Finding a Local Church to Call Home

From the Pew Research Center comes a new study ripe with implications for how we think about hospitality, evangelization, and growing disciples in our local churches.

Question #1: What to Americans look for in a new congregation? 

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Question #2: Why do Americans look for a new church home to begin with? 

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Let’s dig into each of these areas further to flesh out implications for how we share Jesus’ love with the world…

Becoming a Parish Ad Gentes

  1. For Americans with kids, 65% say that education/programs for children age greatly valued. How are your children/student programs? Do they run year round? Are they convenient? Are they high-quality enough that parents would choose to place their children there? Would they appeal to outsiders (not just those feeling an “obligation” to attend)? As the leaders of Church of the Nativity (Timonium, MD) often say “when you do something for my kids, you do something for me” is an important societal, parental value to respond to.
  2. When Americans go looking for a new church home, roughly half consider switching denominations (note: while this isn’t a term we use in Catholic theology, it’s common in vernacular conversation, so I use it in that sense here). This is a huge opportunity! Talk about opennessAs Catholic parishes we should ask ourselves, what kind of impression or perception would someone from a different faith background take away from setting foot on our campus or at our programs? 
  3. We may think that the unaffiliated don’t visit our parishes. But this would be a mistaken assumption. Almost “about three-in-ten current religious “nones” (29%) indicate they have searched for a new congregation at some point in their lives.” What’s for them at your parish? What would their experience be like? 
  4. How do typical Americans find a new church home? More than eight-in-ten adults who have ever looked for a new house of worship say they attended a service during their search (85%). And roughly seven-in-ten talked to members of the congregation (69%) or to friends or colleagues (68%) about the house of worship they were considering. What kind of recommendations or comments would your typical parishioners make about your parish? Would they be enthusiastic? Resigned? Unsure what to say? 
  5. Though it’s not the most important method for learning about potential local church homes, 59% of adults under 30 say they have incorporated online searches when looking for a new congregation. Your online presence matters. And, it should resonate with Millennials. 

Becoming a Parish for Catholic-Seekers

  1. What’s most important when choosing a new parish for Catholics? “nothing is more important than location. Fully three-quarters of Catholics who have looked for a new church (76%) say location was an important factor in their choice of parish.” Our first reaction might be to think (with relief or discouragement) there’s not much we can do then. But this misses something more significant–if Catholics are most likely to select a parish based on location, then it’s vitally important that every parish have a discipleship pathway, that every parish be intentional about ministering to people at every step of a disciple’s journey. We can’t be content to have some “powerhouse” parishes where intentional discipleship and fruits of the Holy Spirit are typical and then “maintenance” parishes for the rest. Taking this reality seriously might force us to think about collaborative organizational structures, networks or associations, and other ways to move more parishes from maintenance to mission. 
  2. Not convinced of the need for every parish to have pathways for intentional discipleship? Here’s another perspective: of affiliated Christians, Catholics are the least likely to ever look for a new congregation. Most Catholics will stay in the parish they’re at, unless the geography (location of household or parish) changes. What’s this mean? Our expectation must be that every parish be fully alive in the Holy Spirit, offering robust pathways for disciples to grow–otherwise, many Catholics will continue to exist in “maintenance” parishes.
  3. When Catholics are looking for a new parish, after location (76% rate as important), the next most important values are “feeling welcomed by leaders” (71%) and sermons (67%). This data supports the pitch made by Amazing ParishRebuilt, and Divine Renovation in recent years as to the importance of the “Sunday Experience.” Authentic welcome from leaders and good preaching aren’t accidents or “bonus” attributes of charismatic leaders–no, these are essential parts of ministry that must be planned, cultivated, and assessed for effectiveness.
  4. Though Catholics are less likely than other Christians to look for a new local congregation, when Catholics do go seeking, about one-in-three report exploring changing denominations or religions. This might come as a surprise to many of us–but it’s a reality we can’t ignore. The question becomes what’s going on in your parish, so that when parishioners do move or go looking for a new congregation, they seek out a Catholic one? 

Okay, so those are my takeaways from this study. What are yours? How might this data impact how you do ministry? 

