What is a welcoming church?
The other day, I was having a fascinating conversation with a friend about what it means to have a hospitable church. You see, often, when we think about what it means for a parish to be welcoming or hospitable, we immediately gravitate to images of hyper-caffeinated greeters, painfully awkward forced introductions at the beginning of Mass, and the hit "contemporary" hymn "All Are Welcome" played a half dozen times per Mass.
Often, experiences like these have turned a lot of people off to the idea of hospitality as a part of the Sunday experience of parish life because they find it can produce a sort of shallow motif of community where true intimacy is not present but a community mentality is being proclaimed.
Great hospitality, though, meaning a truly welcoming parish atmosphere, is essential to becoming a vibrant parish.
I am amazed sometimes when I see parishes who are running large-scale, door-to-door evangelization efforts neglecting to take a a serious look at what the experience of a newcomer to the parish might be like. Now, don't get me wrong. Door-to-door evangelization might be a super effective way to reach your overall community. Kudos to any parish actually reaching otu to their community in that way. However, you have to keep in mind, as you invite these fallen away Catholics or non-believers back to your parish life, what parish are you asking them to return to? When they come back to Mass at Easter or at whatever other event you are inviting them to, will they find anyone willing to encounter them?
It is often true of parish life that the most effective method of making a change is the longest and most difficult. It is easy to slap programs at problems like a Band-aid and think the issue has been resolved. It is a lot more difficult to create an entire parish culture where it is a given that people are mobilized to welcome newcomers and form real community.
This whole culture of programmatizing things that should be naturally a part of our lives as Catholics flows from the mentality that the work of a parish is primarily accomplished by the pastor and his staff. We have the feeders and the consumers. If you are committed to becoming a parish of intentional disciples though, this is one area where you can quickly begin to help people who are comfortable with that idea get a little uncomfortable.
I had a friend who, every Sunday with his wife, would go up to a random couple that they had not seen before, and invite them to their home for brunch. Over time, these invitations had become the basis for a weekly Bible study that produced multiple conversions including one of its members being baptized Catholic.
Now, forming your parishioners to see hospitality this way and go after it takes lot of time and effort. It requires homilies preaching consistently on the culture of encounter. It requires that your parish itself is feeding your parishioners with opportunities to experience authentic community and be fed by real friendships themselves. It requires helping those with the charism of hospitality discern that call and then be activated to practice it.
In the meantime, by all means, form a better greeter ministry. Have kiosks in your narthex where people can request more information about your parish with someone ready to follow-up with a phone call to them that week. But, more than anything, form hearts that are capable of truly welcoming another human individual to their parish community.