On Christmas when the church parking lot jammed and there’s standing room only inside, it can be tempting to feel some irritation at those who show up at Mass only once or twice a year.
Think of it instead as an opportunity for evangelization, say Church officials—a chance to invite friends and relatives who normally don’t go to Mass to come on occasions other than Christmas.
“Everybody knows somebody who has been away from the Church or who is lukewarm on the Church. Say ‘We have something good to offer here. Come try us out,’” says Deacon Charles Boyer of St. Timothy Church in Laguna Niguel.
Christmas and Easter stir in many hearts a desire for a closer relationship with God and so it is important to throw the church doors open and be welcoming, says Father Patrick Moses, Pastor at St. Irenaeus Church in Cypress.
“We want to bring people in, and Christmas and Easter are definitely times we can do it,” he says.
Father Gerald Horan, O.S.M., Vicar for Faith Formation for the Diocese of Orange, notes that Pope Francis last year called for evangelism to proclaim the joy of the Gospel.
At the first Christmas, God Himself reached out to the Jews, his chosen people, and beyond to the Gentiles; so we, too, should generously share the grace of the holiday, he says. “That is what God did,” says Father Gerald. “He reached beyond himself and gave the gift of Jesus.”
“Don’t be bashful about sharing your faith,” says Father Gerald. “Very often the people who come [to Christmas Mass], even those who don’t have a lot of religious background, have a very good experience.”
Newcomers can find the liturgy of the Mass intimidating, acknowledges John Erdag, Director of Family Faith at St. John Neumann Church in Irvine. He suggests initially bringing friends to other Christmas activities at church where they can feel fellowship. And when they go to Christmas Mass, accompany them and explain what is going on.
Erdag says about 15 years ago when he returned to the Church after a long absence, he insisted that his sister follow his example, which temporarily broke their friendship. After tempers cooled, Erdag says, his sister and her husband started joining him and his wife at Christmas Eve Mass.
Erdag says he and his wife do not pressure other couple to attend church more often. “We help maybe plant a seed. We don’t know. We pray all the time that seed will grow, but that is up to the Holy Spirit and up to them to make that choice,” he says.
What his experience with his sister taught him about evangelism, he says, is not to be overbearing. “If they say, ‘Thanks, but I don’t want to,’ accept that and don’t feel bad.” Also, he says, don’t give up.
The need for evangelism is starkly evident in a survey published in 2008 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that found one of every three adult Americans who were raised Catholic had left the Church.
Another study by the Barna Group found that the disappearance of church ties extends across the entire population, with the percentage of “unchurched” adults in America rising from 30 percent in 1990 to 43 percent in 2011.
“The gap between the churched and the churchless is growing, and it appears that Christian communities of faith will struggle more than ever to engage church outsiders in their neighborhood, town or city,” writes David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group.
Still, says a Barna Group survey, a friend’s invitation has the best chance of drawing someone to church, far exceeding the influence of a mailer, billboard ad or an in-person invitation from a stranger, including a pastor.