But following on from the Proclaim 2014 Conference I decided to have a look at the entry to our church from the perspective of a newcomer.
Determining how to get into the church isn't easy, and the average newcomer needs someone outside the main doors of the church so that they don’t make gooses of themselves trying to get through the funerary doors.
It is also a rather barren and stark place between the main big metal doors and where the welcomers are, and it would take quite a bit of courage for a newcomer to go that distance.
Other parish churches will be constructed differently, of course, but the place where the final decision is made by a newcomer to cross the threshold or not is made outside and not inside.
Talking to friends who are converts and those who have returned to faith after a lengthy absence, the most essential thing is a friendly smile, and as soon as possible. People need to be reassured that if they have visible tattoos they will still be welcome and if they have lived complicated and messy moral lives that they will still be welcome, too. And if they have brought children with them, to make their going back to church justifiable, then they need to know that their children are welcome as well.
That's why I think it is time that we had a first line of welcomers on the outside of the church, in addition to the wonderful welcomers inside. The authors of 'Rebuilt' say that you need at least two positive experiences on your way into church for the heart to begin to open to what God wants to do and say to you in the Mass.
I have spent quite a lot of time in the piety stall prior to Saturday evening Masses, and due to its location just outside the main doors of the church it often performs a welcoming function in addition to selling religious items. So I have seen plenty of people arrive at the church and can recognise the regulars enough to be able to start to recognise the non-regulars. That's something that only comes with experience – but it is a valuable thing to be able to say, 'Hi, I haven't seen you for a few weeks, have you been OK?'
Because of the piety stall training I know that the number one question is ‘Where are the toilets?’ With more than one first line welcomer, instead of trying to describe in words how to get there, one of the first line welcomers could escort them there and then come back to the outside of the church – hopefully having engaged in conversation with the person seeking the toilets.
The number two question is ‘Can you change my $20 or $50 so I have smaller stuff to put on the plate?’. The piety stall answer is no, because we run a minimum float, but if you talk nicely to one of the wardens before Mass they might be able to help you with that at the collection time. With a first line welcomer, instead of trying to describe the appearance of one or other of the other wardens, they could be taken directly to have a chat with them. Another help would be having mobile phones with photographs of the wardens, sacristans, priests, acolytes/senior servers etc to be able to show people, 'Look for this person'.
With a bit of co-ordination, if someone arrives who isn’t an overly familiar face and has mobility issues, a first line welcomer could take them to both the wardens and the senior servers, and then show them where to sit so that at communion time Holy Communion could be brought to them.
Sometimes the question is, ‘Where is the Reconciliation Room? , again someone escorted by a first line welcomer to that place is going to find it easier than listening to my description of how to get there.
With new RCIC families, (Rite of Christian Initiation for Children) whenever they start up again, a first line welcomer could show them where the room they will be meeting is (because it isn't readily visible) and could also direct them to where the wonderful couple conducting the programme are sitting / waiting for them to arrive.
Another thing I have learned is that we get a number of taxis dropping off parishioners to Mass and families dropping off elderly members before trying to find a park elsewhere. Being able to help the less mobile get out of those vehicles would make a positive difference to many people. Likewise we have a lot of people arriving on walkers or with walking sticks. The cobbled pathway is not easy for them, and they have a choice of going a long way to go up a small ramp or a shorter way to get themselves up the concrete step. Having someone to help them negotiate those obstacles safely would also make a difference.
It would be great to have enough first line welcomers for one of them to be able to go and assist a driver, eg if they see someone having difficulty backing into a car park. Little things like that can make a big difference to the openness with which someone participates in the Mass.
The story one of the bishops told at the Conference about a man who decided to wear a big floppy hat to Mass, because no one had spoken to him for 3 years, was a desperate tale indeed. He did get lots of negative feedback, but as far as he was concerned any verbal response at all had to beat his previous experience of parish. Having regular first line welcomers saying a friendly hello week by week would definitely preventing someone else getting as desperate as the floppy hat wearer.
And all it takes is a friendly nature and a genuine interest in people, and the ability to stand for 20-30 minutes without bodily muscles complaining.
I have also become aware that first line welcomers are also needed at funerals, where the early birds arriving tend to have travelled from a distance and need to find a toilet or are family members of the deceased who are not familiar with the layout of the church and who don't know the sacristans, musicians, priests, acoltyes/senior servers etc who will be helping them get things ready.
First line welcomers are like the father of the prodigal son, on the lookout to greet him and welcome him home, and willing and able to go towards the prodigal and meet them halfway.
May the Heavenly Father who wants His children to come home draw those parishioners He wants to become first line welcomers into this ministry of love, and ever increase their numbers and vitality.