Getting your prospective, new, or marginal parishioners to become disciples of Jesus Christ starts with the New Members class. These classes are perfect opportunities to provide welcome, information, and evangelization if you lay it out correctly.
I would recommend the following as a model for your New Members class. Your own parish is different so don’t take this as the model, just our model.
The New Members session could be a class, event, or series, but for the purpose of this article, we will base this off of a class. I recommend the class should be no longer than two hours, preferably an hour and a half. Within this timeframe, the bulk should be on hospitality and welcoming. For every 3 or 4 visitors, you should have 1 volunteer whose sole purpose is to meet and greet. These volunteers should be clearly identifiable and the guests should have visible name tags.
Feed them. Everyone loves to eat and sharing food is an ice breaker unto itself. Steer away from sit-down dinners and concentrate on non-messy finger foods. Take the time to make the venue look appealing to the eyes. Put the cookies on a platter and do not just leave them in the plastic container you bought them in! Have coffee, water, and juice or soda at the appropriate temperature and ready to be served. This should be at least the first 20 or 30 minutes of the night.
Beneficial at this time would be to have a silent slideshow playing of the life of your parish. This should be images of your parish in action, the ministries working and serving, and people gathering together. Intersperse these with the mission statement, Scripture verses that are meaningful to the New Member class, and other appropriate quotes. Also, add in informative slides so that the person not engaged in small talk can see the website address or learn deadlines for signing up kids for religious education classes.
There should be a Master of Ceremonies for the evening. Too many hands touching the microphone is always a bad idea. Carefully select who will have this role and who else will be speaking. Everyone will expect the pastor to show up and personally welcome everyone to this New Member class.
The next portion should have no more than four people presenting. I recommend the pastor to welcome everyone to the class and to the parish and say a few words regarding himself and his role as pastor. He should introduce any staff members or key volunteer leaders in the room and conclude his session with a prayer and a blessing. Next, someone gifted should present the mission and vision of the parish in an inspiring way. If your pastor can do this, great! This talk is the vision casting portion. It lays out why the parish is striving to be simple and why we have this simplified process of helping them become disciples of Jesus Christ. A short proclamation of the gospel and call to discipleship can be done here. The next one or two presenters lay out for the audience how they are responsible for implementing the vision of the parish. The MC should wrap everything up with the call to action: the formal commitment for a member and point them to the Next Step.
They should be actively discouraged to join the parish if they cannot make the commitments in the covenant at this time. This is a parish of intentional disciples and not a parish Sunday-only Mass-goers. We are dedicated to advancing the Kingdom within ourselves and in the world around us, so personal prayer and devotion, as well as Mass and the Sacraments, need to be emphasized.
This formal covenant should not be too burdensome. This is the entry level, the foyer, the first baby step. They are new members and not monks. But at the same time, the Church has great expectations for her children. We are embodying those expectations and pledging through our parish to guide them deeper into a living relationship with God.
I like Saint Francis of Assisi Parish in Grapevine, Texas and their commitment. They lay out daily personal prayer, weekly worship in Mass, and at least one monthly service. As a parishioner is catechized more, they will be expected to make a deeper commitment. Every Catholic should be going to Mass weekly anyways, this just provides opportunities to reinforce that commitment in a supportive and intentional way.
The Next Steps should be getting into a short-term small group or to experience some form a ministry/mission. Most people do not volunteer because they do not feel the need or else just do not know how. New Members classes should take care of this problem. Giving them easy and intentional access to a wide variety of ministries allows each person to gravitate to where they may feel God’s call on their heart.
Small groups are harder because most parishes do not have a culture of small groups. I recommend them heartily, especially since they build up the domestic church in a big way. Select a small group model that allows people to come together for about 6 weeks and to end when the 6 weeks are up.
This should probably go unmentioned because it is just common sense, but you should be capturing the information of everyone who attends. Get their names, addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses and make sure they are added to whatever parish database you use. Make sure you have new parishioner registration forms at hand, but for the love of God, please simplify them. We don’t need to capture their child’s baptism date if we are going to ask for a baptismal certificate when First Communion time comes around.
Ending the New Members class should be in prayer. Not just a simple bookend prayer, or a memorized prayer, but a good and meaningful prayer. If the priest is present, let the blessing happen here.
Four to six weeks after the event, email everyone just to touch base with them. It would be good to have a volunteer with the gift of hospitality to do this. This way they won't feel like they are welcomed into the foyer and then just abandoned to wander the house alone.