Let’s focus on the positive

Published February 1, 2010

I’m either a slow learner or a quick study, depending on your point of view. I say this because I’ve finally learned how the expression-What you focus on is what you get-actually works. Focus on same-sex blessings: you get frustration, anger, schism. Focus on how to revitalize the church: you get inspired, you get ideas, you get connected in new ways, you get energized.

And then you get busy.

There’s a lot of work to be done and as we all know, shrinking congregations and collapsing finances in too many of our parishes means time is of the essence. The good news? There is hope. And it begins with simple solutions that work.

Last September, I asked what it would take to get unstuck. Thanks to your emails, letters and phonecalls, I know that many of you feel very frustrated, clinging to your faith in a world that feels like some kind of parallel universe. You say you’re exhausted with the infighting; you want things to change even if you’re not sure how. People are asking over and over: What can I do?

In his letter to the editor in this issue [‘Welcome to my church’] John Morphet, M.D., talks about the importance of the church greeter. A firm handshake, a welcome smile, a personal introduction to the priest can make a powerful and lasting impression. I couldn’t agree more.

But let me ask you this. What are you doing to make newcomers to your church feel welcome? Maybe you like to be a “guest,” using the opportunity at worship to reconnect with friends and acquaintances. Or do you extend the hand of fellowship to someone you’ve never met and welcome him or her to your church? That’s what U.K. consultant Michael Harvey calls “hosting” and it’s part and parcel of a more missional expression of church.

Harvey is the fellow who came up with the concept of Back to Church Sunday. It was 2004 and he was having coffee with the communications director for the diocese of Manchester. What would happen, he asked her, if every single member of a congregation screwed up sufficient courage to ask just one friend to come with them to church? Is this what it would take to “double the diocese?”

They decided to try. Convincing people in the 160 Manchester churches to participate was a bit like “guerilla warfare,” he confessed to the House of Bishops last month in Montreal. Still, 800 people accepted a personal invitation from a friend. “We were surprised,” said Harvey.

Among other things, the experience revealed that a lot of people outside the church were curious but afraid to ask. On the inside, people were hesitant to extend an invitation for fear of being rejected. Back to Church Sunday is a way to break down the fear on both sides, points out Harvey.

Like all great ideas, Back to Church Sunday has taken on a life of its own. Fast-forward five years and it has grown into a worldwide ecumenical movement. Last year, 105,000 Christians around the world accepted a friend’s invitation to go to church. And in the U.K., where every denomination is now participating, an astonishing 10,000 people “stuck,” says Harvey.

The diocese of Toronto was part of that worldwide movement and the results, according to Suffragan Bishop Philip Poole, are stunning. Of the 2,650 friends who attended church on Sept. 27, some 250 people are still attending four months later.

Following Harvey’s visit to the House of Bishops, a total of 22 dioceses across Canada will participate on Back to Church Sunday (Sept. 26) this year. So it’s about to become a grassroots movement here in Canada, too, and the possibilities for church growth are truly exciting.

Who are you going to invite?

“The literature says 85 per cent of people are open to an invitation to come to church,” Bishop Poole told me. “It’s just a matter of asking.”

So how do you? Ask, I mean.

According to Harvey it’s simple. You just say: “Would you like to come to church with me and afterwards why don’t we have Sunday lunch together?” (Okay, so he throws in a little bribe.)

All joking aside, it is the personal invitation and attention that makes Back to Church Sunday so effective. But churches can also do their part-and let’s face it, this is huge-by offering a service that is “especially welcoming and user-friendly,” and connecting to resources such as prayer cards, posters and invitations.

What will people experience when they come to your church? Will it be welcoming? A newcomer decides in the first 30 seconds whether he or she will return, says Harvey. Are the greeters grouchy or talking only to other greeters? Is finding a seat difficult? Do guests have to go to the front or crawl over several people? “Sometimes we delude ourselves into thinking everything’s fine,” says Harvey.

There’s no doubt about it: Back to Church Sunday works. Harvey’s goal for Canada is nothing short of mobilizing every single Anglican in the country to invite a friend. With a stick rate of about 10 percent per year, well…you get the idea. “Think big,” he advises. “God is the God of the impossible.”

Can you hear the rumble of backlash as all the Doubting Thomases out there get busy shooting down the idea? Harvey has some things to say about self-defeating thoughts such as, “I can see it working there but not here.” He calls it “rubbish thinking” that stops us from believing. “We can spot everybody’s rubbish but not our own,” he points out.

It’s never too late to come back to church. Harvey tells of one parishioner who came back to the church at the age of 84. The last time John had been to church he was carried in the arms of his parents at his christening. John was a guest of Back to Church Sunday who stuck. Now, he’s a host. “The Bible has become my book at bedtime,” he told Harvey.

Back to Church Sunday is just one facet of an energized and inspiring global Christian movement known as Fresh Expressions. Endorsed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, Fresh Expressions is the incubator for fluid, open, limitless manifestations of faith. It is also based on the notion that we have something to learn.

Instead of cookie-cutter solutions to the question of church growth, Fresh Expressions provides inspiration by example. Then parishes work to creatively custom-design their own approaches to a more missional expression of church. It’s a process that transcends divisive issues and promises to help us work together.

In Ottawa, when skateboarders let themselves into a church hall at St. James and used folding tables as makeshift ramps, the parish council’s response was to put up signs telling youth to keep out. Then Rev. Christine Piper attended a Fresh Expressions workshop, and with the help of parishioners and a teen from a local skateboard shop, the parish council pulled its own 180.

“They saw that there was a potential to welcome kids into the church,” says parishioner Peter McCracken on YourOttawaRegion.com. In other words, a shift in perspective took place and the problem became an opportunity. (That’s evidence of God at work in my view.) Now there’s a new skateboard ministry every Tuesday evening and the parish is seeking donations of wood to build more ramps. “Christianity is all about reconciliation and moving forward,” notes Piper.

Stories like these act as beacons of light, guiding us to a greater understanding of the way forward. And when each of us takes responsibility for growing the church, we gain momentum. Sure, it’s easy to feel vulnerable. After all, we are being asked to move out of our comfort zone as the church prepares to emerge from a centuries-old chrysalis. We can’t see the future clearly and our wings are still wet and folded. There is so much territory to cover. But the knowledge of how to soar is in our DNA, God-given. All we need do is trust our faith to provide a steady updraft.


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