Planning Back to Church Sunday
Know anybody who “used to go to church”?
It’s a pretty common phenomenon in the United States. Research indicates that less than one in five Americans attend church on a regular basis, and almost 8 million—150,000 per week—leave churches each year. Gary L. McIntosh from the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University estimates that “more than 76 million people have attended church at least once in their lifetime.” In other words, most people who aren’t going to church today probably did at least one time in their lives.
What would it take for these people to try church again?
That’s what Back to Church Sunday is all about.
This year, thousands of churches around America have committed to set apart Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, as a day of church services specifically for serving and encouraging people who aren’t regularly attending church.
Is your church participating? The following article takes an inside look at what six churches from varied denominations around the country did as they planned for and hosted Back to Church Sunday over the last two years.
We talked to churches to discover creative ideas and inspiring stories behind everything from advertising and publicity to motivating your congregation to invite and follow up with returning attendees—plus innovative approaches to promotion, targeted messages and training. So roll up your sleeves and check out the tips and tools you can use right now to help expand, enhance and make your own Back to Church Sunday a powerful catalyst for year-round hospitality and community awareness.
"People are still hungry for living bread and thirsty for living water.” --Ron Glusenkamp, Bethany Lutheran Church, Cherry Hills Village, Colo.
Securing Congregational Buy-In
Helping your congregation understand the importance of inviting their friends, co-workers and family members to church is key to an effective Back to Church Sunday. Here’s how some churches strategically and creatively championed their event internally.
Leadership involvement Ron Glusenkamp, senior pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church in Cherry Hills Village, Colo., ordered multiple copies of the Back to Church Sunday publication reDiscover Church and assigned a chapter of the 37-page booklet to each of his church council members. “The council had really good, authentic conversation,” he says. “Our leadership got on board.”
Training ground Bethany Lutheran also retrained church members on best practices for inviting someone to church. “We need to be welcoming,” Glusenkamp says. “We’re about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. The world has dramatically changed over the last 10 years. It’s not the kind of world many of us grew up in. But people are still hungry for living bread and thirsty for living water. We’re asking, ‘How can we be that kind of community?’”
Small groups integration Church Alive! in Albuquerque, N.M., integrated the Back to Church Sunday campaign into its small groups—and across all other ministry departments.
Music and video Church Alive! also borrowed the famous theme song from the 1970s TV sitcom, Welcome Back, Kotter, to add some familiarity and fun to its Back to Church Sunday promotional campaign, says Sarah Kimberly, who oversees the church’s events and assimilation. However, the church modernized things a bit, tweaking and remixing a music video by rap artist Mase, whose track, “Welcome Back,” samples the old theme song and adds hip-hop lyrics. The video was shown in worship services leading up to Back to Church Sunday.
Visual reminders Highland Baptist Church in Grove City, Ohio, printed the Back to Church Sunday logo on the cover of its summer worship booklet to attract church members’ attention. “It’s a constant visual reminder of what’s coming,” Senior Pastor Kent Span says, “which often compels people to ask, ‘What is this?’”
Outreach-focused sermons During the weeks before Back to Church Sunday, First Christian Church in Downey, Calif., planned outreach-oriented messages for its second time hosting Back to Church Sunday. “Whenever we do a ‘gearing-up’ sermon series for ‘here’s our goal or target,’ we start thinking a month out about the task,” Pastor Mark Schoch says. “For Back to Church Sunday, we focused on who we would invite and asked God to soften our hearts toward those around us who don’t know God.”
“If people are coming back to church, we want to give them something to come back to.” --Mark Schoch, First Christian Church, Downey, Calif.
Getting the Word Out to Your Community
Communicating to people outside your church in advance of Sept. 18 underscores the importance and purpose of Back to Church Sunday. Here’s how some congregations took a front-end approach:
Local festivities Last year was the second time St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Prescott, Ariz., hosted Back to Church Sunday. At an annual pre-Labor Day festival, St. George set up a popular food booth, featuring gyros and other Greek-style edibles, and used the face time to invite guests to their upcoming event.
Face-to-face engagement In the weeks leading up to Back to Church Sunday, Word Christian Fellowship International New Jersey promoted its event by engaging the community, says Pastor Mando Zacarias. On the Fourth of July, his mostly Filipino congregation near Princeton joined the Filipino American Association of Central New Jersey and celebrated with a community picnic. A month later in August, the congregation held a golf invitational to help get the word out that they were hosting a special Sunday for guests.
Neighborhood awareness Highland Baptist Church in Grove City, Ohio, showered specific, nearby neighborhoods with Back to Church Sunday door hangers. The church also used invitation cards, press releases and posted large banners just outside the church building.
Local publicity Two weeks before Back to Church Sunday, write and send a press release to local media (TV stations, newspapers, radio, local events websites). Share about your church’s specific participation in a national event that’s expected to include 5,000 congregations nationwide.
