September 13, 2009 was no ordinary Sunday at 140-attendee Mount Sterling First United Methodist Church in Mount Sterling, Ky. Attendance soared 40%, drawing people from the sleepy town of 6,500 who hadn’t been to church in years.
The secret behind the sudden growth? A simple invitation. One month prior, Mount Sterling Outreach and Evangelism Director Debi Lambert had introduced an event called Back to Church Sunday to the congregants, asking each of them to invite an unchurched friend, family member or co-worker to “come back” to church.
She was delighted when everyone from seniors to teens embraced the challenge, using customized postcards to invite the community to a service specially geared to the unchurched and dechurched.
“September 13 was a beautiful morning. Our sanctuary was full,” Lambert reports.
Hundreds of churches across the United States also saw packed sanctuaries after participating in last year’s Back to Church Sunday, a national interdenominational event sponsored by Outreach, Inc., when churchgoers invite everyone in America to come back to church. Participating churches averaged a 19% increase in their weekend attendance.
Mount Sterling attributes their success to the corresponding Back to Church campaign, which empowers church members with the tools to welcome neighbors, friends and loved ones back to church.
“We showed the promotional video and Pastor Scott [Wilson] preached a sermon series to encourage participation,” Lambert explains. A week later, she mailed personalized postcard invitations to past guests and visitors and those who hadn’t attended recently. Then she inserted personalized postcard invitations into each bulletin so that every attendee would have an invite tool.
The combination of practical tools and word-of-mouth invitations garnered plenty of interest in the community; meanwhile, the church renewed its commitment to outreach.
“Our church experiences complacency from time to time just like every other, but when an exciting idea is presented, everyone participates and enjoys a challenge,” Lambert says. “We are Kingdom builders!”
A Call to Action
Why is Back to Church Sunday so important for the average church? A few years ago, disturbing research began to surface.
“Only 2% of church members invite an unchurched person to church; 98% of church-goers never extend an invitation in a given year,” concluded Dr. Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources, after two groundbreaking LifeWay Research studies. The Barna Group reported similar findings: “73% of people who don’t attend church were never invited.”
The problem isn’t that the unchurched refuse to come back to church. In fact, new statistics show that if churchgoers ask unchurched people to come with them to church, most likely they’ll say yes. Most people who don’t or no longer attend church simply haven’t made time for it. Unfortunately, nobody is inviting them.
Southern California church marketing specialists Outreach, Inc., knew awareness of these findings could make all the difference in motivating pastors to empower congregations to invite their family, friends and neighbors back to church. So in summer 2009, they launched a grassroots movement to make inviting easy for church members by creating a worship service specifically geared toward visitors. The event was designed to reach the “unchurched” and “dechurched”—people who used to go to church, but don’t anymore.
During the event, careful preparation of the grounds, greeter teams, a seeker-friendly message and post-service refreshments ensure that newcomers have a great experience. Outreach also designed a free resource—The reDiscover Church Booklet—that church members can pass out as an evangelistic tool. In non-threatening language, the book discusses 10 reasons why people leave the church and why they come back.
With Arms Wide Open
Churches quickly bought the vision. In fall 2009, several hundred churches signed up for the inaugural Back to Church Sunday. Together, they invited more than 800,000 people.
“Our Back to Church Sunday worship service turned out to be our single highest most attended worship service of the year, far surpassing our large Christmas and Easter services,” says Pastor Joseph Pridgen of Union Hill A.M.E. Church in Wilson Mills, N.C.
“Somehow God moved on the hearts of our members to really catch the simple and age-old concept and to commit time praying for the one(s) they would invite…Since September, our attendance is over 20% higher than this period last year!”
Pridgen is planning for an even bigger turnout at this year’s Back to Church Sunday— September 12, 2010. Outreach forecasts several thousand churches will participate, potentially inviting millions of people back to church. Judging by the 4,000 fans interacting on Back to Church Sunday’s Facebook page, momentum is building fast.
“Back to Church Sunday has the potential to be a day that changes the future course of someone’s life!” says Chad McCallum, lead pastor of Compass Church in Byron Center, Mich. “In a world where so many people fall into the definition of ‘dechurched,’ this is a doable effort for any church that wants to reach more people for Christ!”
Check out Back to Church Sunday’s Facebook page, a blog and a roster of participating churches on the Back to Church Web site (http://www.backtochurch.com/). It’s easy to engage in what may be the most impactful outreach event your church has ever done.