Warm and friendly encounters.
If you were moving to a new location, what would you look for in a church? Responses to the American Beliefs Study from ACS Technologies shows that “warm and friendly encounters” is at the top of the list of what Catholics want from their parish. In fact, it is true across denominations and has been increasing over time.
“Above all, let your love for one another be intense because love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining.”
Source: American Beliefs Study Catholic Responses
While 37% of respondents indicate that the “celebration of sacraments” is very important, the total response for very and somewhat important is 57%, while it is 62% for “warm and friendly encounters.” The rest of the top 5 include quality sermons, traditional worship experiences, and holiday programs and activities. The focus of this article is on our need for personal encounters, but it should be noted that only 37% of Catholic respondents say that the celebration of sacraments is very important!
Do you prioritize hospitality at your parish? My experience working with hundreds of parishes is that, too often, hospitality is limited to greeters and ushers at Mass. Those who prioritize hospitality include welcome starting in the parking lot and focus on visitors to the parish. Here are 5 tips from the Catholic Missionary Disciples website:
- The first 10 minutes are key. You only get one chance at a first impression, and it really does matter.
- Your website is where most people will visit first. Will they find what they are looking for easily?
- Making a stranger introduce themselves to a new congregation is more intimidating than welcoming strangers. Why are we putting the onus on them to make themselves known to us when we should be the ones seeking them out?
- Make your nursery, cry room, etc., easy to find, well marked, clean, and safe. It doesn’t mean these things must be used, but if they are, you want families to have a good experience.
- Have someone who is easy to find, stationed at a prominent place, to answer questions, give literature, make recommendations, etc. This is an easy way to make visitors know where they can come for more information, ask a question, etc.
These actions are all worthy and important. Welcome must become part of the ingrained culture of the parish across staff and parishioners. Yet the responses in the American Beliefs Study indicate the need for an even more personal level of hospitality. In The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelizing mission of the Church, Pope Francis writes: “As a living community of believers, the Parish finds itself in a context whereby the territorial affiliation is increasingly less evident, where places of association are multiplied and where interpersonal relationships risk being dissolved into a virtual world without any commitment or responsibility towards one’s neighbor.”
We are reminded of our personal responsibility in addition to experiencing our faith through our parish. In Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century, Zech et al. explain that in the structure of the Catholic Church, our local parish is where we learn about and experience religion. The book, published in 2017, and since then, our societal shifts have pushed our parishes further from the center of our community and activity. We are experiencing the dissolution of our strong personal bonds, which show up in the responses to studies like the American Beliefs Study.
Given that the word “Mass” means “sent,” we first think of evangelization as a process of going out. Our desire for warm and friendly encounters also suggests we equally prioritize invitation and welcome. We can foster our parishes as a place for us to encounter each other and, through that, develop personal relationships.
Pope Francis put it this way: “The ‘culture of encounter’ is conducive to dialogue, solidarity, and openness to others, as it is person-centered. Naturally, a Parish must be a place that brings people together and fosters long-term personal relationships, thereby giving people a sense of belonging and being wanted.
The Parish community’s call is truly to master the “art of accompaniment.” If deep roots are planted, the Parish will become a place where solitude is overcome, which has affected so many lives, as well as being “a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey and a center of constant missionary outreach”.
People are seeking relationships and may not even realize that is what is missing. Our practices for hospitality are on the right track; however, we are called to take another step with each other that goes beyond the weekend experience. Through this, we can experience “warm and friendly encounters” and start to restore our sense of parish community.
Terry Poplava is a multi-disciplined executive with extensive sales, product marketing, strategy and leadership experience in supporting faith organizations. Terry’s professional experience includes organizational leadership, corporate development and growth, consulting with and training church leaders, and leading strategic and priority planning for churches and dioceses. He currently serves on the advisory board for the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche in St. Augustine FL, as cantor at St. Andrew parish in Myrtle Beach, SC. and recently as Chairman of the Finance Council at St. Mary the Virgin Mother parish in Hartsville, SC.