More than a quarter of Baptist Union of Great Britain churches will take part in Back to Church Sunday (Sept. 27) this year, and the final preparations are being made for the day itself.
Around 550 churches have signed up through the Baptist Union – 100 more than last year – and more are known to be taking part independently. All of the promotional materials have sold out.
The initiative has been responsible for thousands of people returning to church over the last few years and has won wide acceptance as an evangelistic strategy across denominations.
Back to Church Sunday has gone global since its inception five years ago. In the United States, it was held on Sept. 13 and spearheaded by the San Diego-based evangelistic organization Outreach.
Writing in his monthly article for the Baptist Union’s Web site, General Secretary Jonathan Edwards said this year’s theme, “Come As You Are” is “sheer Gospel.”
“Jesus welcomes us to come to him with our doubts, our confusions, our bruises, our failures, our sins, our tangled lives.”
However, he warns, “I believe that one of the most vital tasks for our churches is to reflect on the welcome that we give Sunday by Sunday.
“We need to look hard at what happens when people attend our churches for the first time. Are they warmly greeted on the door? If they have children with them, is it clearly explained to them what the children’s activities are? When songs are sung, is it clear what to do?
“When notices are given out, is it clear for everyone or only for the initiated? Is the preaching clear for everyone whatever their background? Is there any jargon which will be obstructive to visitors?”
One church that has taken this message to heart is Saffron Walden Baptist in Essex. One couple who attend regularly began to come after they were invited last year. This time, the church’s minister, Simon Mattholie, said, “We’re going to pull out all the stops.
“I’ve encouraged people to believe that they can be confident to invite someone to come with them on Sunday knowing that I’m not going to do anything to make them feel uncomfortable.
“I try to make things as seeker-sensitive as possible. It will probably influence our song choice; there’ll be a more hymn-like worship style.”
Another is Totterdown Baptist in Bristol. A total of 4,000 copies of the church’s newsletter have been distributed to local people. Containing stories and testimonies from people who’ve recently begun to attend, the newsletter is aimed at breaking the ice and helping people understand that they’re welcome.
This will be the first year that Totterdown has done Back to Church Sunday, but the church’s minister, Laurie Burn, says that he’s excited by its potential.
“It sounds like just a good idea,” he said. “It gives people permission to come back. They know that they’ll be other people coming back, not just them.”
Back to Church Sunday is built around invitations to friends and neighbors to return. Organizers stress that high-profile publicity campaigns are no substitute for personal contact.
However, among other initiatives aimed at highlighting the initiative, one from the Church of England has made some headlines. It’s a rap-style poem produced by a Christian ad agency.
It runs, in part, “Don’t look to make no airs and graces. Faked-up smiles and masked-up faces. No need to make no innovation. Please accept this as your invitation.”
Another idea comes from Premier Christian Radio, which has launched a search for the “most interesting” church in the United Kingdom, and is encouraging congregations to get in touch.
Premier presenter Dave Rose said, “As part of Back to Church Sunday we want to give you the chance to encourage people to come to your church.” Churches are encouraged to email Premier Christian Radio to explain what makes their church interesting.
Outreach, the San Diego-based organization that brought the initiative to the United States, cited research by the Southern Baptist Convention’s LifeWay Research indicating that 82 percent of Americans who don’t attend a church would be open to attending one if they were invited; the figure for the United Kingdom is 66 percent.
However, according to LifeWay’s president, Thom Rainer, only 2 percent of United States church-goers actually invite their friends to services. He said, “98 percent of church-goers never extend an invitation in a given year.”
This article appeared originally in The Baptist Times of Great Britain.