Catholic “Follow-up Strategies” for the New Evangelization?

As far as I can remember, I’ve never been to a Baptist church that didn’t have a “follow-up strategy” for visitors they identified attending services or events. At a particular church I was a member of, it was that Thursday was “Pastor’s Visitation Day,” where, in addition to visiting those who may have lapsed in attendance, the pastor and a volunteer made a house call to anyone who had been a visitor in Sunday morning service the past week.

In contrast, in the many Catholic parishes I’ve called home, I don’t recall ever seeing or experiencing any follow-up strategies to keep in touch with me after my initial visit. The closest I can remember is, after registering as a member of St. Patrick Catholic Parish in Fayetteville, NC, I received a visit from two members of the church, giving me a small welcome basket, some additional info on the parish, and just sharing some friendly conversation.

This prompts the question, are follow-up strategies important for Catholic parishes? In the New Evangelization? Theologically?

The USCCB’s Disciples Called to Witness: The New Evangelization is mostly quiet on follow-up strategies as an evangelization technique. However, we get a mention in Part IV that, “All participants would benefit from followup contacts.” No further details are given. Yet, even on its own, it’s a pretty bold statement. It applies to everyone (“all”) and the follow up is presumed to further some benefit. Seems like something the USCCB is encouraging, at least in the context of participants in RCIA activities and other evangelization efforts. Theologically, I can think of nothing wrong with following-up with visitors, so long as it is done in a spirit of love, humility, and hospitality (which, is ideally how all of our actions should be conducted 🙂 ).

I’m currently reading Adam Hamilton’s book on pastoral leadership, Leading Beyond the Walls: Developing Congregations with a Heart for the Unchurched (2002). Hamilton is a pastor in the United Methodist Church. He devotes Chapter 6 to the topic of effective follow-up strategies, explaining:

Every time a first-time visitor walks in the doors of your church an opportunity unfolds. This individual or family has taken the time to worship with you for some reason. Visitors likely have a need they are wondering if you can fulfill…Effective follow-up is among the most important things a pastor or leader will do if she is seriously interested in reaching the unchurched (p. 42-43).

Hamilton notes that he is aware of other pastors who specifically do not conduct follow-up with visitors because of a belief that it “taints the church’s mission.” But, he argues that in a “post-Christian era” we can no longer assume that visitors are “generally Christians” who will join another church on their own initiative if they choose not to return to his church–as a result “we want to do everything in our power to help the visitor feel the welcome of Chris throughout our church  and to motivate him to want to return the following week.”

So what does Hamilton recommend?

1. Get the Name and Address of First-Time Visitors. Hamilton’s church uses attendance notebooks, with a left side full of info sheets/newsletters for first-time visitors to take, and the right side with a register for all in attendance to sign. The ushers pass these  during a break in the service with the pastor inviting all to “take a look and see who is sitting net to you and where that person lives; there may be someone who lives in your neighborhood sitting right next to you. Be sure to greet those sitting next to you by name after the service” (p. 44). This helps the visitor not feel singled out. Hamilton’s congregation used this technique until attendance surpassed 500 per weekend (single service, I think).

I’ve experienced this technique at Saints Peter and Paul Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Houghton, Michigan. It was fairly unobtrusive, and if I recall, the notebooks were passed concurrently with the collection plates, so it did not significantly add to the total time duration of the service. I could see something like that done concurrent to the collection, but without the announcement. (Maybe do the announcement before Mass begins and have the instructions printed on the notebook folios?).

Another spin on the idea of all in attendance (visitors and regulars alike) providing information is the use of a “contact card.” I’ve experienced this many times at Faith Covenant Church in Farmington Hills, Michigan. The contact card is a small card with a place for providing address and contact info (or updating it for regular attendees), prayer requests, and an opportunity to ask questions or check boxes about receiving more information on programs the church offers. This might be a little faster than passing a notebook during collection, and I like that it has more purpose for regular attendees (who wouldn’t be updating an address every week), but would have regular prayer requests, etc. I could also see a contact card being customized at certain times of the year to facilitate distribution of information about retreats, mission trips, etc.

