How Can I Welcome Someone at Mass?

None of us want our parishes to be a place that’s not welcoming, that’s not hospitable to the outsider, visitor, guest, or occasional-attender. The question is how? What to do? What can I as just one individual do to welcome someone at Mass?

Tips for Welcoming

When you see someone that you think might be a visitor, don’t say “are you new?” (some people don’t want to stand out as different/new), instead make it about your own perspective, “I don’t think we’ve met before, my name is…” 

Do have conversation with those who might be guests, visitors, or less-frequent attenders…just about every church has programs, music, and things to do. It’s personal connection that leads to belonging.

When conversing, don’t ask or presume specific family relationships (i.e. spouse, marital status, children) through your language. Making the wrong guess or assumption can cause a person to feel like they don’t fit in. Instead, let them share and then you know it’s a comfortable topic for them.

Don’t interrogate–i.e. asking what religion they are, what church they came from, etc. Focus on open-ended conversation that allows them to share their unique experiences and personality, rather than information. (Some examples of conversation “ripening” phrases).

At the end of a conversation, offer the person a pathway for a next step. This could mean showing them a welcome card, or a safer option a person is more likely to say “yes” to, simply offer your own contact information (i.e. email, phone #, whatever you prefer). This puts the ball clearly in their court and shows that you respect and trust their choice to follow up and get to know you more, versus giving their contact information to a total stranger at a new church. You’ve taken the first step in friendship, without being pushy.

Affirm parents. Parents are naturally self-conscious about having children at church events or worship. Simply affirm. Don’t offer praise that could be taken as an insult, i.e. “those kids were rough during Mass, but you did a great job.” A “thanks for being here, I love seeing children at Mass” cannot be misinterpreted.

In summary, keep your eyes open! Ask the Holy Spirit to point you to a conversation. People will remember, “that was the church where a stranger took an interest in me, for who I am…not who they hoped I’d be or how I could get involved in their church…simply because we connected as people.”



Training Conversationalists

Earlier this week, we looked at the importance of building relationships through the process of registration or joining a local churchRelationships bring people back. Relationships are a part of belonging, of growth, and more!

How Can We Train People To Have Fruitful Conversations?

Do we simply hand them a paper form and say, “help someone fill this out?” Absolutely not!

Remember, It’s Pre-Evangelization

The conversation is an exercise in what the Church calls pre-evangelization, not predominantly focused on proclaiming the Gospel and offering a chance for life transforming response, but instead connecting with or awakening the desires and values of those we meet with what we embody as Christians (General Directory for Catechesis§47-48). Sherry Weddell’s maxim, “never accept a label in place of a story” certainly implies. Simply because the person identifies as Catholic is no guarantee that pre-evangelization isn’t important or necessary.

Pre-evangeliztion matters because it creates the conditions for a relationship of trust, it inspires interest–and without trust and interest–the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a lot less likely to be responded to. While it’s incredibly tempting for us to want to enthusiastically proclaim the saving message of Jesus Christ to a person as soon as we get a chance to 😀 we may be creating stumbling blocks to a response by offering something so profound before we’ve even built the smallest amount of trust with a person. Think of Sherry Weddell‘s “5 thresholds of conversion” (pictured below). Making the pitch for an intentional life as a disciple of Jesus Christ before having a firm establishment of trust, curiosity, openness, and active seeking or interest is trying to work around our human nature!

full presentation here

If a conversation that starts as pre-evangelization turns into a place where a person can make a life changing decision to follow Jesus Christ and pray for forgiveness and a new life in the Spirit, then praise the Lord! God can do marvelous things, inspite of all our human weaknesses. However, I’d strongly caution against fostering the idea that this is the immediate goal/purpose of a registration conversation, because it may tempt those trained to think of that rather than building trust and curiosity as their specific ministry.

Conversations that Build Trust and Curiosity

The best way to train staff and volunteers for this “joining” ministry is role-playing. Many of us loathe it–but the reason we secretly dislike it 😉 is because it’s hard. We have to think on our feet, rather than passively listen to a “how to” talk. It’s the most valuable training for precisely that reason–it helps us become comfortable and confident in this ministry role.

