(CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Welcoming the Unchurched

How to help those who don’t like church, like church


Father Michael WhiteJesus’ stated mission for the Church is resoundingly clear. The Gospel instructs us to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). To fulfill this mission, parishes must focus on reaching the lost or the “unchurched” in their respective communities.

Asked why they don’t attend church, the most common response unchurched people give is simply: “Because I don’t feel welcomed.” Unfortunately, churches can be very unwelcoming and not even realize it. Sometimes dozens of little details, which church people don’t even see, can subtly communicate to the unchurched that they don’t belong.

At our parish, Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland, we have worked hard to change that perception. And we’re still working at it, because the gravitational pull of all parishes, including ours, will always be toward insiders. We want Nativity to be a church where people who don’t like church, like church.

Here are three things we focus on:

1. Focus on the unchurched.

Acknowledging the unchurched is a simple step, but it is not always easy.

To sharpen our focus on the unchurched, we developed a profile for the quintessential unchurched person in our community. We call him, “Timonium Tim.” In our case, Tim is a young dad who was raised Catholic but stopped going to church in high school. Based on where you live, your “Tim” could be completely different, but we found that it helps to purposefully personify a typical unchurched person. Every strategic decision that we make as a parish is made with “Tim” in mind.

Many churches with great intentions go about acknowledging the unchurched in counterproductive ways. We don’t ask visitors to raise their hands or stand up to be recognized, because the last thing a nervous, unchurched visitor wants is to have unwelcome attention drawn to them. Instead, we invite them to visit our welcome center after Mass, where they receive a free gift package and more information about Nativity.

At the end of every weekend Mass, we make sure to say some form of: “If this is your first time ever at church or if it’s your first time in a long time, welcome, we’re glad you’re here.”

2. Focus on the weekend experience.

Far and away, the most likely time the unchurched in your community interact with your parish is on the weekend. That’s why, at Nativity, our primary focus is creating an attractive, even irresistible environment during our weekend experience (which is how we refer to everything we do on the weekend).

Our whole weekend experience begins in the parking lot where our parking ministers welcome each and every car onto our campus. Visitors, if they so choose, can put on their flashers and park in reserved spaces in the front row. When they arrive at the doors, they are welcomed by our greeters, staff and host ministers. By the time an unchurched person gets to their seat, they have had four or five positive, welcoming experiences, and they’re probably smiling … which makes my job as a preacher a lot easier.

Because we now have the technology, during Mass, we project song lyrics, prayers and responses onto large screens, so the unchurched don’t feel excluded. We even broadcast the Liturgy of the Word into our café, for those who are not yet comfortable crossing the threshold of the sanctuary. The experience is not intended as a substitute for Mass attendance but an invitation back to it.

We go into every weekend with a “one day” policy. We treat every person who walks through our doors like it is the one day that they decided to come to church. And we want to make their experience excellent so that they come back and grow deeper into a relationship with Jesus Christ.

3. Focus on community service

Scripture tells us that “The word of God continued to spread, and the number of the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly” (Acts 6:7). The early Christian community was open to anybody who wanted to join them, and their openness created a greater sense of community. They focused on spreading God’s word rather than creating an exclusive insider’s club. If your congregation invests in creating a community, first-timers will be attracted and come back the next week.

One of the greatest means of strengthening your parish community is through service. A non-serving Christian is a contradiction in terms. Serving helps those who serve to grow closer to Jesus Christ who himself “did not come to be served, but to serve” (Mt 20:28). Establishing and emphasizing a culture of service makes your parish extremely attractive to newcomers.

Church people rarely appreciate how difficult it is for unchurched people to come back to church, especially if they’ve had bad experiences in the past. Understanding Christ’s mission and vision for the Church means understanding the importance of the unchurched. Bringing the unchurched into a relationship with Jesus is the key to revitalizing our church community and growing as disciples.

FATHER MICHAEL WHITE is pastor of Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland, and co-author of the award-winning, best-selling book “Rebuilt” and the newly released book on church financing, “ChurchMoney” (Ave Maria Press, $16.95).

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