Digital networking Churches took advantage of the long (and inexpensive) reaches of email blasts, Facebook pages, Twitter posts, and church websites to get the word out. St. George Greek Orthodox Church focused all of its advance efforts on driving people to the church website, says Parish Priest John Peck. The church’s Internet presence typically attracts people to its services (where guests regularly outnumber members).
“Over the last two years, every single inquirer spent more than a half hour on St. George’s site before actually checking out a service,” Peck says. “Our site is designed with the first-time visitor in mind.”
Website registry Encourage your people to invite friends and family and to either pick them up or meet them somewhere at the church for Back to Church Sunday. Create a website that allows attendees to indicate if they’re bringing a guest, how many, specific prayer requests, etc.
Email reminders Sarah Kimberly from Church Alive! in Albuquerque, N.M., suggests churches go through their contact lists and send email invites to those who haven’t come to church in a while. “Back to Church Sunday is a great opportunity for them to give church another try,” she says.
Signs First Christian Church used its roadside church sign to post messages encouraging a return to church on Back to Church Sunday. “People are searching for an answer and want to connect and belong,” Schoch says. “We want them to know it’s important to come to church.”
“We want to answer the question, ‘What can church provide for you?’” --Kent Span, Highland Baptist Church, Grove City, Ohio
On Back to Church Sunday, Sept. 15
How did churches enhance their Back to Church Sunday services? Check out these ideas for message series, joint services, hospitality and post-service connection points.
Message series launch First Christian Church began a sermon series on dealing with family issues on Back to Church Sunday. “If people are coming back to church, we want to give them something to come back to,” Schoch says.
Open house First Christian also turned Back to Church Sunday into one of several “open house” Sundays the church hosted last year. “The volunteers make connections and give out gifts and just say, ‘Thanks for being here,’” Schoch says of the regular events. “Every connection is an opportunity.”
Contact information Intentionally let people know that guests are welcome to complete an information card, but don’t push it. People are extremely wary of giving out email addresses, phone numbers, etc.
Post-service connection Numerous churches hosted a luncheon immediately after the service. Try a potluck picnic at a local park, and stress to guests your church is hosting them; they don’t need to bring anything. Everything is free!
Citywide event Extend the day’s impact by joining with other area churches for a communitywide worship service on Sunday evening. Two years ago, area churches in Mullins, S.C., gathered for Back to Church Sunday that morning, then ended the day with a Back to Church Rally that night at the local high school football field, featuring guest speaker Tony Eubanks, who at that time served as Clemson University's football chaplain .
Rethink name tags They’re often the bane of any group. But at First Christian Church, they’re part of the culture and important for breaking down barriers and making new people feel “the same” as everyone else, Schoch explains. Church members must be willing participants, but once they see how much easier name retention is with the first-name name tags, they’re seen as “kind of a cool thing,” he says.
“I walk around with just ‘Mark’ on my tag. There’s no hierarchy, and people feel warm and welcomed.”
Open prayer Asking “Can I/we pray for you?” is one of the simplest and most nonthreatening ways to engage someone and let him know you care. Make a point to let people know they can pray with someone after the service or submit prayer requests your prayer team will read and pray for that week.
Follow Up, Beyond Sept. 15
How did churches attempt to move people from Back to Church Sunday guest to regular attendee to leader who serves? From contextualizing their post-event to relaunching courses and Bible studies, churches thought seriously and creatively about what it would take to make multiple impressions and encourage a return visit.
Post-Back to Church Sunday messages In the weeks after Back to Church Sunday, Highland Baptist’s Span focused on specific messages addressing what he calls “the God questions”: Is God real? Does God really care? How can I know God?
“We want to answer the question, ‘What can church provide for you? What values does it bring to you as an individual and to the community?’” Other potential topics: the faithfulness of God; building stronger relationships; love’s attributes: forgetfulness, determination, sacrifice. For more topics, go to SermonCentral.com.
New studies Schoch made a natural connection between Back to Church Sunday and relaunches of several church-based courses and classes, including Sunday school classes, a Wednesday night pastor’s Bible study and a course on the foundations of Christian faith. “We wanted to be able to say, ‘It’s not just this Sunday; here’s what’s available for a few months,’” he says.
Return celebration Two weeks after Back to Church Sunday, Church Alive! hosted a luncheon to honor four local high school coaches and invited Back to Church Sunday guests to return for the celebration.
New members class St. George Church usually contacts visitors via letters and phone calls and invites them to a new members class. They used the same approach for Back to Church Sunday. “It has worked very well for us,” Peck says.
Handwritten cards and small groups Church Alive! takes a similar tack with guest follow-up: First-time visitors receive an email and phone call. If they return a second time, they’re mailed a handwritten card inviting them to check out a life group.
CHURCHES REFERENCED IN THIS ARTICLE:
Bethany Lutheran Church
Highland Baptist Church
First Christian Church
St. George Greek Orthodox Church
Word Christian Fellowship International New Jersey