Back to Church Sunday is something dreamed up somewhere in Britain. The idea is simple really: get the parishioners to each ask someone to church on a designated day. Help them out a bit by providing a nice looking invitation card, and encourage them by showing some preparatory materials in church in the weeks ahead. It seems to have worked well in the UK, and, over the last couple of years, here in new Zealand. This year we thought we would give it a try, and I'm very glad we did. Our main congregation, at 10 am on Sunday morning, has typically had about 130 people present. Over the past year, my foot has been off the gas pedal and attendances have dropped back to about 100. I knew it was time to take stock and think about our direction as a parish, and we had drawn up and distributed a parish survey as part of a wide ranging review. Back To Church Sunday happened along at just at the beginning of the whole process.
The introductory videos were useful. They were mostly short clips from the TV series Desperate Housewives which raised some questions about churches and what they are here for. The clips got our folks talking, and wondering about such things as how we welcome people, and how we make them feel at home if they should wander in off the street. We made the invitations available and around 60 of them were taken away and (I assume) offered to friends and family.
Today we had 136 people at the 10 am service. We had a lot of people present who had once been regular attenders, but who had not been around for a while. We had a few spouses and children of parishioners making a first time visit. We had a few who were completely new to St. John's. It was great to see our little church more or less full again. I managed to speak to many who had come because of the invitations, and in most cases, they told me they were thinking of coming anyway. There were pressing life issues for some of them which were causing a rethink of priorities and an invitation to church was just the catalyst they had needed to make the move. Whether this will translate into an increase in regualr attendance will depend on how well we follow up over the next week or two, but I am optimisitc.
In terms of its stated aim, Back To Church Sunday has been a rip roaring success for St. John's Roslyn. In terms of the bigger issues, it has been a success as well. Firstly it has encouraged us to look at ourselves and make changes where necessary. Most importantly it has encouraged people to think about why they themselves come to church and to talk about those reasons with people they live and work and share bits of their lives with. Of course we will be signing up for next year's Back To Church Sunday, but I hope we can translate the learnings into the other 51 Sundays until then.