There’s no silver bullet list of questions or order of discussion a conversation with a person joining a parish must follow, what I offer below are a series of conversation starters with a say and a listen for component.

Say: Each conversation starter includes a “say,” often in the form of a question to ask. Within these, various linguistic options are suggested in [brackets].

Listen For: Some tips on what to be listening for to guide the conversation further or complete a form to join the parish.



Basic Introductions

Say: Welcome! My name’s ____________, I’m so glad you’re interested in learning more about joining All Saints Catholic Parish.


Listen For: Tone. Do they seem comfortable already? Nervous talking to someone at a church? Ready to get this over with? Critical about “why can’t I just fill out a form and be done with this?”….

Say: Thanks for taking the time to come and register, what brings you to All Saints? [How’d you find us, get interested in our parish, etc.?]

Listen For: Their answer to this is key data collection (on your part) for whoever leads Engagement, Marketing, or Outreach at your parish.

Moving Deeper

Through your basic introductions, hopefully you’ve come to know something about each other–where you live, occupations, interests, etc. These are some follow-ups that help take “basic information” to the level of “interesting conversation I don’t normally get to have” (aka, I’m enjoying this!)



  • Wow, with those moves and different jobs, what’s the greatest lesson you feel you’ve learned so far in your life’s journey?
  • Oh interesting, I do [or don’t] meet many [insert occupation]. What do you like most about what you do? or What motivated you to pursue that path?
  • With those different [hobbies, spiritual journeys, homes, etc.] what experiences have shaped your worldview the most?
  • It’s definitely a busy stage of life [raising kids, getting ready for retirement, navigating care for aging parents, starting off new, etc.]…what are you passionate about in this season of life?
  • What makes you [and/or your family, spouse, etc.] happy?
  • With those [work/hobbies], what kind of people do you look up to? What attributes in people are most important for you?
  • [For someone who is giving verbal or non-verbal signals that they don’t like this “registration conversation” concept, maybe some humor…] so, I figure sitting down to have to talk to someone about registering at a church might be the most boring part of your week…but, what’s been the best part of this past week for you?

Listen For / Do: 

  • Ways to “push their ideas a step further. Ask why and how more than what and when” (from Science of People)
  • Opportunities to make them feel important, to feel that their opinions/interests, matter

Getting the Mundane Details

Say: We’re so happy to have new folks like your family joining All Saints, would you mind if I jotted down some info from you so that we can make sure you start getting parish newsletters, emails about events, and things?

Listen For: Answers to basic info you might need: full mailing address, phone number, email address, children’s grades/ages. Through your conversation you should already know what town/city they live in, occupation, religion (likely to come out in the “what brings you to All Saints…” question). If not, feel free to ask at this point, as you’ve built a human relationship first, and are only now collecting that “important to write down” type of detailed information.

Background Prep: Before training your team, think through what information you truly need at this step.  Make it as short as possible. In a world of information “over-collection,” you can show trust by not turning registration into an interrogation of all personal information a family might possibly have! 😉 For example, you need the information to stay in communication with the person/family, and to know other people in the household who might not be at this conversation. A parish likely doesn’t truly need to know dates of children’s baptisms, emergency medical info, etc. This can all come later, through growing relationships with youth catechetical leaders, etc.

The Turn to the Spiritual Life

Say: There’s such a wide range of people here at All Saints Parish and so many opportunities. We really learn from each other as we seek God. [Insert cultural statements appropriate to your parish of course!] Would you be willing to…

  • describe/share [or: tell me the story of] your lived relationship with God [or: connection with God, connection with Jesus] up to this point in your life?
  • share a little of yourself, do you pray? do you find it a struggle? how do you like to pray?
  • share some of the ways your faith causes you to change how to live your life? or things in your faith that seem like a struggle?

