Being Welcoming vs. Selling “Welcoming”

Being Welcoming vs. Selling “Welcoming” November 20, 2021

Hard-hitting post by Amy Welborn: “I no longer live, but…” on the failure of come-back-to-Mass efforts that hinge on the we miss you so much theme.  She writes:

To hear avuncular clerics plead for folks to come back to Mass because “we miss you!” is…amusing.

  • It will fail. It always does. It might, depending on the person listening, fail immediately because, first, the target audience hearing this pitch will remember past personal experiences, snort derisively, and move on.
  • Secondly, the target audience, having lived its entire life, past and present, as an object of marketing from all directions, marketing that intensively and incessantly tells him that this product is offered by people who really, really care about him and know him and know what will make him happy and bring him peace, will then hear one more church telling him this (and he might have heard churches telling him this before and been crushed by them), and might find it a little difficult to take one more marketing pitch assuring him of the marketer’s deep care for him seriously
  • In the long term, a reliance on “come join us because we’re vibrant and we love you” will fail because  – sorry to burst your bubble, but I think you know it’s true – the community will not live up to the hype. You’ll grow out of it, as young people do once they leave the LifeTeen world of super-awesome fun affirmation and emotional highs and try to form a spiritual life in the adult world of loss and difficulties in (circling back) the context of those not-so-fun-or-personally-affirming regular parish churches. The once-affirming-and-welcoming community might might disappoint and might even fail you in catastrophic ways. Maybe even exploit you and chuckle at their expanding bank account as they stroll away. As we see day after day after day.
  • And finally, in an objective sense, it’s just wrong. It’s an appeal that, even subtly, invites idolatry. Yes, God meets us through our lives, through creation, through other people, and we all know this. But to base an evangelism appeal – which this will be – on the strength and virtues of a community, large or small, is one that is inviting people to look to something and someone other than God. Look back at the saints and how they drew people to God. Their work and even their personalities did indeed draw people to God, but never does a saint hold herself up as a reason to pay attention.
  • Such efforts would probably be invariably centered on mass and social media. The problem? This is not what people are hungry for – more screen time. It is connection they ache for, both human connection and connection with the divine.

Keep your eyes on the prize, and point everyone else there, as well: Jesus. Nothin’ but Jesus. All day, every day.

I agree with all of this.  Also, I’m the person who wrote a whole chapter dedicated to nothing but hospitality, and then loads of other chapters that hit the theme from countless other angles.

So what gives?

The distinction is that being welcoming is completely different from marketing yourself as a welcome center.

When we evangelize, what we are attempting to share with the world is Jesus Christ.

You can elaborate on what that means, theologically and sacramentally and on and on and on.  But, what it comes down to is that what the Catholic Church has on offer is the hope of eternal, intimate, joyful relationship with an all-loving, all-powerful, all-merciful God who wants to be with you forever.  The Creator of the universe, the Creator of you, whom you can know and love and it will be good.  Your life will have meaning and purpose both in the here-and-now and in the forever-and-ever-amen not because of nice things you do or good friends you make or great feelings you feel, but because you were created for this relationship with God.  So it becomes important, of course, to have an idea of who and what God is.  Dive deep.

But, short form: Evangelization is not about “active parishioners”.  It’s about Jesus Christ.

So how the heck did I end up with all these chapters on evangelization and discipleship that keep mentioning the importance of trying not to be such a jerk all the time (I know!), if actually niceness is not what it’s all about?

Well of course, not being a jerk is good for you, and in fact it will mostly, usually, help you grow into deeper intimacy with Jesus yourself.  So for that reason alone it’s worth trying.

But also: It’s a heckuva lot easier to help people discover who God is and what He’s about if you aren’t terrible to them.

I really hate this about evangelization, because there are some obnoxious people who got the idea my neighborhood greenspace was a dog park and, though I love dogs, honestly these dog-owners were just being awful to some of the elderly residents who used the space, and it got my blood boiling, which made me get not-nice, and also there’s the entire internet that also does that to me, and also everything else. I’m a really friendly person except when I’m not, kwim?  I am not good at finding that perfect balance between longsuffering and patience and kindness on the one hand and necessary firm and assertive and mature action on the other.  And plus a lot of times I’m just plain tired.

So if you’re like me, you get in your head this idea of what a good Christian witness looks like in real life, and that idea might or might not be quite on target, but honestly you know that you aren’t always even keeping your spiritual weapons pointed down range, never mind fine distinctions.

And yet still we need to keep on making the effort, because hospitality is one of the pillars of evangelization.  Not because “welcoming” is what evangelization is about.  Evangelization is about Jesus Christ.  But hospitality in all its guises is one of the ways that we create places where people can get to know Jesus better.

So, building on Amy Welborn’s observations: If you want to invite people back to the Church, hospitality has its place.  That place, though, isn’t in a marketing slogan.  It’s in actually being hospitable.

So try that for a while.  Next time you walk through your parish doors, try to see it through the eyes of an outsider.

What are the barriers to feeling comfortable here? Which of those barriers can you change for the better?  (Pro-tip: Always go for the simplest, easiest ways first.)

Which potential “obstacles” are, in contrast, immutable parts of the Catholic faith, but which could be made less intimidating through kindness, through charitable explanations of why we believe as we do, and through the offering of alternative ways to connect with the faith?

For example, my parish offers Eucharist Adoration which is open to all-comers.  It’s an opportunity to pray with the Church in intimacy with Jesus Christ and in fellowship with others of the community, no matter who you are.  Doesn’t matter what your sacramental status is, or whether you can quite get your head around some difficult teaching, or whether you even want to be Catholic.  You can just come.

That’s not the One Single Solution, it’s just an example of a way that a parish I know creates a pocket of hospitality for people who want to practice the Catholic faith but maybe aren’t all the way in yet.  Your parish might have other such opportunities in completely different forms.  Christian hospitality will always take a multitude of forms, because people are different.  One person is moved to tears by the opportunity to worship Jesus in Adoration with no questions asked, but another one is completely freaked out that we do such a thing at all.  Hospitality seeks to create a place in the life of the Church for both of those people.

And again, why are we doing this? Not because we’re selling “this is a fantastic group of wonderfully wonderful people!” It’s because authentic hospitality is the act of opening the door to those who want to meet Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the one thing.  The only thing.

cover art: The How-to Book of Evangelization by Jennifer Fitz, featuring a crucifix
Uh, yeah, so I guess there’s a reason the cover design people at OSV went for the crucifix as the central image. I very much loved this when I saw it.

So seriously, you don’t have to spend $20 to learn how to evangelize.  If you make it your daily goal to center all your actions around bringing yourself and others closer to Jesus Christ, you’ll get pretty darn far just doing that. But I mean, it’s a great book. I think you’re pretty unlikely to go wrong giving it a try.





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