Sunday, March 8, 2009

How to be a welcoming church

My wife and I made a very important discovery today, one that could change church attendance everywhere. We've found the way to be an open and inviting church.

In some places attending Mass starts with the priest asking if there are any visitors. He then inquires where they are from and people usually give more or less specific answers: some say what state they're from, some say what city, etc. The priest then says something like, "Welcome to St. Whoever Catholic Community" and Mass proceeds. This is not the way to be an open and inviting church for several reasons. First, the priest almost never introduces himself in any way. Maybe that would be boring for all the regular attendees but it strikes me as inauthentic when the introduction is one way. Second, there is no real follow up on having people introduce themselves (I know this from experience). Maybe at the sign of peace someone will try to strike up a micro-conversation which really isn't appropriate at the time. After Mass would be the appropriate time; in reality, people either chat with their friends or make a bee-line for their car. The gap isn't really bridged unless the visitors greet the priest on the way out of church, which again due to the situation is more of a micro-conversation but could be a building block to more.

What then is the real way to build community at church? What we discovered today is donuts. Well, not just donuts because we discovered those a long time ago. Rather, we discovered the social power of donuts. The parish we go to about half the time has donuts and coffee/tea/milk/juice after the 9 and 10:30 Masses almost every weekend. Typically, even people who don't necessarily want to be social are enticed to spend a little extra time after Mass for a free donut, at least once in a while. This is where real socializing happens. We got our favorites (chocolate glazed and cake glazed with a blueberry donut for our son) and sat at a table. We were the first to sit at the table. A guy named JJ asked if he could join us. Can you possibly say no to such a request? We started to chat a little. Then a couple with a young daughter also asked if they could join us. We chatted even more with them, since we had the natural topic of children in common. They just moved here in October from England. We also talked a bit about work and that I am a stay at home dad. The wife, Laura, is a stay at home mom. We recommended PATH to her and said she should come to a meeting. I got her email to send on information. We had a great conversation. This really is being open and inviting; community is really built here.

And you can tell it is a very successful parish. How? Not because Mass is well attended. Not even because of the lines for free coffee and donuts. Here's the proof: during the announcements at Mass, the associate pastor recommended people to come to the regular Tuesday evening sacrament of reconciliation, because the lines on Saturdays (especially during Lent) are really long, in spite of having two priests hearing confessions. We went to Saturday afternoon confession the weekend before Christmas and had to wait almost till Mass time (confessions start at 3:30 and Mass is at 5) to get in. People were still in line behind us and the church was definitely filling up for Mass. Good attendance for confession is a sign of a real, serious community of Catholics. I'm not saying coffee and donuts cause this success, but they definitely contribute to feeling like a big family.

Now, I've got to email Laura!

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