Listen For:

  • What the person believes about God and the possibility of a relationship with God (i.e. God is impersonal force, a person they do connect with)
  • Additional religious affiliation (not already stated etc.)
  • What bridges of trust or curiosity they have to Catholicism/Christianity
  • if they’re comfortable using the name, “Jesus”

Follow Up Ideas to Go Deeper:

Choosing depends on the listening throughout the conversation, remember not to make a huge or uncomfortable “jump” into the deep end of a pool a person hasn’t even mentioned swimming in 🙂 Just take a little step down the ramp in the shallow end…

  • For you what’s the most important thing about Jesus?
  • Have you had any kind of moment when you felt particularly close to Jesus? If so, can you tell me about it? If not, have you ever wanted to?
  • What do you mean by describing yourself as ______________?
  • How do you describe God to others [or your kids]?
  • What does it mean to be Catholic in your experience?

Remember, during this conversation you’re not correcting, catechizing, or judging–you’re helping spur the person to talk and share as much as possible so that you can listen. This takes a tremendous trust in the Holy Spirit, that by experiencing genuine love and listening, this person will open up and continue to come back. 

Affirmation and Closing

Say: Pour on the praise and affirmation for what the person shared with you, taking the time to have this conversation. Share how you’ve been enriched by hearing their perspective, how they have real spiritual insights, how you found their life story interesting.

–> If the person showed genuine interest, i.e. “what do you mean personal relationship with Jesus, isn’t that for Protestants?” that’s an opportunity to take it another step further and share the Gospel with them and offer a concrete way to respond in prayer.

In Closing Offer: Is there any way I can pray for you, or even with you right now? Or anything I can help you with? Would you want to get together again, we could…or  I just look forward to seeing you around the parish in the future! [If you parish has cards with social media outlets, bumper stickers, coffee mugs, or any other “reminders” for new members, this is a great time to give it.]


Silver Bullet? No

This is certainly not the best training outline, nor suited for every parish. However, I offer it as a starting point–it’s a great draft to begin role-playing, to begin training staff/volunteers to have “registration conversations” with people, rather than hand out or email a form that gets returned without personal contact. I recommend staff/volunteers also familiarize themselves with “threshold conversations” (Weddell) and giving their own personal testimony, as those would be likely follow-ups for a person who shows great interest and openness to hearing about what God is ready to offer them, right in this moment.


Parish Registration That’s a Conversation

Let’s face it–joining or registering at a Catholic parish can be one of the most non-relational experiences a person can have. What does it typically entail? A form to collect information. Reading or being told of “policies.” Being asked personal information, i.e. the dates of a child’s first Eucharist, something that might feel a bit like “judging” if one is unfamiliar with the terms of didn’t do it at the “right time.”

The “Problems” of Registration for Catholics

Many Americans who self-identify as Catholic carry baggage related to parish registration. That relative they remember who couldn’t get married at a certain parish because they weren’t registered. Not being able to join a youth sports team because of being registered in a different parish. Calling to request Anointing of the Sick for an aging relative and being told they cannot receive it because they are not registered or in “good standing.” The litany of ways people have taken offense during the process of “registration” is long, complex, and an exercise in empathy to hear! Now, as many familiar with the Code of Canon Law or liturgical books know, many of the situations I mentioned are filled with error/miscommunication. Yet, that factual reality does not change the actually experience of offense taken by that person who (without the benefit of an understanding of Canon Law or liturgical rites) felt excluded or unhelped in a time of need.

The “Problems” of Joining a Parish for Non-Catholics

For non-Catholics, whether they be seekers, “nones,” or our separated brothers and sisters, the experience of registering in a parish can be even more confusing. As an “outsider” to some of our unique language, what does “registering” even mean?

  • Is it like a mini-application? Will I get in?!? What if I’m a single parent? Will my kids get in if they’re not baptized yet? If I check a box that they have special needs?
  • What do you mean I’m not “registered”? I’ve been coming here for years and get email newsletters from the parish all the time?
  • I’ve been told only Catholics can register. So, I basically don’t really belong at this parish.

