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.”
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
Train the leaders.
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.]
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.
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!]
Once you know it’s functional [enough!] remove the printed registration forms from your welcome brochure racks, front office, website, anywhere they exist.
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.
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 CanonLaw, Can. 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?
Spreading the love of God is inevitably a personal, relational experience. We know as Christians that–if we stay at this “evanglism” thing long enough, we’re going to have to talk to people. And this can seem like a burden for many of us. It can also seem fruitless. It’s possible to do a lot of talking, but continually miss the mark on creating a space where the person you’re talking to can feel safe enough to be open, to be a bit vulnerable. It’s this point of vulnerability where those unique relationships that carry us through life start to form, it’s where love is tangibly experienced.
While there’s no silver bullet to cultivating conversations like this, here are some key phrases (in no particular order) to keep at the ready:
Ask “How are you?” With meaning. And conviction. Give the patient listening space for an answer, and take whatever comes seriously and reverently. Follow ups like, “ah besides school, how’s the rest of life going?” can help keep this question going, allowing a person to slowly reveal what they choose.
“Sometime, I’d like to hear more about your spiritual journey…would you be up for that?” (h/t Cru “SomeTime,” Overview). This question “asks permission” for a future opportunity, an interval that allows a person to accept and prepare to share, without feeling imposed upon.
If someone’s already sharing a bit about their life, work, hobbies, passions, a deeper follow up could be, “…in all that, what are the things you really want to be true of in life [or in this season of life, the coming year, etc.]?” (h/t Cru, “New Years Conversations”).
“Can I pray for you about that?” or “Is there anything I can pray for you for?” For a person who is uncomfortable with religiosity, you could even phrase it, “Is there anything you’d like me to pray about or just keep in my mind for you? (while it sounds weird for us Christians, many people of no faith at all “like” the idea of prayer or others thinking about them.
“What was your religious background growing up?” in a relevant conversation, is a good gentle “on-ramp” to talking spirituality since it doesn’t force a person to speak about present beliefs–only about the past, and area where their may be shared humor, or silent/serious wounds to enter into.
Life Goals/Careers: “What do you like most about what you do? How about the least?” “What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned in life?” “Tell me about your greatest success or greatest failure along the way?” “What’s the greatest piece of wisdom ever passed on to you?” “What three principles have benefited you the most thus far in your life journey?” “What’s your ultimate vocational dream?” “What did you see yourself doing career-wise when you were eighteen?” (h/t Doug Pollock, “99 Wondering Questions”)
“For [insert your own situation: i.e. someone just starting out, someone with young children, someone retiring, etc.] what advice would you give about what you think he purpose of life is”? (h/t Doug Pollock)
After someone has shared a bit of their biography in facts, “ah, in all that…what would you say some of the major turning points in your life have been?” (h/t Pollock)
Relationships: “How did you meet your husband/wife (or boyfriend/girlfriend)? What have you learned about yourself through marriage (or dating)? (h/t Pollock)
Influences: “Has there been one book/movie that has greatly influenced you?” “Besides your parents, is there any one person who stands out as having had a major influence in your life”? (h/t Pollock)
“What, if anything, causes you to be hopeful about the future?”
Personality: “As people get to know you, what do they enjoy most about you?” “As people get to know you, what do they enjoy least?” “As people get to know you, in what area do you feel most misunderstood?”
The point of these phrases isn’t to reach some specific conclusion, or even lead directly to an initial proclamation of the Gospel–the point is to create a space for a person to be heard, to be able to share a little deeper or more personally than our busy world typically allows (or even wants!) people to share. They allow a person to be known in ways they may be craving for–that inner loneliness we sometimes feel, even when surrounded by caring people. When we have listening conversations, we ourselves can be more vulnerable with others, building the trust that’s a bridge to the Gospel–a concept written about by Sherry Weddell in Forming Intentional Disciples and inherent in our Catholic conept of “pre-evangelization,” as moments that connect the values someone actually/inherently experiences to who we know God personally to be.
Do you have other great phrases to help “ripen” conversations? Feel free to share in the Comments.
It’s that time of year when many ministry staff and volunteers are preparing to launch or re-start initiatives, groups, programs, and more, as students and adults transition back from summer vacation season. Sometimes we can get caught up in the complexity or scale of our plans and forget our key foundations.
