
Notice that I haven’t mentioned the priest visiting these new people. New people need someone in the congregation to sit with when they come the second time. They can’t sit with the priest if he is their contact – so I advise lay-visiting of new-comers.
My Catholic Parish holds a WELCOME MASS and Refreshments every so often. In one central London church everyone filling out a card was then invited to the next WELCOME EVENING – coffee, light refreshments, a video and introductions. No-shows were invited a second time – but then their card was simply filed away – no further action. You can’t keep pushing people.
Many of our churches have started to realise that Christian nurture is a long and on-going process. Many of the people who come to us as SEEKERS will have little or no knowledge of the Christian Faith. And those who come as TRANSFERS (those who used to be called ‘converts’ but who may have been devout Baptists for many years) may well be entirely new to Catholic worship, prayer and discipline. Does the parish run RCIA, and what about Catholic Alpha? Could the Ordinariate group sponsor and help in the programme?
The growth of the Church can no longer be left to chance, the children in the Catholic School, and the vague hope that, even though people lapse, ‘I’m sure they’ll come back at some time.’ They won’t because they will have moved, and with every move away they become less likely to go to church. New people, welcoming and nurturing them into the life of the Parish ought to be high on the agenda of the Ordinariate and seen as something which everyone in the group does. Many of us don’t do it because we are afraid of people’s reaction. The technique is just to go for it. Jesus loves those new people – but they will only know that if the Lord, in you, smiles at them, takes their hand and invites them to sit next to you at the table of the Eucharist.
The “door of faith” (Acts 14:27) is always open for us, ushering us into
the life of communion with God and offering entry into his Church. It is
possible to cross that threshold when the word of God is proclaimed and the
heart allows itself to be shaped by transforming grace. To enter through that
door is to set out on a journey that lasts a lifetime. It begins with baptism
(cf. Rom 6:4), through which we can address God as Father, and it ends
with the passage through death to eternal life, fruit of the resurrection of the
Lord Jesus, whose will it was, by the gift of the Holy Spirit, to draw those who
believe in him into his own glory (cf. Jn 17:22). To profess faith in the
Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is to believe in one God who is Love
(cf. 1 Jn 4:8): the Father, who in the fullness of time sent his Son for
our salvation; Jesus Christ, who in the mystery of his death and resurrection
redeemed the world; the Holy Spirit, who leads the Church across the centuries
as we await the Lord’s glorious return.
Porta Fidei (October 2011) Pope Benedict XVI