Known as CEOs, Christmas/Easter Only Christians are people who put in an appearance at church only for the holidays. How to get these occasional guests to become regulars is a question most congregations face. This week's clergy discuss what steps they're taking to fill those seats on a regular basis.
Msgr. Frank Maniscalco, pastor, St. Thomas the Apostle Church, West Hempstead:
Every Christmas and Easter, we distribute a leaflet in church with lists of activities that comprise "What St. Thomas Church can do for you" and "What you can do for St. Thomas Church."
We believe that people are more likely to make a permanent commitment if they know that they can make a contribution to the parish community that will be welcomed and valued. It may be something easy to do, related to their everyday work. A person who gets involved in this way can quickly discover other ways in which to be an active member of the community.
It is also extremely important that those who come on Christmas and Easter experience a moving liturgical celebration, hear a message meaningful to them and sense a welcoming atmosphere in the congregation. This is a challenge to both the clergy and laity. These are busy times of year, and full churches and full parking lots work against the very atmosphere one wishes to create.
There has to be a conscious effort on the part of both clergy and laity to provide services and an atmosphere that might get irregular churchgoers to think about coming back more regularly.
The Rev. Eric Olaf Olsen, pastor, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Plainview:
The High Holy days in the Christian church -- Easter and Christmas -- are a rare opportunity for the faith community to reach out in a way that helps those who are coming to worship to hear about Jesus' love, see his love in action and feel that love around them.
Making them feel welcome is much more than just about the pastor being welcoming. It involves everyone from the person who hands them a worship bulletin to the person who helps them up to the rail for Holy Communion, to those who share the peace of the Lord with them during the service and even those who share coffee and fellowship after the service.
In our particular congregation we've added 140 new members in the last 31/2 years, which is different from many faith communities. At times, we've had our congregation size double for the High Holidays. We anticipate at least a 20 percent increase this Easter.
We're also trying to reach out to prospective congregants in two ways. If a member has a friend, neighbor or family member whom they want to invite to church, I'll send the person a handwritten invitation to come to service. We're also having an Easter breakfast (8:30 a.m., RSVP requested) followed by an Easter egg hunt (9 a.m.) and then service at 10 a.m. It is our way of saying to the community, "Please come and be with us."
We're looking for ways to reach people beyond the worship time. Yes, we use things like email and social media, but for me, the Gospel of Jesus is relational and needs to be hands on.
The Rev. Canon Abigail Murphy, priest-in-charge, St. Thomas' Episcopal Church in Bellerose; and St. Elisabeth's Episcopal Church in Floral Park:
For us, it is all about the personal connection. We try to get to know people outside the church. So, when there is something that might interest them or they might want to participate in, we give them a call.
For example, if the person likes knitting and we're knitting layette sets for infants, we'll give them a call. It gets them to come back and be with us.
We also make sure greeters know they need to connect with them and greet them by name if they're returning visitors. We also want them to know we've been thinking about them and praying for them. Lastly, we don't push too hard.
I can't speak for all folks, but I think the reason so many people come for the holidays is because it is a family tradition. I also think the reason they don't attend more regularly is because everyone's life is so busy. When I grew up, you didn't have movies or the mall or sports on Sunday. Now, there is so much going on, especially with youth sports, that there are just so many demands on people's time.
We also want to be gentle with people. We're expecting at least 20 percent more people for Easter than regularly. What we don't want to do is make people feel unwelcome for coming only a few times a year.