The Root Problem is That It’s Non-Relational

In any situation, the real problem is when parish registration is a non-relational experience, which I’ll define as an experience that does not form a personal connection between the person registering and a person in the parish. A kind secretary who “helps” someone fill out a form can be slightly more relational 🙂 [shout out to all of the amazing administrative personnel in parishes who are gifted enough to show love amidst ringing phones, fixing copy machines, and helping a young parent with a crying infant fill out a registration form!] however, these situations aren’t ideal for a conversation that allows a person to experience being known in a way our society doesn’t typically make space for. A conversation where a person experiences being welcomed unconditionally and listened to for the unique story and beauty they bring to the world!

From Here to There: Introducing Conversation to Your Parish Registration Process

  1. Identify people (clergy or lay, staff or volunteer, etc.) to be part of this conversation ministry. Organizationally, this might fall under the guidance of a parish Director of Evangelization, Director of Engagement, or a Welcome/Hospitality Committee.
  2. Train the leaders.
  3. Have the trained leaders then start to slowly expand the pool. Emphasis on slowly because you’ll need to tailor conversation guides/ideas for your unique local setting! By doing this first, your leaders will improve the concept as they do it, and then pass that on to others. This needs to be done well before it’s done “big” because of what a critical moment this conversation is for welcome, hospitality, and evangelization for those checking out your parish. [For those keeping track, 😉 you’d be doing what’s called “lean experimentation” with this style of growth/learning.]
  4. Decide the when/where. Be expansive. Remember, people work all sorts of hours, may not live close to your parish, etc. The advantage of having both staff and volunteers trained, is that staff can cover meeting with people for whom typical “office” hours and the parish office are convenient, and volunteers can cover evenings, weekends, off-campus meeting spots like libraries or cafes near their homes.
  5. Publicize to your parish! Parishioners are on the “front lines” of helping people move from “maybe I want to join St. Mary’s…” to making it happen. Parishioners are always hoping a friend or family member decides to give their beloved parish a try! When that person says to them, “our family wants to join St. Mary’s,” you want to empower your parishioners to have a ready and joyful answer (i.e. who to call or email) rather than a nervous “um, I think there’s a form” or worse, “no, just keep coming, no need to register” [because they want to shield others from their own negative experience registering!]  
  6. Once you know it’s functional [enough!] remove the printed registration forms from your welcome brochure racks, front office, website, anywhere they exist.
  7. As you’ve raised the level of engagement necessary to register, make sure there’s a low-risk/low-engagement way interested people can be in the communications loop at your parish. This might mean an online sign up for an electronic newsletter, a way anyone can join a parish smartphone app, etc. As Carey Nieuwhof writes, “the online world is the biggest front door the church has ever seen, suddenly we’re all connected.” Translate this for your local setting, even if online communications aren’t the “biggest front door” for your church, what is? The sign out front? Your bulletin? etc. Whatever it is, make sure that door to communications stays wide open for those who want to get in touch for months, years, or even decades, before they take the step to engage more and join/register.
  8. Continue to assess and improve this essential pre-evangelistic and evangelistic ministry, and how it flows into follow-up moments for connection.

Optional: Caveat on Canon Law and Parish “Registration”

Parish registration is such a commonly used term in the United States, it’s easy to think that it’s part of Church teaching–something that makes Catholics, Catholic. But it’s not.

The Church teaches that a parish includes all Catholics living within a certain defined geographic area [note: in some cases, non-geographic parishes exist] (Code of Canon LawCan. 518). By living in that defined geographic area, a Catholic officially belongs to the respective parish–no form, online registration, live here six months and start tithing, etc. as necessary to canonically be a part of that parish. [For more background, see the “Canon Law Made Easy” blog.]

I would love for someone to do a historical study on the rise and history of “registration” in parishes in the United States, as it’s a cultural custom that has become widespread and oft-appealed to here, in contrast to other parts of the world. My layperson’s hypotheses is that it has something to do with our  culture of registration and membership in societies/organizations in the U.S. in general and general cultural tendencies toward “order”  (i.e. compare a communion “line” in the U.S. to places where it’s a free-for-all mass movement to the front of a church to receive the Eucharist).

