I Was a Stranger and You Welcomed Me
How do we become an inviting church? It begins with hospitality. That is what the six hundred guests who visited St. Benedict parish in Halifax for the Divine Renovation conference witnessed.
More than three hundred parishioners volunteered their time over three days to serve the attendees. At every corner there was a friendly face to guide us along. It seems as though St. Benedict definitely has the market cornered on hospitality, and they shared their knowledge freely with us. Imagine if every guest that visited our parishes for Mass was greeted in such a way that they felt as if they belonged already! Father Mallon, pastor of St. Benedict, achieves this with a thriving Hospitality Ministry.
Hospitality is more than entertaining guests or being friendly with those we already know. Hospitality is not about us, but rather about the stranger. It takes a lot of courage to enter an unknown environment, even if it is the parish. It also takes courage to welcome the stranger who walks into the church gathering space. We live in a culture full of fear and that has made us calloused. We teach “stranger danger” to our children and now we are asking our parishioners to go out of their comfort zone and greet strangers. Jesus reached out to all, and we need to also take risks to help people to belong so then they will believe and become intentional disciples. Matthew 25:35 reminds us of Jesus words, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
Ask and it shall be granted unto you, but who do I ask?
Finding the right people for a greeter/hospitality ministry may be the struggle. The people in this ministry need to know that they are loved by God and be willing to share that love. Acceptance goes hand in hand with hospitality because the new person walking into church wants to be received where they are, and we need to meet them there. This is where a leadership pipeline can come into play.
- Parishioners who just came out of RCIA, Christlife or ALPHA: These folks are on fire to share their faith. A greeter ministry provides a non-threatening ministry that can get them involved. All they need is basic knowledge of the campus and a warm, friendly attitude. The greeter will also grow in faith as hospitality becomes a spiritual practice, as stated by Lonni Collins Pratt in Radical Hospitality. These individuals can then go on to be a lead greeter for their Mass, or move to a new ministry. This creates a leadership pipeline that keeps the ministry thriving.
- Families with Young Children: Multiple weekend Masses can pose a challenge to starting a greeter/ hospitality ministry. Greeters should arrive 15-20 minutes before Mass, which also happens to be the same time altar servers should arrive. Asking the families of the altar servers to get involved can help get the greeter ministry off to a good start. Invite young families to the ministry to get involved because many times young families feel they cannot get involved, but all ages can welcome people to their parish.
- Older Parishioners: Many times our senior parishioners feel like they can no longer serve as they once did. In this instance, they could be invited to be greeters. They will get the opportunity to engage in conversation and share their knowledge of their parish. Ask and they will come and serve!
- The Faithful at the ends of the pews: The importance of hospitality should be preached from the pulpit. We need to reach the “end of the pew worshippers”. If someone needs to sit at the end of the pew, then they should kindly get up to let a fellow parishioner or visitor enter. In order to build up the body of the Church and have a culture of invitation, every parishioner needs to respond with hospitality.
Divine Renovation points out that the Catholic Church asks less from parishioners than any other faith community. Let’s start by asking them to adopt the way of St. Benedict who said, “Serve one another in love. Never give a hollow greeting of peace, or turn away when someone needs love.”
How can your parish practice radical hospitality like St. Benedict?
Fr. Mallon hits the nail on the head! We need to stop being soft about member expectations. There is no option, you find something to be involved with, it’s a member expectation. How long will we continue to let places like Willow Creek or Saddleback draw our members who leave us because there’s “nothing to do” and they head to churches like those I mention where participation is expected and they’re gung ho involved. We keep missing the boat by worrying about filling the pews (i.e.. putting money in the bank) instead of actively expecting engagement. There is something for everyone if we create it and make it accessible and stop finding excused for everything because of insurance or whatever keeps our hands tied. Where there is a will there is a way. In Fr. Mallon’s book he talks about Finding Your Mission – we need to help everyone find their mission and also encounter the Jesus in the process and then let the Spirit go wild with leading us.
Great comment. Thanks for your insight!
Fr. Mallon states repeatedly that you can’t judge the health of a church by the number of registered parishioners but rather by the number of actively engaged parishioners. He even suggests that expectations of parishioners be listed on the registration form. This makes them accountable from the moment they join. I don’t know if we need to go that far but parishioners certainly need to know that they are expected to do more than just show up on Sunday. We want them to have an intimate relationship with Jesus that extends beyond one hour every Sunday at Mass. So we offer programs but that is ineffective if every time something new is offered the same people join. The programs we offer should reach people at all stages of life and meet them where they are on their faith journey. Fr. Mallon promotes ALPHA heavily to increase engagement. ALPHA and Christlife are effective tools to reach the unchurched but they also could be used to reach the Sunday worshiper as well. Ultimately we just want everyone to have a personal encounter with Christ and that is what will build our Church and fill our pews with intentional disciples.