[Episcopal Diocese of Texas] As part of an initiative that began in the Church of England, congregations across the Diocese of Texas took a step out of their comfort zones on Sunday, Sept. 15, and invited friends, family and even strangers to church with them. The result was hundreds of visitors either returning to church or experiencing an Episcopal service for the first time.
To kick off the initiative, the Diocese of Texas invited Michael Harvey to be the keynote speaker for the Diocesan Warden’s and Vestry Conferences as well as private meetings with clergy. Harvey is one of the founders of the Back to Church Sunday movement that has spread from the United Kingdom to Ireland, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, France and Holland. Harvey authored the book, Unlocking the Growth, and gives seminars around the world about how to plant the seeds of growth in a church community.
In the United States, “Back to Church Sunday” was already trademarked by another organization, so the Diocese of Texas chose “Invitation Sunday” as the theme, building off Harvey’s teaching that invitation is the most important aspect of growth. The Diocese of Texas promoted the events and created designs for postcards and fliers that individual churches could customize with their information. Harvey’s video with the LOGOS Project was also circulated to the congregations.
After all the preparations and newfound focus on invitation, organizers weren’t sure what to expect, but the results were remarkable, especially for some of the smaller churches.
St. James’, Taylor, a church with a normal attendance of around 30, reported 11 visitors on Invitation Sunday. Organizers ordered customized postcards and distributed them throughout the neighborhood and through the mail. They held a rummage sale and handed out invitations to all who came, and just before the event, they put an ad in the local newspaper. Additionally, church members extended personal invites to others. The excitement for the event overflowed into other projects, including repainting the parish hall and landscaping the gardens.
“We are energized,” said St. James’ pastoral leader Terry Pierce, a student of the Iona School for Ministry. “The most important message was, ‘We don’t grow the church; all we have to do is plant the seeds!’ It freed us from the negative messages around invitation/welcome – that we’re not doing enough or doing it right.”
In the small town of Liberty, the Rev. Ted Smith and deacon Glenda Hardin of St. Stephen’s worked with the local ministerial alliance to promote going back to church across all denominations. Together, they purchased yard signs, a newspaper ad and even radio advertising. The local radio station also interviewed Smith about the event on the Friday and Saturday prior to Invitation Sunday, and the newspaper ran a front-page story featuring interviews with Smith and Hardin.
On Sunday, around a dozen visitors arrived at the church, a big number for a church an average of 70 folks. The congregation made a special effort to accommodate their expected guests. They held a breakfast and a luncheon, picked hymns that crossed denominational lines, and for the first time in recent memory, they printed a service booklet to help visitors navigate the service. St. Stephen’s newcomer ministry team greeted guests and reported the information back to Smith to follow up with them in a card. Additionally, the church plans to take out another newspaper ad to notify the community of an instructed Eucharist on September 29.
“I’m hoping we get some return people that weren’t familiar with an Episcopal service, and want to learn why we do what we do,” Smith said. “I’m hopeful. For our size community, this is a success. Our congregation and vestry are tickled to death, and we hope to keep it going.”
After months of preparation, St. Catherine of Sienna, Missouri City, formerly launched their invitation campaign on August 11. Though church members recently completed their journey from mission to parish status, the Rev. Mike Besson pushed them further to consider inviting their friends.
“When I preached the sermon on August 11 to tell everyone what we were going to do, I sat down on a stool at the end and said, ‘Look, the idea of an Episcopal church being full of invited guests is an oxymoron.’ But that resonated with them. I told them we have an opportunity to do something that’s unusual and different, something that maybe another congregation would ask how we did it,” Besson explained. “When this congregation hears a challenge like that, they are all over it.”
After several weeks of passing out customized business cards and postcards, and continuously pounding the message of invitation, St. Catherine’s welcomed 60 visitors to a church, which averages 200 people a week.
“When I asked the invited visitors to raise their hand during the sermon, there was an audible gasp [from the rest of the congregation],” Besson said. But he cautioned that success isn’t just about numbers. Besson stressed the importance of framing the message about invitation. “We were very careful not to use the word evangelism or talk about growing the church. We don’t even say that any more. We just ask people to think about why they are here, and why it is important to them. Then think about someone else that this might be important to as well and send them a card.”