Depending on your local setting, it might make more sense to avoid using the word “registration” and talk about joining, connecting to, becoming a part of, or being a member at such-and-such parish–especially if you have a large number of non-Catholics who (when it comes to Canon Law) are simply “outside” of a canonical definition of “parish.” In order to have an accurate understanding of people in your parish who are under Canon Law and those who are not, you may need to add this in your parish database, or simply understand this difference by noting a person’s religion (i.e. Catholics would be Canonical members of the parish, non-Catholics are not). But 🙂 this isn’t a big deal, because of course you’d want to know those who’ve reached out and connected to you who are not Catholic! A wonderful blessing of those who already have trust and curiosity in knowing and worshiping the Lord with us!

Everything I’ve suggested above with regards to making the process of joining/registering in a parish more relational, does not in anyway suggest or intend to change our Canonical definition of a “parish.” Being more relational is about taking an American custom of “registering” via forms and allowing it to be filled with a spirit of pre-evangelization and evangelization, so that people experience authentic love and human connection when they reach out to us.

Registration is like a front door. How warm and welcoming is yours?

Front DoorImage: “Front Door” via LuxuryLuke (Flickr)

Lent: Rooted in Belonging

What is belonging?

When we belong, we experience fitting in, just as we are, right now. We experience being a part of something bigger than ourselves. We are able to share and give of our unique gifts, and know that these actions are welcomed and needed. We have a home, a place of acceptance, warmth, and love. The origins of the season of Lent indeed reveal the depth and power of belonging for Christians.

Lent: Not Just Individual Piety

Now, in our modern culture, many (if not most!) think of Lent as a season of individual piety for the most devout Catholic believers. Yet, the ancient origins of Lent lie in the practices of those preparing for baptism or to publicly reconcile with the Church.* These ones on the “outside” of the wider Christian community would prepare for full communion at Easter in symbolic imitation of the “40 days” of Jesus in the wilderness–an event with ties to both Moses and Elijah’s “40 days” (Mt 4:1–11, Mk 1:12-13, Luke 4:1–13, Ex 34:28, 1 Kgs 19:8). 

The Christian community implicitly grasped the profound significance of belonging. Instead of allowing those on the “outside”–the unbaptized, the un-reconciled–to engage in a Lenten preparatory period of spiritual growth alone, the entire Christian community entered into the same journey. The circle of belonging was not merely for those who were already baptized, for those who believed and behaved in ways that left no need for public reconciliation–it was for everyone. The actions of the early Church say, “We’re all in Lent together. We all belong here.” Joining the unbaptized in preparing for baptism shows that we are all sinners in need of God’s grace–we’re all imperfect yet being made perfect in love by the one who is Love.

Lent for Early Christians

What would the unbaptized, joined by the entire Christian community, actually do to prepare for baptism? Like Jesus during his post-baptismal time in the desert wilderness, Christians were encouraged to “satisfy themselves with the Word of God [more] than with bodily food,” in “bountiful benevolence” a “hunger and thirst for righteousness” to be “be filled with those kinds of food which feed us for eternity” (St. Leo, Sermon 40; Mt 5:6). Forgiving, living virtuously, caring for the poor and marginalized, and prayer become part of Lent. Acts of penance that are internal and individual, as well as external and social are encouraged (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 110). And, of special emphasis, fasting that reminds us our lives are not our own, we depend on God and others for life’s most basic needs. This culminates at Easter with a common font of the true water of life, where we all experience home–both those who are baptized and the wider community who renews baptismal vows with the same water. Jesus begins his desert time “filled with the Holy Spirit,” and at the end of his “40 days” overflows in the “power of the Spirit,” proclaiming in the words of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to announce the Good News” (Lk 4:1,14,18). We too can confidently expect the Spirit to lead us during Lent, and empower all of us who are anointed in baptism (even the most newly baptized) to announce the Good News.

In a 5th century Lenten sermon, Pope St. Leo the Great rallied believers:

“let us all together, without difference of rank, without distinction of desert, with pious eagerness pursue our race from what we have attained to what we yet aspire to.” (Sermon 40)

Becoming a church community where all experience belonging means putting aside “differences of rank”–of assuming that certain religious backgrounds, relationship statuses, family sizes, occupations, or types of people fit in the Church, your parish, or ministry, more than others. It means ensuring that we live out St. Leo’s exhortation to avoid making “distinctions of deserts”–implicitly judging or looking down on the spiritual and practical struggles of another. As St. Paul writes, “all have sinned and continue to fall short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23).   

