My sister-in-law has a cottage in Caseville on the shores of Lake Huron, with beautiful scenery and a nice beach. Beach walks are particularly pleasant early in the morning or in the evening when the turbulent waters calm down and the water becomes like glass, making it irresistible to pick up a smooth flat stone and skip it across the water. This image comes to mind when I think of the Mission Direct area of Engagement.
Many times, people who come to our parishes as guests or newcomers are like the stones that bounce off the surface of the water before sinking. The stones move at such a velocity that they spend more time in the air than they do on the water. The goal of Engagement is quite the opposite. We want the people who come through our doors to not just bounce in and out, but to engage and become immersed in the community. We want guests, newcomers, and parishioners to encounter Christ and plunge into the living waters that flow from the sacramental life of the Church.
The Engagement area includes Evangelization, Hospitality, RCIA, Ministry Placement, Ecumenism, and Communications. Together, these ministries provide an opportunity to engage people beyond the parish campuses and welcome them when they walk through our doors. Hospitality is a crucial ingredient in the Mission Direct area of Engagement. Just as baptism is the gateway to the Christian life, hospitality is the gateway to life in the parish community.
Hospitality is not simply a nice thing to do; it’s a building block of the work of evangelization. People will not want to engage in the parish if they feel unwanted or unwelcome. Many Catholics are able to look beyond the weaknesses of a parish because they are insiders who know each other and understand the reality of the Eucharist. However, most outsiders to our parishes are unable to do the same, and they may focus on the externals that we tend to gloss over. The challenge for us is to see our parishes through the eyes of newcomers or those returning to the Church, so we can be more welcoming to them.
There are moments in people’s lives when they come to the Church seeking something only the Church can give. We call these gateway moments; baptisms, funerals, and weddings are a few examples. These are prime opportunities to welcome guests, many of whom have fallen away from the Church or who have never been to a Catholic church and to reach them with the good news of Jesus Christ. When done well, this has the power to change one’s relationship with the Lord — and with others. Identify guests and newcomers by inviting them to sign a guest book in the vestibule or fill out a pew card. Once they are identified, the parish can follow up with each person and begin a conversation. These practices are not beyond our reach and don’t require large budgets. Hospitality simply requires people who have a heart for others and are willing to connect with people and invite them to the next step.
Consider the possibilities if hospitality is applied not only to gateway moments, but across all of parish life. The combined ministries of Engagement truly position us to grow the Church and advance the kingdom of God. There is an intentionality about inviting new people, following up with them, and building a culture of evangelization where each person is invited to a path to discipleship and equipped to bring the Gospel beyond the four walls of the church.
The Mission Direct area of Engagement is arguably the newest and most innovative area of the Mission Direct structure and is a critical component to transforming parishes from being maintenance-focused, to being mission focused. It will help us not only reach into our geographical territory, but also help us to welcome and nurture the individuals who come into our midst. People are thirsting more than ever for relationships and belonging. This new area of Engagement gives us a unique opportunity to quench this thirst and plunge them into the living waters of faith.