‘Back to Church Sunday' Emphasizes Effort to Get People in the Door

By Solange de Santis
Religion News service
Saturday, September 12, 2009

Autumn brings the end of beach weekends, boating and picnics and the resurgence of school, football -- and church.

In an effort to refocus the attention of parishioners and possibly attract newcomers and the disaffected, many churches borrow a page from universities and designate a Sunday in September as a "homecoming." Although the idea reaches back a couple of centuries for some parishes, it is taking on a more organized feel in the United States and Britain.

This year, the Christian communications organization Outreach Inc., based in Vista, Calif., started a campaign declaring this Sunday as "Back to Church Sunday" and offering a free tool kit that includes a "campaign planning guide," promotional materials and a booklet, "Rethink Church."

According to Outreach's Web site, the campaign is "designed to increase church attendance by empowering church members with the tools they need to welcome neighbors, friends, and loved ones back to church."

In an interview, Outreach founder and chief executive Scott Evans said a recent study by Southern Baptist-affiliated Lifeway Research sparked the campaign. The study found that "82 percent of people who don't go to church would be somewhat likely to go if invited but that only 2 percent of people who do go to church had invited someone," he said. Outreach, Evans said, is "equipping people to be inviters."

Eric Abel, the vice president of marketing for Outreach, said the organization works with about 17,000 churches; most of the interest in the back-to-church campaign is coming from evangelical or nondenominational churches.

According to Evans, there have been more than 1,000 requests for the tool kits. Outreach's Web site allows people to record how many people they've invited to church; the count is up to nearly 700,000.

In Great Britain, Back to Church Sunday, which is Sept. 27 this year, was started in 2004 by the Anglican Diocese of Manchester. Anglican churches in New Zealand and Canada picked up the idea, and British Baptist, Methodist and United Reform churches are taking part.

Although the Back to Church Sunday campaign in the United States is generating buzz on Facebook, many mainline Protestant churches were staging fall welcomes long before there was electricity, much less computers. Concord Presbyterian Church in Statesville, N.C., is holding its 234th homecoming celebration on Sept. 20 -- the congregation was founded in 1775 -- with guest speakers and musicians.

Other churches are having outreach campaigns although they are not officially part of the Outreach effort. St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Bennington, Vt., has asked each parishioner to invite a friend to church this Sunday and plans an outdoor Eucharist, a brunch and opportunities to inquire about various ministries. St. John's Episcopal Church in Somerville, N.J., like many other churches, registers Sunday School students at its welcoming Sunday, also scheduled for this Sunday.

One of the advantages of an organized campaign, according to Evans and testimonials on the Church of England's Web site, is that those who might hesitate or be embarrassed to issue an invitation could be encouraged by many others doing it at the same time.

But does it work? A targeted outreach to the "unchurched" assumes two important things: that they want to be reached and that they're there to be reached at all. As it turns out, neither may be true.

In Britain, for example, where the Church of England hopes to attract some 500,000 new worshipers Sept. 27, one fact sheet begins flatly, "The Church of England isn't dead yet!" A 2007 study found that 26 million Britons are Christian (about half the total population) but that only 5 million attend once a week and two-thirds have "no connection" with a church.

"This secular majority presents a major challenge to churches," the Churchgoing in the UK report said. "Most of them . . . are unreceptive and closed to attending church; churchgoing is simply not on their agenda."

Closer to home, demographic shifts are battering U.S. churches, especially Catholic parishes. In the Diocese of Springfield, Mass., for example, there are simply fewer people to fill the pews. That's led to two rounds of church closures, which have afflicted dioceses across the country. The Springfield Diocese counts about 202,000 Catholics; that figure was three times as large 50 years ago.

Evans hopes the targeted outreach will help shed light on how to reach the unchurched -- assuming they want to be reached. A likely follow-up survey, he said, would try to gauge results and ask, "How responsive were your people?"

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