The tarnished aluminum folding chairs, oil paintings of the pastors since the 1860’s, Folger’s coffee, and all the donuts you could imagine. The “Donut Sunday” of my childhood is tactile and palpable. Scattered memories made in the aging church basement still come up in conversations with my siblings and me decades later. Even now, when I return to my hometown and join my parents for Sunday Mass, the only thing that’s changed is the new little faces with wide, sparkling eyes reaching for their dessert masquerading as breakfast. And more sprinkled donuts. They’ve upgraded.
Each parish has its classic, stalwart event that draws the regulars and the occasional visitor. Whether your budget for hospitality is big or small, here are three simple ideas to build church community.
Bring Back Donut Sunday
I’m a bit biased, I admit! But donuts really are a crowd-pleaser, even in the age of rejecting gluten. Get a wide variety of options for all palates. Asking for a $1 donation for each donut — which most people will easily pay — helps to recoup the cost of the event. Making the coffee a little stronger than you think you should will perk up the younger crowd. Growing up, my parish offered donuts every Sunday at the earlier Mass. It offered a consistent opportunity for people to connect both with their friends and across generational lines.
For larger parishes or parishes with a lot of Sunday catechesis, every week may be too much. Picking one Sunday a month for all Masses could lead to connections and new life in simple, natural ways.
A “New Faces Initiative”
When the snow beings to thaw and the birds start chirping here in the Midwest, neighbors I never knew I had emerge from their houses to maintain their yards. I might have seen them passing in the street but didn’t know they lived only two houses down. In many parishes, people don’t necessarily attend the same Mass every Sunday or sit in the same spot. In larger churches, it can be difficult for the average parishioner to notice a truly new person.
Some churches institute a quick “meet your neighbor” for a minute or two at every Mass. I’ve occasionally struck up further conversations from these, but typically it’s more like a warm-up for the quick handshakes at the Sign of Peace.
What about a parish-wide initiative to “meet your neighbor,” so to speak? Before or after Mass, if you notice a new face near you — someone you’ve never seen before — say hello! Maybe they’re a longtime a parishioner at the Saturday night Mass. Maybe they’re entirely new to the parish. Either way, they’re part of our family as brothers and sisters in Christ. Perhaps many of us have attended family gatherings where we’ve spent the entire time staring at our plate, wondering when we could get out the door. But that’s not a place we’d want to return to Sunday after Sunday!
Preaching about a “New Faces Initiative” from the pulpit, offering some materials on community, and planting key “bought in” parishioners to get the ball rolling can go a long way towards building habits of hospitality in all parishioners, not just those opening the doors.
Offer Service Opportunities
After years of taking high schoolers on mission trips, Habitat for Humanity build days, and soup kitchen runs, I can say there’s something unique about service that builds community. People connect outside of their comfort zone and normal patterns of doing things. Otherwise talented people are gently humbled. New skills and abilities emerge that the rest of the group had never seen before. During more “mundane” tasks, like painting or weeding, conversations are started that wouldn’t occur in the back of church or in the parking lot.
When something needs to be done at the parish — something big with a low entry threshold, like new, pre-planned landscaping — open it up to parishioners to help. If your parish doesn’t offer corporal works of mercy directly, partner with a local food pantry or homeless shelter to offer consistent volunteer opportunities to parishioners. Make sure these are advertised across communication channels, like the bulletin, Mass announcements, and parish web tools .
While these ideas require some planning and a few dedicated volunteers, they’re are relatively low-budget and easy to maintain without much adaptation or increased cost. They’re based on real people making real connections in your parish. What do you do to build church community?