Lessons learned from Back to Church Sunday

The Rev. Clarence Li and parishioner Peter Lamb extend a big invitation to anyone driving in the vicinity of St. Hilda's by the Sea in Sechelt, B.C. Photo: Courtesy of St. Hilda's
The Rev. Clarence Li and parishioner Peter Lamb extend a big invitation to anyone driving in the vicinity of St. Hilda's by the Sea in Sechelt, B.C. Photo: Courtesy of St. Hilda's
Published October 3, 2014

At St. Hilda’s by the Sea in Sechelt, B.C, they hung a Back to Church Sunday banner by the road to be seen by everyone driving through the neighbourhood. They printed two different kinds of invitations-one for the Sunday services and one for Taizé and other services during the week, and they handed out invitations at the nearby farmer’s market on a Saturday morning.

“That was a little bit intimidating,” the Rev. Clarence Li said in an interview, “but that was a good experience…It’s all about building relationships. The invitations give us a chance to start conversations with others,” he said. Their efforts were rewarded with about 15 people visiting the church.

Some of the parishes the Anglican Journal contacted followed the Back to Church theme more closely than others, which adapted freely and widely from the template of parishioners inviting friends to church that began in the U.K. in 2004. But those the Journal spoke with agreed that the event’s value is not only for the invited guests, but also for hosts practising and building an invitational culture. “This is a once-a-year event to remind us of the need to be inviting,” said Li.

St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Charlottetown was part of an ecumenical street party, organized with six churches in its downtown Prince Street neighbourhood. Each church held its own service, but then they collaborated to put on a barbeque after the services. St. Paul’s had one barbeque on its lawn for three churches, and the three churches at the north end gathered at First Baptist Church. Archdeacon John Clarke estimated that there were about 10 new people at their Sunday service. “I think that’s a great success. If there were 10 in our church and 10 in another, across the diocese that is equivalent to a whole congregation,” he said, noting that the outdoor barbeque attracted the interest of many people downtown who hadn’t come to the service, providing another opportunity for conversation and invitation.

St. Paul’s also shares weekly services and lunches during Advent and Lent with its ecumenical neighbours. “I think the fact that we are together in Advent and Lent and we do the street party together on Back to Church Sunday does give people a sense that it is not about picking Anglicanism over something else-it is about accepting Christ into our lives,” said Clarke.

A note in St. Paul’s Back to Church Sunday bulletin offered a similarly ecumenical message. If St. Paul’s didn’t suit the visitor, the church could help to put him or her in touch with another Anglican church in the city or a parish in a “sister church” of another denomination. “Our goal for Back to Church Sunday (and for whenever someone tries us out) is not to force, trick or lie to people to get them to join us, but to bring people into an awareness of their relationship with the Creator. It is not, for us, about people’s money or joining parish committees-it is simply about creating opportunities for people to give praise and thanks to God for all the blessings of life.” Clarke said one parishioner suggested printing the whole message on cards that would be available to visitors all year round.

Another theme that emerged was about “truth in advertising,” and following advice from Michael Harvey, who co-founded Back to Church Sunday in Manchester, to make sure that the Back to Church Sunday service is not too radically different from regular services, so that visitors know what the community and services they are being invited to are usually like.

Shawn Branch, national director of Threshold Ministries, recalls a well-intentioned Back to Church Sunday event done around Valentine’s Day that he felt went awry because the service was changed too much. “None of us robed. We had a totally different person doing the music. It was different liturgy. We welcomed people with candy and little activity bags for the kids,” he said. “And the next Sunday, we had the organ back and those of us in leadership were robed and it was a BCP service.”

Branch, a lay leader at All Saints Church, East Saint John, says that when the parish has done those kind of events since, they’ve been careful to add different elements but make sure it isn’t “radically different” from a usual service. The parish periodically does picnics or barbeques and since many people were going for breakfast after church, they’ve started hosting breakfasts before church about once a month.

“The approach we’ve taken is to encourage constant invitation,” he said. When a parishioner invited a family to come this summer, they initially said, ‘We’re not sure we’d be comfortable at church. We wouldn’t know how to act.’ All they needed was a bit of reassurance and to hear, ‘Don’t worry about it, you’ll be fine,’ ” he said.

Branch thinks that the relationships people build are more important to healthy church growth than programs or “whether it is BCP or BAS or whether there’s a band or keyboard or an organ…We need to be inviting people back into community.”

Archdeacon Clarke recalled that last year, a couple who had left St. Paul’s 20 or 30 years before, were speaking to the widow of a man who had died about maybe returning to the church. “The funeral was just over and she turned to me and [asked] me when Back to Church Sunday is.” He recalled with a chuckle that his answer was, “‘It’s next Sunday.’ “


  • Leigh Anne Williams

    Leigh Anne Williams joined the Anglican Journal in 2008 as a part-time staff writer. She also works as the Canadian correspondent for Publishers Weekly, a New York-based trade magazine for the book publishing. Prior to this, Williams worked as a reporter for the Canadian bureau of TIME Magazine, news editor of Quill & Quire, and a copy editor at The Halifax Herald, The Globe and Mail and The Bay Street Bull.

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