Another technique. I have been in Catholic parishes where visitors are invited to stand, introduce themselves, and be welcomed before the Mass begins. This would also be an easy time for an usher/greeter to then deliver to them a folder of info and a card designed to be turned in during the collection with their contact information. The downside of this method is that shy visitors will likely not stand and many visitors would naturally not want to be singled-out in a public way, especially at the beginning of Mass. A twist on this method would be doing the same announcement in the post-Communion announcement space. This enables the usher/greeter to quickly collect the contact info card, and since the visitor was just introduced, it increases the chances other worshippers will informally welcome him/her after Mass ends (only a few minutes later).

We spent a lot of time on #1, but without finding a consistent way to do this, there will be no information to make follow-ups possible! All the love and virtuous intentions in the world can’t conquer not having an address, phone number, or email of a visitor.

2. Deliver a Gift. On Sunday afternoon following service, Hamilton would then personally deliver a coffee mug printed with the church’s logo to each visitor from the morning. The mug served two purposes: 1) it gave him a “reason” for the visit (so it wasn’t awkward conversation, and the first-time visitor didn’t feel intruded upon or forced to bear his/her soul to a near-stranger!), 2) gave an ongoing reminder of the church that was seldom discarded (in contrast to, say, a gift of a refrigerator magnet). Hamilton funded the coffee mugs annually by ordering twice the amount needed and also selling them (above cost) to the congregation. Members knew that by participating in the annual coffee mug sales, they were providing a gift to a visitor for each mug purchases. [I include this tidbit, because, in many Catholic parishes, any “new” ministry often has to be self-supporting or without a significant start-up cost.]

Hamilton delivered the gifts himself, thanked them for attending, gave a copy of the church’s newsletter, asked if they had any questions, and departed. No spiritual probing. Each visit took less than 10 minutes. He did this at the latest, by Monday night–so the church was still fresh in the minds of those he visited.

He writes:

Some have suggested that the laity should deliver these mugs instead of the pastor. In a large church this becomes a necessity, to be sure. But in a smaller church, it is impossible to overstate the significance of the pastor delivering these mugs. Nearly every pastor I have told this to has dismissed it at first. But once they tried it, they found I was right; their retention rate of first-time visitors went up and they became more effective in connecting with and pastoring their flocks (p. 46).

3. Add to Newsletter Mailing List. This mailing list becomes a valuable resource for the congregation. The newsletter initially had an evangelistic design, however, over time Hamilton’s church evolved to using the mailing list of visitors instead as a place to send full-color postcards and other tidbits announcing special events and sermon series. He found that people often might show up once, but then return in a few months (or years!) if they saw something that interested them.

4. Making a Pastoral Evangelism Call. After a visitor had attended Sunday worship for a third time, Hamilton would call and say “Hello [visitor’s name], this is Adam from Church of the Resurrection. I am so excited that you and [kids/spouse name] have been worshipping with us! My goal is to get to know the people who worship better so that I can be a better pastor to them and I would love to come bay and get to know you and your family. Would that be okay?” (p. 48). He’d then set up a time for a 45-min visit. During this visit conversation generally included:

  • Asking a couple how they met
  • Asking where a person was from
  • Asking about careers/career interests
  • Asking about church background

Hamilton would share his own background and story, including how and why he ended up at Church of the Resurrection. He emphasizes, “not preachy” and not like I was specifically witnessing to them. Finally, he would ask them if he could pray for them, and then offer prayers for the family, any job situations/transition challenges that had come up in conversation, and for God to guide them to the right church, and if Church of the Resurrection was the right church, for God to give them excitement about that.

I like that prayer time. The only thing I might change would be asking for God to give them contentment or confirmation about “St. XYZ Parish” as a home, since I’m not sure everyone relates to feeling “excitement” about finding a church home (though I certainly do, whenever I move!).

As a leader…Hamilton notes that he expects all of his ministerial staff and program leaders to develop timely methods for providing follow-up to the first-time visitors in their ministry areas.

Has anyone seen follow-up done in an effective and/or inspirational way in a Catholic parish? Please share!

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