Although we often joke about “Creasters” (people who only attend Mass on Christmas and Easter), the truth is that Advent is a time where we see the return of people who have fallen away from the faith, or perhaps never really had a strong relationship with the Lord in the first place. In order to capture the people who come through our doors this Christmas, we all need to work together — from staff to parishioners — to create a welcoming environment.
Here are five ways your faith community can “welcome the stranger” this Advent season.
“School” Your Members on What It Means to Be Hospitable
If we want to create a truly welcoming environment, we need to understand that this isn’t just a job for the ushers. As parishioners, we need to come to Mass prepared to smile at newcomers, direct people to where the bathroom or children’s room is located if asked, and slide down the pew to make room for everyone.
We also need to teach them that we can’t just wait for people to show up. Advent is the perfect time to invite family, friends, and neighbors to Mass and any events taking place that might interest them. Consider creating small “at-a-glance” invitation cards for parishioners, and challenge them to give them all away by the following weekend.
Teach Your Ushers the Importance of “Service with a Smile”
It can be easy for all of us to fall into a routine, especially when you’ve been in a volunteer role for many years. Instead of just the usual “greet and smile,” encourage your welcoming committee to go the extra mile. Have them introduce themselves to unfamiliar faces, give a small tour to newcomers, or ask that they get to know them by asking where they’re from.
As a visitor, it can be intimidating to walk into a new parish for the first time. That’s why a smile and some help on finding their way around can make a big difference to the overall worship experience. We come to Mass, of course, to receive the Eucharist. But in addition to that, many come to Mass because they are hurting and in need of Christ’s love and compassion. As leaders of the parish, we need to be there to help navigate their relationship to God.
Prepare the Building for Guests
You can work with parishioners all you want on welcoming newcomers and with the ushers on best ways to help them, but it can all be dampened if the building isn’t warm and clean. Do the floors need a good scrubbing? Are the bathrooms cleaned and well-stocked? When was the last time the pews were polished?
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, get together a cleaning crew and take an afternoon to vacuum, dust, scrub, and polish the parish. Much like you would do if you were expecting guests at home, you want to put your best foot forward. Now is the time to unpack the Christmas decorations, get the trees trimmed, and put the Advent wreath on display for all to see.
Prepare Your Homilies
It can be easy to fall into a rhythm for homilies and presentations. This year, allow the pastor to take an afternoon to plan out some new topics for his homily. Research current happenings throughout the world and trends in ministry, and add some tips for your parishioners to follow on living their faith out in the world.
Use your homily to teach parishioners and visitors alike what the Catholic faith — and Advent in particular — is all about. Help them connect to you by sharing your own experiences, both good and bad, and how your Catholic faith helped you persevere. So often, parishioners look to the priest as a very holy person, when in reality he is just as flawed and conflicted as they are.
Follow up With All Who Walk Through the Doors
Finally, have a plan in place to communicate with all visitors who come to worship. Sometimes, all it takes is an extra push to get them to come back.
Have visitors fill out connection cards with their contact information, and be sure to reach out to them soon after and invite them back to the parish. If time and resources allow, you could even follow up with a phone call from the pastor or someone in parish ministry.