The greatest tendency of any organization is that once it reaches a certain size and/or has been around for a certain length of time, it begins to drift away from its mission and the focus will be self-referential. This happens in the business world, the non-profit world and church world. In our sphere, we call it the drift from mission to maintenance, where we cease focusing on reaching the lost and the lapsed, and instead we focus on the people who already get it, the insiders.
We become self-referential when we stop thinking about winning people for Christ. Many Catholic parishes have never had a culture that thinks about outsiders, so this short article will give you a few tips to do just that.
Go to Mass like an Outsider
Get about 10 people and place them around your church. Sit them down in a pew and, for 5 or 10 minutes, have them try to think like a visitor at their first Mass. What are they worrying about? What are they looking at? What are they avoiding? Having different people do this exercise can generate a lot of good feedback.
For instance, if this is someone’s first Mass, not knowing the right posture or words to say throughout the Mass can be embarrassing, so maybe add some pew cards. Maybe it is about signage, or more clarity around the hymn number, or ushers that are actually hospitable. When too much is assumed, that’s when you know your speaking to the insiders only. Also, you should go to Mass as if you were an outsider and think about your experiences.
Walk Your Campus like an Outsider
You know where the offices are, the classrooms, that large gathering room, but does anyone else? Sure you have a sign, but how prominent is it? A complaint often heard by visitors is simply, “I had no idea where to go.” Furthermore, is your campus dirty, broken, or unkempt? Walk the grounds like the Pope was visiting. Burned out bulbs, a mess in the nursery, rusty kitchen appliances, bugs, trash on the grounds, all speak to a lack of care and a lack of hospitality. Your momma didn't raise you like that!
Attend a Class like an Outsider
Sit in one of your classes for both adults and for kids and evaluate the quality and level of engagement going on. Are the teachers and classmates welcoming or are new people ignored? Every parish leader should do what the US Military calls “Management by just walking around”. Attend random classes. Ask questions of participants, and find those who are not your die-hard parishioners to get honest feedback.
What Do You Offer the Adult Seeker?
Stop focusing all of your time and budgets on the kids. That is a failed strategy. Focus on the adults. Most Catholic adults do not have an adult-level education in their faith. Offer it, especially for those who are at a beginner stage. Short sessions, short commitments, and not yearlong classes, are the way to reach adults who are dipping their toes in the waters of the Church. Make sure you double-down on the hospitality (that is, food and drink is a must) and offer plenty of room for questions and comments.
The reality is that outsiders are not the complainers. We drift away from our mission because only insiders voice their opinions. If we are to stop our neglect of outsiders, we must intentionally focus our time and attention on what their needs and expectations are. Slowly we will build a culture that chooses mission over maintenance.