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Back to Church Sunday and Church Growth

Back to Church Sunday ( is the last Sunday in September.

In 2004 in the Diocese of Manchester people were encouraged to invite their friends to church on that day. Since then BtCS has come to be used in thousands of churches in every English diocese, as well as ecumenically and internationally. Several hundreds of thousands of people have come to church at the invitation of a friend over those years. Research done in the Diocese of Lichfeld indicates that 10-12% of these people are still attending church regularly six months later.

In fact BtCS has become the largest invitational event in the world. Until last year it had always grown year-on-year in terms of the number of churches involved and the number of people invited. Last year the number fell for several reasons - the Olympics, the Jubilee, and perhaps too the reluctance of the churches to do the same thing over again, even if it works. This is a pity, for a number of reasons:

  • 1. Invitation works. No amount of creativity about the shape of the church will help us grow if Christians don’t invite their friends to it. Inviting someone you know to something you love is the shortest step in evangelism. Equipping people to invite is the most significant single step a local church can take if it wants to grow.

This is true but the trouble is:

  • 2. Invitation is hard. Not because it’s complicated, but because the simple step of inviting your friend at the kitchen table (or at the water cooler or in the pub or at the school gate or wherever) requires a little courage and a little trust - courage in the face of possible rejection, and trust that God will act. 

Because of this:

  • 3. We avoid the moment of invitation. Common ways to do this incude: “I can’t invite my friend back to church because she’s never been to church, so I won’t invite her at all until the initiative changes its name”. Or, “I invited my friend once before and he was busy that Sunday, so I can’t invite him again”. Or, “I love my church but I’m sure people will think the worship’s a bit stuffy so I won’t invite them until it’s perfect”. Or, “I love my church but it’s a Fresh Expression and inviting people to things is just so twentieth-century”.

These reasons prevent people from persevering in evangelism because:

  • 4. Invitation is hard. And there is no way to make it easier. Ours is a relational faith and ever since John Finney’s research in the 1980s and 90s  it has been common knowledge among us that relational evangelism is the royal road to the growth of the church, provided believers can be encouraged to relate.

And if they can, then:

  • 5. Invitation works. It’s unglamorous, I agree. It’s not particularly sophisticated. It doesn’t rely on social media (though any medium will do). It’s not the only step on the church-growth road, by any means. But without it the church will not grow.

Because in the end church growth is not a cool strategy, perfectly named, perfectly delivered. In the end it’s not hundreds of thousands of statistical moments or lines on graphs. In the end it’s one person, talking to another person, saying those words that add believers to the people of God: “Would you like. To come along. With me?” 

Paul Bayes is Bishop of Hertford. He is a member of the national leadership team for Back to Church Sunday.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams on Back to Church Sunday:

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