Do you want to go to church with me this Sunday?
It seems simple enough to invite a friend, family member, neighbor, co-worker or even stranger to attend a church service with you, but according to studies by The Barna Group, behind these words (or others just like them) are some startling statistics.
2%- Only 2 percent of church-going people invite someone to church in a given year.
73%- Close to three quarters of unchurched adults in the U. S. were never invited to church.
82%- If invited by a trusted friend or relative, 82 percent of the unchurched (defined as those who have not attended a service in the past six months) are likely to attend church.
It was statistics like this that launched Back to Church Sunday in 2009. Over the past eight years, 31,000 churches in all 50 states, over 120 denominations, and 90 countries world-wide have participated, and this year organizers are hoping for as many as 3.5 million people to gather at locations around the world.
One day becomes all year
This year, Back to Church Sunday will take place on September 17 at dozens of churches throughout South Florida. Sponsored by Outreach Inc. and Lifeway Research, this event aspires to help the Church reach the formerly churched and unchurched by inviting them to a service while encouraging churches in outreach throughout the year.
Jamie Stahler, V.P. of Sales and Partnership Outreach, Inc. explains, “We’re aiming to create an invitational culture year round. By providing videos, promos, social media marketing and best practices to the participating churches, we want to make it so inviting someone is a little less awkward and intrusive. Often it takes a special event, not just a regular service, to inspire people to invite their friends.”
Jamie talked about his family’s search for a home church. “I have three boys two, four and six, so I know about the challenge of getting them up, dressed and out the door on a Sunday. You park and walk inside and maybe there is someone to direct you in the parking lot or to greet you as you walk in and maybe not. The fact is that most people have decided whether to return before the worship even begins.”
What if they say no?
Chuck Brannon, pastor of Gateway Community Church in Boynton Beach, explained, “Outreach is part of our DNA so Back to Church Sunday helps us to focus on a goal outside of ourselves. When we plan and pray and prepare to invite our neighbors and friends, we express God’s love for people in and out of the church.”
“(Back to Church) talks about all three types of people- the unchurched, rechurched and dechurched. The unchurched have no significant exposure to church. Maybe they attended VBS (Vacation Bible School) as a child or went a couple times with Grandma. The rechurched are those who have a church background but might have stopped attending regularly due to a move or schedule change. The dechurched are often those who have had a negative experience with church.”
“We recognize that people are from various backgrounds and experiences, so we leave the response to our invitation up to God. We are to invite and welcome them and not give up or grow discouraged if they don’t accept the invitation.” Gateway will host events on September 17 and 24, including a complimentary breakfast. Details are available at GetToGateway.com
Not my job
Larry Trotter grew up in South Florida before he and his wife spent twenty years serving in Mexico. Back to plant Florida Coast Church in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea/eastern Pompano Beach, Larry shared, “There are probably people who see (inviting someone to church) as my job as the pastor and it is, but I don’t want them to think that it isn’t their responsibility as well. They have lots of natural relationships that I don’t.”
Between the return of snowbirds and the return to routine that back to school heralds, the timing is well suited for South Florida’s population. Larry continued, “I had forgotten how many people leave for the summer down here. This date in September goes with the flow of life.”
It’s so awkward
Larry explained, “In Mexico, we saw how excited people were about the church. People came and stayed, and we saw the church grow. Here I can see how we can settle into stasis. It may be awkward to bring up the topic of church with someone you’ve known for a while.”
“It’s almost like being on an airplane. If you don’t speak to the person next to you at the beginning, it can be awkward to start. Something new like a new location, new associate pastor or even a special service makes it easier to bridge the awkwardness.” You can find service times and location for Florida Coast Church at FloridaCoastChurch.org
We’re too small
According to a Barna Group study, more than four thousand churches close and almost three million American churchgoers stop attending church each year. Scott Weber, Sr. Minister at Connected Life Christian Church in Boca Raton explained, “Often small churches go into protection mode and start cutting the budget and reducing their presence in the community. That’s the worst thing to do. That’s how your church dies. We have to get outside of ourselves again and serve the community.”
“Connected Life is still small in numbers but growing very large in influence. We’ve seen a dramatic increase in serving at-risk students, the homeless, those in recovery and in our outreach for FAU (Florida Atlantic University).”
Scott continued, “A couple months ago, I met Austin Calder, the senior pastor of Above and Beyond Community Church. We had a similar vision and we asked, ‘What if?’ We brought our leadership together to explore what we could accomplish together rather than separately. We have a building and they had just been told by their landlord that they needed to be out of where they were meeting.”
“August 20th we met together and Austin and I tag-team preached. September 10, we’ll have a joint Back to Church event with a BBQ after the service. So often we go out from Sunday and find ourselves distracted – work, friends, our list of things to do. This is a chance to re-center our lives on God. Our Wednesday night youth group has about sixty-five kids but only eight or so come on a Sunday. This is a chance to invite the kids and the parents to church.” Find out more about Connected Life/Above and Beyond Community at ConnectedLifeCC.com.
Sign up or not
Find a list of participating churches or find out more about holding your own Back to Church Sunday event at BackToChurch.com. If your church is not formally participating, this might be just the encouragement you need to overcome your concerns and invite someone to church. Whether you count yourself among the churched, unchurched, rechurched or dechurched, this might be the perfect season for you to be a part of this movement.
Anitra Parmele is a freelance writer in South Florida and regular contributor to the Good News. She can be reached at [email protected].