Lent: Icon of the Entire Year

If the baptismal character and roots of Lent seem a bit lost or murky in your practical and lived experiences of Lent, then this is something to address–a wonderful opportunity for your church community! As the bishops explained at the Second Vatican Council:

The season of Lent has a twofold character: primarily by recalling or preparing for baptism and by penance, it disposes the faithful, who more diligently hear the word of God and devote themselves to prayer, to celebrate the paschal mystery. This twofold character is to be brought into greater prominence both in the liturgy and by liturgical catechesis. (Sacrosanctum Concilium [Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy], para. 109)

How to do this is left to your discernment, but the important part is to do it–allow Lent to be not merely individualistic penance, but also a powerful recalling and preparation for baptism, a solidarity among all rooted in our common need for God’s forgiveness, an authentic belonging.

This belonging embodied in Lent is what we are called to be at all times during the year. Just as the Prodigal Father runs out to meet his Prodigal, Older Son, our Lenten practices call us out of individualism and self-centeredness in our walk with Jesus to a deep solidarity with the unbaptized–a true experience of belonging for all (Lk 15:11-32). For each and every one of us, the roots of Lent reveal a call to be more humbly open to others, more open to belonging as we pursue “what we yet aspire to,” together in Jesus our Lord.  

Duncan Rawlinson @ Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

*Note The practice of imitating Jesus’ “40 days” symbolically (it was not universally precisely 40 days) was preparation for Baptism. After the Council of Nicea (325 AD), the Paschal Triduum (Easter) emerged as the ideal and preferred day for baptisms. With this, the “40 days” became more commonly located immediately prior to Easter, and the Paschal Fast that already was practiced during the 2 to 7 days prior to Easter. For those interested in the documentary evidence for this historical evolution, I recommend Paul Bradshaw and Max Johnson’s The Origins of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity (2011). 

Outsiders First: A Culture Change

I have visited my share of congregations over the years and all of them claim to be the friendliest church. Yet, what I observe and what I am sure others experience is that people in these churches are friendly — but they are friendly to each other. Often, during the passing of the peace or congregational greeting time, parishioners greet one another warmly, but guests are left feeling like outsiders. It is not that people are not speaking to them, but that people are brushing past them quickly, so they can connect with those they know in the congregation. When this happens over and over again, it makes a visitor feel like an intruder and not a guest.

–Doug Powe, “4 Reasons Visitors Do Not Return”

Helping a church community grow into a culture that is truly welcoming and hospitable to all–a place where everyone can belong, not merely “extra belonging for those who already belong”–is one of the toughest shifts any group can make. As Fr. James Mallon has explained, culture is like an iceberg…there’s lots below the surface and it’s hard to turn/move it. But, it’s the most important change a leader can cultivate.

“An Invitation” on Christmas

Utilizing all means of communication matters. Back in 2006, I lived in southeastern North Carolina–not a place with a large Catholic population, universities, or obvious resources to grow more in one’s faith. But, I started searching online for podcasts of good Catholic preaching, and I stumbled upon the podcast of homilies given by Msgr. Charles Pope of Holy Comforter St. Cyprian Catholic Church in Washington, D.C. His preaching was perfect for an independent Baptist formed, Catholic believer, and has remained a fixture in my podcast feed ever since.

For years, I’ve wanted to attend Mass at Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian and this Christmas, we happened to be near Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian for the Vigil Mass, hooray!

The worship aid/program for Mass included this excellent example of a kerygma-filled invitation:

On this feast of Christmas, we celebrate the fact that the eternal Son of God came forth in greatest love to save his people from their sins.

Our Lord Jesus Christ came not only to live among us, teach us, and to die on the cross but also to gather unto himself a people, who would love, support, and encourage one another in the ways of holiness.

He then sent his apostles forth to gather his people into the community of the Church by baptism and the proclamation of the Good News, the Gospel. This work continues today as it has down through the centuries.

