Across the country, many parishes will be hosting Back to Church Sunday services this Sunday, but there is growing emphasis on extending the idea beyond a once a year event. Now, the aim is to build a culture in which Anglicans feel comfortable inviting others to church on a regular basis.
The Rev. Stephanie Bowman-Douglas, chair of the diocese of Toronto’s Back to Church Sunday working group, says the focus of efforts in the diocese has changed this year. For the past three years, bishops have gone to Toronto’s Union Station wearing their mitres and formal vestments to hand out invitations to commuters to come back to church. “That served its purpose in its time in terms of the bishops were trying to set an example for Anglicans. They were modeling invitation and bringing some media attention to Back to Church Sunday,” said Bowman-Douglas.
But this year, the diocese is looking beyond that. “The strength of the program has been that it has drawn people’s attention to this idea of inviting somebody to church…That’s been the positive,” she said. “The drawback is that sometimes people have thought ‘My friend said no to coming to Back to Church Sunday, so I’ll wait another year to invite them again.’ ” Instead, organizers hope Anglicans can develop the skill and the habit of inviting people to church throughout the year.
The diocese of Toronto is launching a pilot project with six parishes this fall based on Back to Church Sunday creator Michael Harvey’s new initiative Seasons of Invitation. Parishioners will be encouraged to invite people for six occasions during the fall, Advent and Christmas and into the new year. Bowman-Douglas says it’s important for clergy and lay people not to be discouraged if their invitations are not accepted. “They say that it takes as many as seven invitations before someone will accept…. So the main message we wanted to get across was success is making the invitation.”
Although Sept. 30 was designated as Back to Church Sunday in Canada, some congregations chose different dates. St. Faith’s in the Kerrisdale area of Vancouver combined its Back to Church Sunday with its 65th anniversary founder’s day on Sept. 16. Despite the church’s history in the area, The Rev. Dr. Richard Leggett, the priest-in-charge, says the fast-rising housing prices in Vancouver have meant that many of the long-time residents have moved elsewhere and there’s a need for St. Faith’s to introduce itself to new residents as well as reaching out to former parishioners who have drifted away. A few parishioners who like to walk volunteered to hand deliver 1,000 invitations to the celebration to homes in the area.
The result was that the usual Sunday congregation of about 30 people grew to about 80 that day. It included some former parishioners, some people who had been invited by parishioners and about 15 musicians from a university-age chamber that rehearses and occasionally holds their concerts St. Faith’s. In thanks for the space, the choir offered to sing at St. Faith’s a few times during the year. “And to me, that’s part of Back to Church because most of those kids aren’t involved in church and it’s a chance for them to be involved in worship and get a sense of what we might be about,” said Leggett.
After the service ended, the activity moved outside where Leggett dedicated a children’s playground on the front lawn of the church. It had to be moved from the rectory’s yard across the street after the rectory was sold, but Leggett says its new location benefits the church because it is “a visible sign to people that this is a place where there is life and where we really value the children,” as many passersby have commented. St. Faith’s day was capped off with a free barbecue lunch and more songs from teen musicians who use the space. Events connecting the church with the community continue with an annual party at Halloween and a “Take a bite out of winter” day when warm winter clothes are distributed to those in need. Leggett says it’s all in keeping with the diocese of New Westminster’s theme of taking care of the neighbourhood.
Bishop Cyrus Pitman says some of the parishes in the diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador are working toward extending the principles of Back to Church Sunday throughout the year. “Because, while Back to Church Sunday is very valuable, the question has to be asked, ‘What would happen if they do come back?'” he said with a chuckle.
He mentioned the Parish of the Good Shepherd in Mount Pearl as a church that has already built a ministry of invitation and hospitality that lasts throughout the year. The rector there, Archdeacon Geoffrey Peddle, explained that the parish also held its Back to Church Sunday on Sept. 16 to combine the celebration with the start of its fall programs and the blessing of a newly constructed labyrinth on the church property. They had a good turnout of local people and government officials who were involved with the construction of the labyrinth, which was a collaborative project between a local group, as well as the municipal and provincial governments and the church, which provided the land and will maintain the labyrinth and surrounding park.
The labyrinth is intended for meditative walking and contemplation and is a new way for the church to invite people in. But Good Shepherd has had an ongoing community hospitality ministry now for about three years. Every Wednesday the church serves lunch to more than 100 people. It’s done entirely with volunteers, some cooking at the church, some cooking at home, and it is free. It’s open to anyone in the community, and Archdeacon Peddle says those who come are from all walks of life. “Some volunteers are not Anglican. Some of the people who come are not church people at all, but they feel welcome and they find a sense of community.” Food is donated by local businesses, but most comes from individuals. One meal began to resemble the Biblical loaves and fishes story when a man showed up with a donation of 85 pounds of fresh cod fish.
As a result of this popular weekly event, Archdeacon Peddle says that the Parish of the Good Shepherd has been affectionately renamed in the community as Parish of the Good Food. Either way, people keep coming back to church.