Guest Gifts, Hospitality, and Getting More Visitor Cards

Getting a visitor or guest to attend Mass (or anything) at your parish is a big deal. But discipleship takes relationship. How to get to know your guests?

A visitor/guest card is usually the first step to attaining the concrete information for follow up.

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Image: CC BY NC ND 2.0, Dazegg via Flickr

Some churches will provide a small gift as a thank-you to those filling out and returning cards. And this is good. It’s not bribery. It’s being hospitable. If you come
visit me at my house, I’d probably offer you a beverage and snack (or at least I should!). Likewise, a gift of a $5 gift card to a local coffee shop for visitors who take the time to stop by a Welcome Table after Mass isn’t a sin.

But, some parishes just don’t like doing gifts. Period.

Here’s an awesome alternative idea from Life Point Ohio, from their website:

After our church service is over, please visit Guest Central outside the main auditorium doors to get your questions answered. Do you want to hear a fast and easy way to do a good deed? If you bring us a completed Guest Info Card (inside your listening guide that you’ll receive before the church service) we’ll make a $5.00 donation to a local or international charity.  It’s our way saying, “Thanks for joining us!”

A parish could even give visitors who come to return or fill out a card a choice of 2-3 places to make a donation (just look at the success of “Donors Choose” and other initiatives).

What does your parish do to boost or increase the # of visitor cards or contacts you make at parish events?  Share your successes and failures here, since it’s great to have visitor cards, but without guests returning them or a follow-up strategy, the value for growing disciples seems limited.

 

Preparing for Parish Visitors

From a recent podcast episode, pastoral researcher Thom Rainer offers eight tips to offer your best to potential guests/visitors on Easter Sunday:

  1. Prepare to reach out to the dechurched
  2. Enlist extra volunteers
  3. Consider service or venue
  4. Promote small groups
  5. Take the opportunity to improve the facility
  6. Reconsider welcome cards
  7. Get your website ready
  8. Consider Facebook ads

While each of these tips is important, #6 brings us to a critical conversation about the logic behind actions in ministry.

Think back to the last time you were at one of those annual “big” Masses at your parish, say Christmas, Easter, Ash Wednesday, a First Communion celebration, etc. There were probably lots of guests and visitors, right? Yes. With all the extra commotion and crowds in the narthex after Mass, possible absences of the “usual” greeters due to holidays, etc. was it an ideal time to introduce a visitor to your community? To have a conversation and get to know them? To discern their spiritual needs? Probably not.

This means that in order to follow-up with visitors, there needs to be a way to make an introduction, to keep in touch. Of course not all visitors want to keep in touch–but (especially with some incentive, like a small gift) many will.

How will you identify and follow-up with visitors to your parish this Easter? Remember, it’s a blessing to have this challenge 😀

p.s. Want to have lots of visitors this Easter? Start inviting! Become an Easter Evangelist.

 

 

Information Booth for Visitors?

Oftentimes when visiting a “evangelical” or non-denominational Christian congregation I see an information table or booth in the lobby or main entrance of the church. There is usually a designated person at the booth to help answer questions, offer contact information cards, and provide information packets/folders (and sometimes small gifts) to visitors/guests, as well as answer any questions from regular members of the congregation (i.e. “How do I sign up for the women’s retreat next month?”).

While many Catholic parishes have printed information available in brochure stands or fliers, rarely do I see the regular use of an “information booth” and attendant. So, naturally I wonder, should parishes make use of this communication/hospitality strategy?

Reasons to have a manned information booth/table/desk: 

