As we move into the home stretch of Advent, making our way to Christmas later this week, you can bet that hundreds of thousands will pack into churches throughout the Archdiocese to celebrate the birth of Christ. Among the congregation, there will be the faithful who are regulars week in and week out.
We can also expect to see some less regular attendees, those that many refer to as the C & E Catholics (Christmas and Easter). That said, the welcome they receive may determine whether they become more than just twice a year churchgoers.
One way to reach out to those who may have fallen away from the church is through the use of social media, advertising and the media. Over the last couple of years, the Archdiocese of Toronto has extended its outreach efforts to do our best to pastorally respond to those who have been away from the church. We're on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and our website is seen by many as a hub for GTA Catholic info on the web.
A website, www.wearecatholic.ca has been established to provide basic information to those who may have been away from their local parish, to help them reconnect and ultimately, to welcome them back home. In addition, this week, we will also be running ads on Toronto radio station Newstalk 1010 featuring Archbishop Collins inviting those who have been away from the church to "Come Home For Christmas". The 30 second reflection, also available in video form through YouTube (also see below), will hopefully resonate with those who may use Christmas as an occasion to rediscover their faith.
With an unlimited budget, it would be wonderful to run these ads on all radio stations in the city but it's just not realistic. That said, this modest effort is meant to go hand in hand with our own evangelization efforts, which actually cost nothing at all. We've literally got a marketing department of hundreds of thousands - they just need to be activated.
It's safe to say that most of us know someone who's fallen away from the church for any number of reasons. Perhaps this is the year that you invite them to join you for Christmas Mass. Even better, if they tend to pick up a bulletin only once or twice a year, in the New Year, consider an invitation for them to join you at Sunday Eucharist followed by a coffee or brunch where you can chat about the experience.
For those of us in the pews on a regular basis, it's also a great time for a personal hospitality tune-up. How do we welcome those who aren't familiar to us in our parish? Do we extend a smile, word of welcome, handshake or other kind gesture when we see a new face in our faith community?
When I tell people I work for the church, they usually have a couple of reactions: a) they mention their parish, personal involvement and how it's interesting to meet someone working on the "business" side of the church or b) they recount a negative experience associated with the church and take a moment to let me know that's why they no longer attend.
Well it's up to all of us to erase perceptions or a negative experience from decades ago and replace it with a positive, pastoral and welcoming home. So the next time we get in the bah-humbug mode and complain that our pews are so full at Christmas and Easter with care-free Catholics maybe we need to quietly pray that this would be the case every Sunday and shuffle to make room for another beside us in the pew.
So when a whole new gang of folks respond "and also with you" this Christmas Eve, instead of taking time to gloat, offer them a pew card with the new translation responses, a smile and afte Mass, a "Merry Christmas" and "Hope to see you again."
If we can all work together to evangelize and extend a hand in hospitality, you'd be amazed at what might just happen.
Marketing budget required? $0. Churches overflowing with prayer, hospitality, outreach and attendance week in and out? Priceless.