I’ve been reading Chris Wesley‘s Rebuilding Youth Ministry, and while the book is a great strategic guide for youth ministry, it has a straightforward clear message for all of us–from RCIA to adult small groups to kids faith formation and beyond. Drawing from Rebuilding Youth Ministry, here are six resolutions to help keep a more personal, discipling focus in your fall ministries.
1. Remember, the vast majority of people are “relationally driven,” not event-driven. Make sure forming friendships and relationships are an ordinary, intentional part of your ministry.
2. Never assume a particular point in one’s spiritual journey or baseline religious knowledge from any participants. Yes, the bulletin announcement may have read, “grow deeper in the faith through a Bible Study of John’s Gospel,” but the reality is that some who attend may be functional agnostics, others might have erroneous notions of “Church teaching.” And this is a good thing as long as you stay away from assumptions and get to know participants.
Now, this might strike you as a curious recommendation–I mean the title says youth ministry and it’s about youth ministry–but the value of this book as a resource for ministry leaders goes well beyond youth ministry.
The Big Picture
Rebuilt and Tools for Rebuilding focus on renewal from the perspective of a parish leader–a pastor, pastoral council, or pastoral associate. Rebuilding Youth Ministry is different. It’s a shorter, more focused primer on how to plan and specialty/functional ministry in the parish–through the lens of youth ministry. It’s an easy read filled with clear explanations of leadership and management basics, ideal for someone who has theological training, but wants to be more effective in ministry, without the detail that HBR or SSIR articles on leadership and management provide. Wesley writes for youth ministers, but what he says is so practically applicable, any leader of a parish formation/catechetical ministry could benefit from reading this. Read it and substitute your functional area (i.e. adult faith formation, RCIA, etc.) for youth ministry 🙂 it’s a fun and useful thought experiment.
Nuts and Bolts
The starting premise (provided by Rebuilt parish authors Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran in the forward) is simple:
Students…are an important part of the Church right now. God very much desires a growing relationship with them and has granted them gifts and talents to serve him and his family. (vii)
Basically, if you’re only concerned with youth ministry for the sake of the future, you’ve got an inadequate view of how the Holy Spirit can use all believers, today, for the sake of the Gospel.
So how to respond? Have a sense of irresistible, joyous urgency that “every even remotely interested teen living within your parish boundaries needs to be connected to a small group that is focused on evangelization and discipleship (growing a relationship with Jesus and learning how to serve him)” (25).
Whoa! (You might be thinking). That’s impossible. Youth ministry in my parish has been a struggle of kids not showing up, burn out, parents forcing kids into Confirmation, etc. If Church of the Nativity is having success, I want whatever program they’re using…
And this is where Wesley urges us to change our thinking. Stop with programs, retreats, and events as silver bullets–“teens are not event-driven; they are relationally driven. The last thing they need is another program” (9). [Note: kids and adults are probably the same way 😉 hence why I recommend this book to those with no connection to youth ministry.] Wesley accurately observes, “you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who disagrees with the concept that relationships are essential to a person’s faith journey” (29). But putting this into practice is a challenge in many parishes because we try and think big too quickly–skipping the critical step of building a “structure of authentic relationships” (29).
To build strongly means to grow a solid foundation of vision, mission, a volunteer team, parish buy-in and resourcing, prayer, personal ministerial identity, and more–and this is what the ten strategies of Rebuilding Youth Ministry help walk us through. Each chapter dissects one strategy and includes concrete “First Steps” that ministry leaders can immediately begin to discuss and take action on, developing (step-by-step) the sustainable ministry Wesley describes.
Overall, Wesley focuses on ministerial strategies rather than specific tactics/techniques, programs, curricula, events, or formats–and this is a good thing. It’s a discussion of how to think, envision, and build/develop–rather than a simple prescription of what to do. All too often parishes focus on what to do and doing more, rather than on the deeply rooted, essential vision and relationships behind ministry growth. Rebuilding Youth Ministry challenges the assumption that “more is better” in when it comes to ministry (or parish) health. It’s an outstanding guide for anyone ready to honestly assess and renew youth ministry in a parish setting. And, (if you can think outside the box a little) it’s also widely applicable for all parish ministers–something I’ll be diving into over the next few weeks with some of my favorite takeaways from the book.
