"Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels."(Hebrews 13:2)
I have a family baptism to attend during the Easter season out of state. I look forward to it, but it makes me wonder what to expect when we're there. The rite of baptism, of course, will be familiar, but I am curious about the parish. Will we feel at home or out of place? Will people smile or glare at my children? If we lived closer, would it be easy to figure out how to connect to the various activities and prayer opportunities they have? Even though I won't be able to report on that until after the baptism, it gave me pause to think of ways we can engage visitors to our parishes — especially at sacramental opportunities such as reconciliation services, funerals, weddings and baptisms. Whether the visitors are from far away or live closer, here are a few ideas to consider:
- Make them feel welcome. Even on somber occasions, being authentically greeted makes a difference. Having someone say hello with a smile lets a guest know they can ask questions. Common ones include when things start, the location of the restrooms, etc.
- Send them home with a connection. Unless you know where they are stored, bulletins are often only available on Sundays. If you have people coming midweek, consider having bulletins or other flyers easily accessible for people. Electronically, you could do this with a posted QR code that drives people to the welcome page of your website. For example, people who have arrived early or are waiting for someone else may read the bulletin or check out the website while they wait. They can instantly connect if your website makes it easy for them to sign-up for another activity.
- Ensure that they can participate fully in the prayer experience. It can feel unnerving to be in a new place for Mass or a prayer service. Consider what a visitor may need to know to help them fully participate. Have worship aids available, even for those whose circumstances may have caused them to arrive late. Train ushers to guide people to communion; this ensures they know which line to use. Encourage your parishioners to pass their hymnals to guests or gently show them the page you're on if they look lost. These little steps make visitors feel valued and included.
- Make follow-up part of your parish culture.
- The pastor and volunteers can show this. A simple regular address from the pastor that thanks everyone for coming, states that the parish hopes to see them again and invites people to stop at a welcome desk for more information can be impactful. Staffing your welcome desk or other spots where guests may come with hospitality ministers who are genuinely happy to interact with them shows how much your parish cares.
- It can be more indirect as well. One option is to include a poster on the exit door of the building reminding people of an upcoming event that is easy to attend. Consider having a visible table for people to leave prayer requests for your intercessory prayer team and include an option to request a follow-up phone call from a parish staff member. Your prayer team may have a sign at the table letting guests know of their commitment to pray for those at this event (funeral, wedding, etc.). Taking the time to tell them that they are welcome and thought of beyond just this event leaves a lasting impression.
This list is not exhaustive, nor is it meant to be a way to grow your parish instantly. These are ways to plant seeds. Then, as people's hearts are opened, they can turn to your faith community as they are ready. May we remember this line from the “Rule of St. Benedict” when considering visitors at our parishes:
"Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for he is going to say, 'I came as a guest, and you received me.'"(Matthew 25:35).
(Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 53)