All of us have surely noticed the jump in Mass attendance at Christmas. Many Catholics who don’t attend Sunday Mass regularly, make it a point to attend either a vigil Mass on Christmas Eve or a Mass on Christmas Day, in an attempt to add a spiritual dimension to their celebration of Christmas (and rightfully so!).
Think about that for a second. Someone (many ‘someones’ in fact) who rarely enters your church will be visiting to celebrate Christmas. These folks are infrequent Churchgoers – but they don’t need to be! Ask yourself: What are you doing differently this year to make a guest at your parish consider visiting more frequently?
To be sure, certain things objectively occur at any Mass, irrespective of the numbers present or their active participation. But if we’re smart about things, we can use Christmas as an opportunity to persuade people who don’t go to Church too often to return the following Sunday, or at the very least, more regularly. An analogy I once heard was how there are two ways to serve a piece of meat. We can either take the meat out of the freezer and serve it rock-hard on a plate, or we can throw it on a grill, season it and then turn that same piece of meat into a perfectly cooked mouth-watering steak. It is the same piece of meat, but how we present it can sometimes make all the difference.
This post is part of a two-part series addressing parish hospitality and the liturgy itself at Christmas, two broad categories which, if addressed well in your parishes, could help open your guest’s eyes to what they are missing out, both on the faith and the fellowship fronts at your Church. Obviously, things would need to be tailored to your specific parish circumstances. This also isn’t an exhaustive list of ideas, but I challenge you not to feel afraid of doing things differently. Keep in mind that this Christmas could be the only time till next Christmas that some people may visit your church, if ever again at all!
> Make any guest feel welcomed: This may seem like an obvious thought, but how we welcome someone could make that person feel like they belong, or leave them continuing to see themselves as outsiders. Nothing said or done at your parish should make someone feel judged or ignorant of local parish customs. It is also worth considering having ushers ready with neutral lines that welcome people (saying, “I haven’t seen you around for a while,” would not be the smartest idea, even if you say it with your best smile). Depending on the demographics of your parish community, you could also have a group of young families form a part of your welcome crew. Trust me, anyone’s heart will melt at the sight of a kid running up to them with a big grin, saying “Welcome and Merry Christmas!”
> Skip the announcements before Mass: Most people turn their phones off before Mass. If they forget to do so and a phone rings during Mass, it’s not the end of the world. Similarly, no one really pays attention to the name of the presiding priest. If they know who he is, they will realize who the presider is as soon as he starts presiding at the Mass. The point is – let’s not start the celebration of Christmas with a litany of statements and/or rules. If someone wants to know something, they will ask, or look it up later on the parish website/bulletin.
> Create an environment of prayer with background music: Having prayerful, Christmas-themed music – whether instrumental or otherwise – playing in your church before Mass begins will narrow the focus to what is about to take place, that is worship of our God. Let the music remind people in a subtle way of where they are. Background devotional music will also allow those people who want to pray prior to Mass to do so, without being disturbed by the noise of people chatting or moving about. It will also discourage people from engaging in idle chatter, as the music will (hopefully) draw them into a prayerful disposition.
> Update your website/social media/signage: William Simon, who wrote Great Catholic Parishes, said, “the first portal of today’s parish is its website.” Between your parish website and social media platforms, either you can make someone look forward to Christmas celebrations at your parish – or you can have the exact opposite effect. Certainly, in the week leading up to Christmas, make sure that Mass timings are in a prominent spot on your parish website’s homepage. No one enjoys navigating through several links and drop-down menus to find this information.
Effective signage is also key. If your parish is along a major street, look into the possibility of having a large sign that displays the Christmas Mass timings, along with a one-line welcome message, if you think that would make things more personal. Signage inside the church is also helpful, as some people can sometimes feel embarrassed to ask for locations of restrooms or baby-changing rooms, as by doing so, they feel that will draw attention to the fact that they aren’t at the parish often enough.
> This is a team effort, let your regular parishioners know that: Most of your regular parishioners are probably middle-aged or older and long to see more young people in Church. Remind them that the influx of younger people and families occurs at Christmas time, and if they want to see a change, they need to do their bit. For instance, Catholics are infamous for being committed to the pews they sit in every Sunday. Ahead of Christmas, remind regular parishioners to be ready and willing to give up their usual seats. In fact, don’t be afraid to tell people and your parish ushers to begin seating people from the front of the Church for the Christmas liturgies. That way anyone who is late to Mass can slide in easily without feeling the glare of self-righteous disapproving looks. Also, give specific tips to regular parishioners on how they can treat any newcomers as though they were ‘guests’ in their homes – more than just polite formalities, encourage them to be warm, to smile and to wish those around them a “Merry Christmas!”.
> Invite newcomers to your parish to come back: In his book, Divine Renovation, Fr James Mallon speaks about the need to be “intentionally invitational”. That concept in the context of Christmas can be unpacked in three ways. Firstly, have something to invite people to. This is the time to market one or two upcoming major formation programs like Alpha or Christlife, even if they are taking place in the new year. Secondly, make it personal. One cheesy idea could be having people turn to each other at the end of Mass and say, “I invite you to be here next Sunday.” Thirdly, start challenging your regular parishioners to invite and bring along a guest at Christmas, throughout Advent. If just some of the families that attend Mass regularly bring even one guest with them, think about the potential of seeing those lives impacted through that exercise.
Stay tuned for the next part to this series, which will focus on how making simple changes to the way the liturgy is planned, could intensify the experience of Christmas, and encourage infrequent Mass-goers to recognize the life, love and sacredness found only within the Church.
If you’re looking for more ideas, check out the Radically Mission-Oriented Christmas Playbook, published by the Archdiocese of Detroit, as part of its Unleash the Gospel movement that seeks to transform the Church of Detroit into an outward mission-focused Church.
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