Your thoughts? Have you read this book or applied parts of it? What were your experiences? Share here or on Twitter using the hashtag #RebuildingYM to continue the conversation.
Disclosure: Ave Maria Press provided me a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. Opinions expressed are my own, completely honest enthusiasm. 😀
In Seeker Small Groups: Engaging Spiritual Seekers in Life Changing Discussions (2003) Garry Poole proposes small groups led by ordinary Christians as the best way to engage and evangelize seekers.
Okay, so what does he mean by seekers? For him seekers=non-Christian, a spiritual seeker, a seeking friend–it’s interchangeable for someone who has not personally received Jesus Christ as forgiver and leader, no matter how far along they are in their spiritual journey (p. 32). The Christian’s goal then, “is to understand a seeker’s perspective and figure out the best ways to challenge that seeker about what it means to know God. And, then prayerfully attempt to give him or her opportunities to receive Jesus Christ as the only means of finding forgiveness and true relationship with God” (p. 33).
A Seeker Small Group (SSG) is 2-12 seekers and 1-2 Christian leaders who meet to discuss the seeker’s spiritual concerns, questions, and issues. What a huge point! The leader doesn’t really set the agenda or decide that the seekers should hear about, say, styles of prayer, the Catechcism, what RCIA is like, etc. [and yes, I know that these things happen during RCIA’s inquiry phase in many parishes]. Poole notes that Christians often spend time answering questions that seeker’s aren’t asking. We just want to share the Good News before even engaging with the seeker’s actual objections, confusion, etc. SSGs are place to understand the seekers’ past religious experiences, Biblical understanding, spiritual questions, barriers/objections, and places of spiritual blindness (=where the seeker holds a theology that misrepresents Christianity).
Seeker Small Groups get started through relational evangelism. People in the church inviting friends, relatives, co-workers, acquaintances, and the like. Of course, many people hear about Seeker Small Groups on Sunday–but there’s always a bridge of trust. “If we build it, they will come” simply doesn’t work for seekers. We need to build the relationship and interest first–whether trough church events or conversation at a softball game. Churches can establish affinity-based seeker groups (e.g. men, women, neighborhood, etc.), launch them before or after a popular Sunday service, or jump-start many of them through a large weekend event or outreach moment.
My thoughts on how this might translate for Catholic parishes:
1. I think we’d have a much more difficult time convincing/empowering typical parishioners to feel comfortable/competent in leading one of these groups. In principle, any Catholic Christian should be able to facilitate one of these seeker groups and have the basic ability to discuss core, kerygmatic beliefs. Unfortunately, the perception I observe is that most parishioners feel that there’s a tremendous amount of catechetical knowledge that’s essential for them to have before they “lead” any group. But, this misses the point–the seeker is wrestling with core issues, like does God exist? and any Catholic Christian should be able to share with authentic conviction how he/she came to this belief.
2. We’d have a different theology of who is a seeker. We wouldn’t call a “seeker” synonymous with “non-Christian,” since for us, seeker would also likely include many of the baptized who have drifted away or not responded to their baptismal vocation. We’d likely have many seekers who consider themselves “cultural Catholics.” This is all okay–just something to be aware of when reading Poole’s book.
3. Seeker Small Groups could function as a pre-inquiry or inquiry phase for RCIA. The fact that these groups are relatively small and meet for a defined, but short (6 wks or so) length of time means that–bam!–problem of not knowing how to start year-round RCIA is solved. 🙂
4. Poole writes that Seeker Small Groups show that seekers really matter (p. 34). Seekers matter to God, so they should matter to our parishes. When I think about typical parish offerings–eh, there’s not always a place set aside for seekers. We need to to that, instead of expecting seekers to conform to our ideas of how they should come to know/meet Jesus in the midst of the local parish.
Sound intriguing? Poole’s book is easy to digest and is basically a handbook on how to lead these small groups. I’ll be covering some of the basics in future posts, but if you’re an RCIA leader or involved in adult faith formation–I definitely recommend this book. For me it presented a whole realm of new ideas on how much seekers can actually be engaged through the local church.