  • Provides a central location so that average people in the pews, ushers, and greeters can direct visitors/guests to someone who is ready to be friendly, helpful, and provide information (because let’s face it–ushers and greeters are busy with other tasks and can’t carry around information on every aspect of parish life a visitor might be interested in, and many of us in the pews are a little shy or uncertain–a designated location gives us all a way to respond well!)
  • Human interactionIt’s becoming less and less common in our society. I can mail packages from the post offices using a machine, check-out my own groceries without talking to a clerk, conduct banking from a mobile device, and swipe a proximity card to enter a fitness center–all without face-to-face contact with a single other human being. While I enjoy many of these conveniences, there’s something about making eye contact, informal chit-chat, and a handshake that gives us an opportunity to connect to others–an information booth creates a place for this, so that if a visitor wants to talk to someone, there is no chance they could wander in and out of Mass, without ever receiving more than a “hello” from others.
  • Providing the right guidance and promptingIt’s not uncommon for a parish to have dozens of different fliers, pamphlets, brochures, and posters in a narthex or lobby area. While this might be great for people in the parish, how does a visitor know where to start? Offering a manned information desk creates the place for a little “conversational triage” — for example, finding out if a visitor needs childcare during Mass, if they are specifically looking for a prayer group, etc. 
  • It can even be useful for active parishioners. Parishes are busy places. It’s not easy to keep track of everything that’s going on–and sometimes people have questions about what’s in the bulletin or an announcement they just heard at the end of Mass. While each of us could always wait and call the rectory/office or send an e-mail, how many questions go unanswered because of this inconvenience and the speed that life races by? An information booth can help everyone in the parish get questions answered right away, and even save trips to the rectory/offices (which are often only open on weekdays).
  • Even if a visitor prefers to remain anonymous, the presence of a person specifically prepared and volunteering his or her time to provide hospitality and information says, we care. The visitor sees the witness, and knows that if he or she ever wanted to ask more, there is an informal place to do so that doesn’t involve finding time to make a trip back during the week to visit the rectory/parish office. 

Reasons NOT have a manned information booth/table/desk:

  • Lack of space in narthex/lobby/gathering area (or presence would impede flow of traffic too much).
  • Might make some visitors uncomfortable (as if they are expected to stop or have to pick up information).
  • Requires volunteers from parish, proper training for volunteers on being hospitable and offering guidance, and/or involvement from parish staff.
  • Any others?

Conclusion: The reasons I could think of to have a booth are much more compelling than my reasons against the technique. What are your thoughts? Are there any key reasons not to try out this practice that I haven’t considered? 

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time @ St. Fabian Parish (Farmington Hills, MI)

Last week I visited St. Fabian Parish in Farmington Hills, MI (part of the Archdiocese of Detroit) for 9:15 am Sunday Mass, coincidentally, on the optional memorial of St. Fabian, Pope and Martyr.

First Impressions
With over 2000 families, St. Fabian is a big parish (average parish size in the U.S. is 1100-1200 families)–and the facilities certainly speak to this. School recreation fields, a large parking lot, and school/parish building attached to the sanctuary make the parish easy to find. With the much needed large parking area, it would be nice to have at least some designated visitor parking spots with a sign pointing towards the entry to the sanctuary. Reserving just a few visitor spots sends the clear message, yes–you are welcome here and we’re ready to receive you!

Entering the narthex was a very positive experience. The ushers were professional, easily identified with crisp looking name tags, and hospitable–making immediate eye-contact and offering a smile and “hello.” Positive energy before a morning service at any church is a great thing! If the ushers are happy to be present and serving the community, shouldn’t I be pleased to be here as well?

Preparing for Mass in the Pews
The sanctuary at St. Fabian is designed in a slightly circular fashion, resulting in generally good visibility. My husband commented on how the natural lighting made what could have been a darker/dim space (due to low ceilings) feel open and comfortable for prayer and worship.

St. Fabian’s made excellent use of a pre-Mass commentator. Before the start of Mass, a commentator rose to greet the congregation, announce the names of the presiding priest, lector, and possibly (I can’t quite remember) extraordinary ministers of holy communion (EMHC).  I rarely experience this before Mass, and to be honest, it felt warm. I didn’t know the lector, but I knew her name–instantly the parish seemed just a little bit smaller  to me as a visitor. The commentator reminded us that given the flu season, it’s okay to not shake hands during the Kiss of Peace or drink from the cup. She concluded by encouraging us to turn and welcome each other before Mass began.

St. Fabian’s used the commentator well, however this could have been even more visitor-friendly by adding information of specific relevance to those who might not be regular Mass-attenders. For example, since there were no cards or guides to the Order of Mass in the pews, it would have been nice to be informed that one could pray along with the printed words by “turning to pg. x in the hymnal” (this parish had newer hardcover hymnals with the Roman Missal, Third Edition updates). This way the prayers of the Mass would not seem like an awkward blur to me, if I’d never experienced liturgical worship before, or was returning to Mass after a long-period of absence. We need to do all we can to help those who are unfamiliar participate as fully and reverently as possible in Mass. 

