A number of Anglican churches across Canada opened their doors for Back to Church Sunday on Sept. 25.
Did they succeed in getting more people in the door?
Yes. But according to some of the priests who coordinated parish initiatives, it’s not about the numbers.
“For me, the best part about the exercise is churches being reminded that we feel our best and perform our best when we are sharing our faith,” said the Rev. Nick Trussel, rector of Holy Trinity Riverbend, diocese of Edmonton. “Worship is a team sport. The more people we can invite to play the game, the more fun we’ll have,” he said in an interview.
Back to Church Sunday, which began in the Church of England’s diocese of Manchester in 2004, encourages parishioners to invite a friend to come to church with them. It has since become an annual Christian event not just in the U.K., but also in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
And while church growth is certainly one of the goals of Back to Church Sunday, a key component is evangelism, says the Rev. Stephanie Douglas-Bowman, associate priest at the Church of St. Bride, Mississauga, Ont., and chair of the diocese of Toronto’s Back to Church Sunday working group. “Success is Anglicans making the actual invitations,” she points out.
The Rev. Brian Galligan, rector of St. Alban the Martyr, Acton, Ont. in the diocese of Niagara, takes this sentiment one step further. He says learning how to invite others to church should become a regular, even weekly, activity.
In the diocese of Edmonton, about 80 per cent of the 52 parishes that participated in last year’s initiative did see an increase in attendance, but not from the mass mailings the diocese sent out. Most newcomers responded to a personal invitation, reports Trussel.
Rather than focusing on elaborate advertising, the diocese discovered that the “truth behind Back to Church Sunday and the sustainability behind it,” had to do with delivering more one-to-one invitations, says Trussel. Success, he adds, is not just about how many people say “yes” to the invitation, but “how many people have the faith and trust to make an invitation.”
Trussel’s congregation, which has an average attendance of 50 on Sundays, saw a 10 per cent increase in this year’s attendance.
Last year in the diocese of Niagara, Galligan’s congregation focused on spreading the word about Back to Church Sunday to people they didn’t know. “We had interesting conversations that didn’t yield any visitors,” he says.
This year, the parish decided to publicize Back to Church Sunday on a personal level. Four weeks before the event, Galligan showed motivational videos encouraging parishioners to make that crucial step of inviting someone to church. Then, for the first time, his parish offered an Alpha Course that teaches the basics of Christian faith. The strategy? To make inviting people to church a “way of life” for parishioners. Evangelism doesn’t come easy for Anglicans, notes Gilligan, who are typically “quite reserved and quite private” about their faith.
On the eve of Back to Church Sunday, parishioners invited family members, friends and neighbours to the church’s backyard for a campfire and wiener roast. It proved to be a great icebreaker. “People got to meet the congregation prior to the service,” says Galligan.
The efforts of Galligan and his parish have paid off. Combined attendance at their two church services almost doubled at this year’s Back to Church Sunday-from 66 to 130.
Meanwhile, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, underscores the importance of considering what experience people will have when they come to church. “It’s one thing to invite people to church; it’s another to consider what kind of welcome awaits them,” he says.
Galligan also underscores the importance of hospitality, saying his parish focused on making the service as friendly as possible. For one, the entire service was projected on a giant screen. “People loved it,” says Galligan. He notes that some parishioners previously unable to stand and hold a hymn book were able to participate.
There was a baptism scheduled on Back to Church Sunday and Galligan made it possible for the entire congregation to see what was going on by mounting a webcam on the baptismal font. “People are realizing that the church is responding to current day needs,” he says.