I’ve been blessed to write for The Catholic Sun since 2002, and last year, I was asked to write for a small community newspaper. Many of my articles have had a Christian focus to them and recently, I approached the owner of the publication about establishing a special section in the paper devoted to local churches (something newspapers used to do once upon a time.)
He liked the idea, and so I went out to visit a few churches in our area. My message was straightforward: secularization is advancing quickly; suicides have risen sharply; and fewer and fewer young people are attending church. We’re all followers of Jesus, so let’s work together to invite more people to get to know Him!
My partner in crime, The Ad Lady, accompanied me on this dubious adventure. (She and the owner have jokingly — but affectionately — dubbed me “The Church Lady.”) Our maiden voyage took place on a chilly Thursday morning. And believe me, it was chilly in more ways than one. The first place we went seemed abandoned, though we did see two church vans in the parking lot — just no sign of life.
The second place we visited was locked, but then an older woman cracked open the door, eyeing us suspiciously. We spoke with her for about five minutes, perhaps only because I literally had lodged my foot in the doorway. I told her we were eager to tell the story of the church and the various ministries and activities it offered the community. She was polite but non-committal. We were never invited inside.
We walked into the third church office and were met by another older woman. I extended my hand to her in greeting but she would not take it and told us, rather curtly, that she’d pass along our information. Somehow I think it wound up in the trash.
These “cold calls,” as they’re known in sales jargon, can be incredibly discouraging, but hey, I’m not a person who is easily discouraged. (OK, the dozen businesses I’d visited in the previous week, scoring only two ad sales — that left me a little deflated.) We’re a small staff, and we all have to pitch in while a colleague recovers from a serious injury.
Still, I’m not discouraged about launching the “Our Faith, Our Neighbors” pages in a secular publication because I really believe that we as Christians — both Catholic and Protestant — need to work together to advance God’s kingdom and build stronger communities. We can no longer afford to be complacent, thinking that people will come to us. We need to go in search of the lost sheep. We need to invite people to join us in following Jesus. Our churches need to be welcoming places, where people walk in, are met by our love and think, “I’m wanted here. I’m needed here. And clearly, God is present here.”
If the first person a stranger encounters at the church is someone who doesn’t smile and doesn’t seem to care, then Jesus Christ is not being proclaimed. If a visitor to a church is treated as an interruption to work flow, Jesus Christ is not being proclaimed. Even the unwelcome salesperson deserves at least a friendly face and a “God bless you.”
According to a 2012 study from the Pew Forum, so-called “nones” are the fastest-growing religious group in America. These are people with no religious practice whatsoever. The Pew study revealed that one-fifth of the U.S. public is religiously unaffiliated; for those under 30, that share rises to one-third.
Advent is the perfect time for recommitting ourselves to Christ and to warmly welcoming the stranger who has found no lodging and no consolation elsewhere. It’s the time of year when our parishes are crowded, but rather than complaining about the packed pews, let us rejoice that thousands of souls pass through our doors in search of God’s love and mercy. Let our church be home for them! Let us be the face of Christ to every person we meet, even those — and perhaps most especially those — who wander onto our path unexpectedly.