Mass
Two points of this celebration of Mass gave me pause to consider potential impacts for evangelization. First, the homily. The priest’s homily focused on the day’s Gospel reading featuring the first sign at the wedding of Cana. The preacher wove apologetics into his homily, stating to the congregation (and demonstrating through his interpretation of the Scripture) that our Catholic faith does not include worshipping Mary, but instead turning to her as model of one who points to Jesus, and encourages others to “do whatever he tells you.” Although a Eucharistic homily is not primarily apologetic in nature, given the call to re-evangelize those who may have been baptized but not formed into mature believers, the priest’s preaching was appropriate and easy to comprehend–I could envision parishioners being able to use this teaching to share their Catholic faith with others who might skeptically question, “but don’t you worship Mary?!?”

A second moment that stood out was the dismissal of candidates and catechumen participating in the RCIA (unfortunately the distinction between candidates and catechumen was blurred–not helpful for a visitor who may already be baptized and ready to be received into full communion sooner). This seemed like a missed opportunity to be visitor-friendly and extend an offering to any seekers/inquirers present in the pews. The priest led the congregation in offering a blessing, then dismissed the small group. While he did mention that this dismissal was in preparation for the day they “join us at the table,” this would have been a ready-made moment to invite anyone present to join the group and inquire further, or at least ask the question, “might God be calling you to baptism? or to join in full communion in sharing His Body and Blood?”.

What’s Next?
St. Fabian’s used the commentator again to give the announcements at the end of Mass. Having one person designated in this role created a nicely planned feel. As visitor I knew that when this woman spoke, I was going to receive information (rather than prayer, Scripture, song, etc. during Mass). One of her announcements involved promoting the parish’s upcoming 3-4 day mission with faith formation for all ages and encouraging people to invite friends/family. Always good to see a parish reminding its people to go out and be evangelizers! However, still no clues for me as a visitor. If I’d experienced an encounter with Christ anew in this celebration–what was I to do? Where could I find more information about other events? Did anyone want to talk to me? The fact that St. Fabian’s uses a commentator creates an appropriate space for a simple gesture of outreach, for example, “We would like to thank any visitors in attendance this morning. Please feel free to stop by our information booth in the narthex to pick up a visitor packet and meet some members of our parish” (or something similar).

Find out more about this parish: http://www.stfabian.org/

Background on the “Mystery Visitor” Series —  As a Catholic who has moved around quite a bit in the U.S. and travelled often in the past for business, I’ve seen the incredible amount of variety present in churches throughout this country. Although I don’t travel as much anymore, when I do visit churches I try to place myself (as best as able) in the role of a true visitor–a seeker, maybe someone returning to the Catholic Church, or someone looking for a congregation for the first time. I focus mostly on Catholic parishes, but will also include other Christian churches I happen to visit through travels, family, and friends in this series. The purpose of “Mystery Visitor” write-ups is intended to be entirely constructive–trying to see what our “ordinary” routines might look like to an outsider and pondering how first impressions of a parish can be more “evangelization-friendly.” Although Mass is not primarily intended to be a specific event of the initial proclamation of “evangelization,” it is a cultural reality that many visitors and seekers will first come to a worship service to “feel out” a new community. Because of this practical reality, I consider evangelization within the context of worship to be a necessary area of reflection. 

Thursday of the 3rd Week of Advent @ Our Lady of the Visitation Parish (Paramus, NJ)

Visiting any parish for a weekday Mass is a great opportunity to experience some of the smaller touches that can make a parish community feel open and welcoming to a visitor or spiritual seeker. Last month I visited Our Lady of the Visitation Parish in Paramus, New Jersey (part of the Archdiocese of Newark) for morning Mass on Thursday of the 3rd Week of Advent.

