Fr. Joe Stefancin and Jackie Aune, both from the cluster parishes of St. Bridget, River Falls, and Immaculate Conception, Hammond, chat during small-group discussion. (Catholic Herald photos by Anita Draper)

Anita Draper
Catholic Herald staff

Demonstrating what the Diocese of Superior’s Office of Evangelization and Missionary Discipleship Director Chris Hurtubise calls “radical hospitality,” St. Joseph Catholic Church, Rice Lake, hosted an elegant parish evangelization evening on Monday, Aug. 23.

As part of the annual three-day Parish Catechetical Leaders Conference, the 6-8 p.m. event was designed to model how parishes can reach out to those who may have some affiliation with the church but who are not personally engaged.

Speaking at the conclusion of the gathering, Hurtubise touched on their “target audience:” A “youngish” parent – a dad, in particular – of a religious education or Catholic school student, a guy who is “vaguely okay” with letting his wife take the kids for first Communion, but who is personally not involved.

“Strategically, that’s the missing generation for us right now,” he said.

“The Search” begins

A seven-part video series hosted by prominent Catholic speaker and author Chris Stefanick, “The Search” is a tool parishes can use to begin reaching out to anyone – nonreligious “nones,” atheists, agnostics, non-practicing Christians or Catholics – by posing the big questions of life: What makes life meaningful? What happens when you die? What brings happiness? What do you seek?

But parish staff and volunteers at St. Joseph didn’t just herd attendees into pews, slap up a projector screen, show the video and send them on their way. The point of the two-hour event was, as Hurtubise explained, to make people feel invited, welcomed and loved, like guests mingling socially at a special event.

To achieve this, the church basement was transformed; the ambiance simulated an elegant dinner club, with flickering (battery-operated) candles, bistro string lights, white tablecloths and black chair covers.

Guests sat in tables of seven, both to facilitate small-group discussion following the video and to encourage fellowship beforehand. Every table had a discussion leader.

The event was filled to capacity, said Hurtubise, whose diocesan office organized the gathering in collaboration with the Office of Catholic Formation. About 100 guests attended, and more unfortunately had to be turned away.

Refreshments, too, were upscale. Complimentary wine, beer, soda and water were served at a bar, and beautifully presented hors d’oeuvres were offered to attendees before and after the video.

Chris Janssen, a member of Our Lady of Lourdes, Dobie, who is also involved with the Anchored in Christ ministry, emceed the event. He and his wife, Alicia, have been in the area about eight years and are “delighted” to be part of the community.

Addressing the “elephant in the room,” he spoke of the gala ambiance.

“Is this a church basement? What’s going on? If you’re feeling like you’re underdressed for the evening, you’re not,” he joked. After introducing his wife, who is expecting a child after the couple struggled with years of infertility, he talked about the program.

“The Search,” he said, “is a unique opportunity” to dive into what, exactly, are we seeking?
It “doesn’t matter where you are at” spiritually, Janssen observed. Whether regular church-goers or unsure, everyone was invited to watch the movie and be vulnerable with each other in discussing it.
The video

“Life is totally amazing” is how Stefanick opens the introduction to “The Search.” Designed to fill viewers with wonder at the world, the video quickly moves to memento mori – the classic Latin reminder of death.

Acknowledging it’s “a horrible way to start this thing,” Stefanick speaks of the “rows and rows of tombstones” in a cemetery, the fact that we have one thing in common with everyone who has ever lived: “Nobody gets out alive.”

The part we often overlook is the dash between the dates on a tombstone, he adds. “That’s your life.”

“You’re in your dash right now,” Stefanick says. “So what do you want from your life?”
After reviewing some of the things people seek in life – power, money, honor, adrenaline rushes, pleasure, etc. – Stefanick says happiness is fundamentally what we are all seeking. He referenced an 80-year Harvard study that found happiness is a better predictor of future health than cholesterol levels.

“Don’t go through life just existing,” Stefanick urges viewers, and quotes Jesus’ question from the Gospel of John (1:38): “What do you seek?”

Small-group discussion

After the video ended and everyone had a quick break, Janssen returned to the mic.

He acknowledged there are introverts and extroverts in the room; he asked the introverts to “gently nudge against that resistance” and try to share with others. The extroverts he asked to try to keep their sharing to a couple of minutes.

Every table had a leader trained to facilitate discussion of the video; the parish also handed out sample programs with questions and room for commentary.

Janssen emphasized the importance of getting to know one another in the first evening, because attendees will be seated in the same small groups for all seven sessions.

Following discussion time, Janssen invited everyone to return next week for the second video – although not literally, in this case, since this was a one-time promotional event.
If you felt that “spark” after watching the video or talking with your group, that was the Holy Spirit, he said. “I want you to know we would love to see you back here next week.”

Janssen ended the evening with a prayer.

‘Inviting people to encounter Jesus Christ’

Hurtubise then took the floor to discuss the purpose of parish evangelization events.

“The heart of forming disciples is inviting people to encounter Jesus Christ,” he said. The goal was that whoever walked through the door would feel special, honored and loved. Thus, the organizers focused on hospitality.

When people walked into a church basement, “We wanted them to say, ‘Wow,’ Hurtubise added, so they spent hours preparing the space to make it feel like an “extraordinary gift” to those who came. Discussion leaders also watched the video beforehand in preparation.

This was how St. Joseph and the collaborating diocesan offices wanted to model the event, he explained, but evangelization evenings will look different in different parishes. Whether it’s a Wild West-themed night or brats, he encouraged parishes to welcome people with “radical hospitality.”

The beer and wine, which was donated by a parishioner, is a good way to get a reluctant friend through the door, he advised. Invite them for a drink.

Hurtubise hopes many parishes will opt to host parish evangelization events. For more information, contact Hurtubise at .