The announcement of the Catholics Come Home campaign, which will begin just before Christmas in this diocese, may be an early Christmas gift, if only for the great questions that it raises in us. How often have we heard someone bemoan a parish liturgy? What can we, regular Catholics, do about it? Not much? Maybe more than we think. Because worship is essential to a good parish, and good worship starts with good welcome, this is the first step to building a guest-friendly Church.
Almost every time I am invited to speak at a parish about evangelization, I ask about the current strengths of the parish. Almost without fail, the speedy reply is, "We are certainly welcoming!" Insiders always think that they belong to a welcoming community. But, insiders almost always consider their own parish hospitable, because it is "theirs." Would outsiders concur with an insider assessment? That is the question.
Everyone knows what it feels like to be traveling, and approach a new church for the first time. We come as guests to that church. But if asked if you felt like a guest, the answer is very often "not really" or feeling like an "outsider," or feeling "somewhat invisible."
Some of us feel uncertain about approaching strangers at church. That is why it helps to recall what we are doing and why. Welcome is a corporal work of mercy. Jesus said, "I was a stranger and you welcomed Me." The best greeters are motivated by a desire to serve Christ, in the face of the stranger.
So why not find out how welcoming we are, from the point of view of our guests? Invite guests to complete a Guest Assessment before they leave. Another option may be to gather some volunteers and send them out to be guests in a neighboring church on Sunday. Ask these spies to come back with a report on how they were received in other churches.
Another idea might be to ask a few outsiders that you know, such as family members or friends, to visit your church and complete the Guest Assessment. Report back your findings to the pastor, parish welcome committee or pastoral council. A Guest Assessment is available at www.EvangelizeBuffalo.org. The insights might surprise you.
This kind of objective assessment can be a source of significant improvements for the parish in anticipation of the return of those we sometimes dismissively call "C & E Catholics." (Because Christmas and Easter are the only times that we see, or rather, notice them).
A guest assessment might include questions as: What was your first impression of the building? Were you welcomed and offered assistance in finding your way around? Was the location of restrooms and other facilities clear? Was the diversity of the ages and cultures of our community evident in leadership roles? What words best describe your general impression of the experience - music, preaching, participation? How comfortable was the church space - seating, temperature, ease of hearing? Would you come back?
For a reproducible copy of a guest assessment and more ideas on welcoming visitors visit www.EvangelizeBuffalo.org or contact the Office for Evangelization and Parish Life at 716-847-8393 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dennis Mahaney is director of the Office of Evangelization and Parish Life.