First Impressions
I was able to quickly find this parish though a Google search and easily located the parish website to find out when weekday Mass was celebrated. The website’s navigation included updated weekday Mass times (always a good sign!) and directions, both narrative and linked to an online map. Overall, however, the website had a dated look, with frame sizes that might be difficult to read on a tablet or smartphone. The non-flash version of the site was slightly better in this area.

The parish was easy to find from the street and the facilities looked well-maintained, frequently utilized, and very inviting, with plenty of parking. The main front door of the church is not directly adjacent to the parking lot, so a sign directing visitors from the parking lot to the correct entrance point could be helpful. The small narthex/lobby area had some fliers and brochures for parishioners and practicing Catholics, but nothing clearly marked for visitors. While greeters, ushers, and bulletin passers can often serve as a visitor/seeker point of contact at weekend Masses, a clearly marked display or brochure-rack in a main entrance area is essential for any evangelizing Catholic parish as it is likely to be the only place for a visitor or seeker to get more information about the Catholic faith, parish community, or what to expect at liturgy. 

Environment for Mass
The sanctuary at Our Lady of the Visitation was a gentle (not jarring) light rose color and decorated with midnight-purple accents for Advent. The simplicity and uncluttered look created a prayerful environment that was relaxing. The pews in the front half of the sanctuary are arranged in a slanted/curved format, while the pews in the back half are in traditional parallel rows. A baptismal font with reverently displayed chrism and oil stands between the two sections. We had the delight of witnessing a “school Mass,” and middle school students were all seated in the front section, while others in attendance remained in the back pews as we did. 

Mass
The pews did not contain any card to guide visitors through the liturgy, nor was there any posted reference to pages in the hymnal to follow along with the order of service. This, combined with the lack of any visitor materials in the lobby, left me puzzled as to to how any visitor or seeker–maybe a Catholic returning to Mass after a long absence, a non-denominational Christian trying out Mass for the first time, or just an unaffiliated person interested in God–could easily participate or follow along with the liturgy without feeling lost! There are few things more isolating that being in a liturgical service and having the sneaking feeling that everyone around you “knows what they’re doing” and you are sticking out like a sore thumb for “not knowing what to say.” This is an easy fix for the parish–printed cards with an order of service or a simple index card with page number references to follow along in the hymnal.

The evangelization highlight of this celebration of Mass came from the obvious warmth and Christian experienced conveyed by the presider, Fr. Jose Montes de Oca. Fr. Jose’s homily took the day’s Gospel reading and applied it in tangible examples to the congregation, especially the middle school students who made up over half of those in attendance. He built his sermon around the importance of each of our listening to God in our lives. Really listening. Fr. Jose highlighted that despite our popular images of the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary, Luke’s Gospel says nothing about Mary seeing Gabriel. But, she did hear him. Even though we (most likely) do not see God (or angels) in physical form making announcements to us, God is speaking to us. Especially relevant for the middle school students, he applied this to decisions of conscience they might face on a regular basis, and told a story of how at times in his life, he knew he wasn’t listening to God in the choices he made. The homily was a good fit for the liturgical season and needs of the visible congregation, and for any visitor or spiritual seeker, proclaimed the crucial truth that God seeks us individually, that God wants to speak to us, if we open to listening.

Find out more about this parish: http://www.olvcommunity.org/

Background on the “Mystery Visitor” Series —  As a Catholic who has moved around quite a bit in the U.S. and travelled often in the past for business, I’ve seen the incredible amount of variety present in churches throughout this country. Although I don’t travel as much anymore, when I do visit churches I try to place myself (as best as able) in the role of a true visitor–a seeker, maybe someone returning to the Catholic Church, or someone looking for a congregation for the first time. I focus mostly on Catholic parishes, but will also include other Christian churches I happen to visit through travels, family, and friends in this series. The purpose of “Mystery Visitor” write-ups is intended to be entirely constructive–trying to see what our “ordinary” routines might look like to an outsider and pondering how first impressions of a parish can be more “evangelization-friendly.” Although Mass is not primarily intended to be a specific event of the initial proclamation of “evangelization,” it is a cultural reality that many visitors and seekers will first come to a worship service to “feel out” a new community. Because of this practical reality, I consider evangelization within the context of worship to be a necessary area of reflection.