Some 14 years ago, someone had the bright idea to designate one Sunday in September and call it “Back to Church” Sunday. It was a good idea. It was a simple idea and it was focused on a target group. Great emphasis was put on inviting all those who had drifted away from regular Sunday attendance to come back and start attending again. People who had come to Church for their wedding or brought their children for baptism were contacted and invited. A special effort was made to create a vibrant and welcoming atmosphere for this one special service. “Back to Church” Balloons were ordered, “Back to Church” T-Shirts were worn by “The Welcome Team”, no doubt available in small, medium and large. There was plenty of advice about pitching the services at the right level making sure there would be some familiar hymns.
For some churches it was a success, at least for a time, and “Back to Church” Sunday became part of the annual worship programme. People returned and felt like they belonged again. For others, it wasn’t perhaps as successful. People came back and realised why they had stopped going in the first place. Perhaps the new minister was worse than the last one, or the same members of the congregation they had fallen out with were still there. Perhaps wounds just hadn’t healed.
Building on the positives, the idea has have evolved to become a National Weekend of Invitation that takes place in June each year. Not just a single Sunday and not just a single service, but a weekend of social events and services. Not just targeting those who used to come to church but, broadening out to those in the whole community who may never have come into contact with church. Once again, some churches have seen more people connecting with them through this initiative. Quiz Nights, Supper parties, Film nights, Comedy nights, Music Concerts, Guest Services - One weekend. Multitudes of personal invitations to those outside our churches. All with a simple request to please ‘Be our guest’.
It is easy to be cynical or negative about the latest new initiative but please resist the temptation. Of course, as one colleague said every Sunday should be a “Back to Church” Sunday. September sees the start of what some refer to as a Season of Invitation, this period of months of special celebrations of Harvest, All Saint’s, Bonfire Night, Remembrance, Advent leading into Christmas. Not one weekend but many months with opportunities to invite others to be our guest.
Perspective is everything. What these new initiatives do is to help us to focus on being outward looking, and they highlight the need for a change in the culture of the church – moving from being, at best, ‘welcoming’ to becoming expectantly ‘invitational’.
“Invitation by a friend, a colleague or a neighbour is key to new people coming to experience church for themselves” says Dr Rachel Jordan-Wolfe, National Mission and Evangelism Adviser, Church of England.
Of course, we can put up publicity posters, push cards and flyers through doors, update our website and share posts on local social media, but the most effective and meaningful invitation is the personal one. We invite people to something we think is worth coming to, so what exactly do we think we are inviting people to come to? At the very heart of the purpose of the church is the God given invitation to everyone and anyone to be welcomed back into a life-giving relationship with their Creator through Jesus. On a deeper level, Sunday is more about being welcomed back to God than back to Church. Then in the knowledge and love of God, the Church is sent out to find out what God is doing in the world and join in. That is more dynamic than just attending Church,. It is a way of life, it is a participation in the building of a kingdom. For those who don’t know it, this is just an invitation away. Is there someone you could personal invite to a church service or the Start Course or to an event? Why not pray and ask God who is on his heart for you to invite? God longs to say “Welcome back”.
“Invitation by a friend, a colleague or a neighbour is key to new people coming to experience church for themselves”