Kerygma without the Church can be a problem–but this example incorporates that fullness in plain language, without context-less theological jargon.

The invitation goes on to address individuals–showing that it’s not simply that “we” have “stuff to teach you,” but that we are meant to be a bigger we in God’s plan.

At Christmas, many people find their way to church who are not otherwise very connected to church. There are many reasons for this. Some have simply drifted away, others have experienced some hurt or disagreement related to the Church or her members. Still others have never been formally related to any church. Whatever the reason may be, know that you are wanted and needed in this community of faith. We need your experience, support, encouragement, and love. You also need these same things from the Church. We need each other. The doors of this church are open if you seek a spiritual home…We are grateful for your interest in our parish and are here to serve you in whatever way we can. May you have a blessed Christmas and joyous New Year.

Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Church 

Designed For (Not Merely Accommodating) Families

According to 2016 U.S. Census data, roughly 42% of American households include children age 18 or younger. Depending on where exactly you live, the number may be higher or lower, but even with variation, this is a significant proportion of the population that many local churches would love to serve and retain as growing members of a church community.

Credit: Leonid Mamchenkov

Yet, in many churches, things aren’t designed with parents (single or married) in mind. We aim to accommodate families of all shapes and sizes–but even best accommodation can feel just like that, an exception or compromise that still doesn’t leave families with children feeling like this was really designed for them, that they belong here.


What might designing for parents look like?

Some visioning…

In a Parent-Friendly Church…

Preparation for Baptism of Infants

is an opportunity to connect parents, especially new parents, to a community for belonging. It’s not a one-time “instruction” of information for parents to passively listen to, with few intentional opportunities on-going connection to others.


is a privileged place of formation and encounter with the Lord for parents–something parents can be richly nourished from so that they can be the primary catechists and witnesses within their own families. Parents can choose to have children worship with them at Mass or be engaged in an age-appropriate way elsewhere. No parent should experience Mass with children as a burden that requires them to focus so much on keeping young toddlers quiet in the pew that they cannot first and foremost be taken up fully into the liturgy themselves. Mass is also not something that parents need to drag older children to or placate them about Mass being “boring” because homilies are designed for adults, not older children. Mass is a joy and refreshment for the entire family.

Places for Families During Worship

are inviting, child-friendly spaces–not “cry rooms” where visibility for young [=short] children is limited, seating is designed for adults, and the means for a child to be engaged are oftenfewer than in the pews.  


is designed to give families maximum time together, so that parents can be witnesses to a joyful Christian life and have the time to pray and engage in catechesis within their families. This means offering opportunities at a lower frequency, in ways that involve parents/family, on multiple days per week, and with intentional overlap of offerings for different ages to minimize disruption.

The Entire Parish (Not Just Parents) Serves Children

In this, parents feel the love of the Christian community surrounding them with support, rather feeling that they must be the VBS, catechesis, and childcare volunteers all the time (simply because they have children). 

Parents Have Real Ownership in Children’s Initiation

A parent’s discernment of a child’s readiness to receive a sacrament of initiation or participate in the sacrament of reconciliation has an ordinary place in parent life. This cultivates a perception of partnership and emphasizes the empowerment given uniquely to parents through the sacrament of marriage and the Holy Spirit.

Major Parish Events

are designed from the start with the outlook a large proportion of the target audience has children, and that these families want to attend. Design includes content, location, and scheduling.

Service Opportunities

are offered not only for adults, but for families–both internal and external to the parish.

Ongoing Discipleship Paths

are as obvious and convenient for adults with children as they are for others. Adult discipleship paths are designed to synchronize with the schedules and needs of parents with children.

Catechesis for Children

doesn’t feel like something parents have to force reluctant children to attend because it feels like another school classroom to them.

Locations Matter

Driving takes time. Families in many parts of the U.S. don’t all live near the parish. In a parent-friendly parish, off-campus locations near where families live are utilized to reduce transportation time/burden on families.

Okay, this is just the start of painting a vivid picture of designing for families, in contrast to merely “accommodating” families as an afterthought to our events, schedules, and parish systems. What would you add to the list?