For many of our parishes, this coming Sunday, September 25, is “Back to Church Sunday.” A movement now active across Canada, the US, and the UK, Back to Church Sunday is a day, early in the church’s fall programming, for congregations to reach out and invite back those who have been away over the summer, and those who have been away from church even longer. Many different types of invitations are issued, ranging from the online to the personal. When people arrive they are often greeted and given name tags so that everyone can know each other’s name. Worship is kept a little more informal than usual (“user-friendly”) and there are refreshments afterwards for people to mingle.
I think that “Back to Church Sunday” is a great way to gather and welcome people after the summer months when church attendance generally drops because of travel and vacations (and summer cabins!) even if I have a small reservation: Shouldn’t every Sunday be “Back to Church” in some way? To my way of thinking, BTCS should not be a “one off” but an ongoing event where the stranger is welcomed, new friends are greeted, and the atmosphere of worship and fellowship is affirming of all. I think the real value of Back to Church Sunday is to remind us of the value of hospitality and friendliness in our churches every Sunday, and every day in between. We are getting better at that, but truthfully, we still have some work to do. I might know what I am talking about. I travel around this diocese all the time and I know firsthand that the welcome mat takes many different forms in the Diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador.
In years past we really didn’t have to work very hard at welcoming those who were away, or making room for the newcomer because we already had the numbers we needed. About one in four of us in Newfoundland and Labrador were Anglicans and with numbers like that in the day when church attendance was socially expected, our churches were pretty full anyway. They were full of families, friends and neighbors. That changed in the past 50 years as we renegotiated all our social relationships and church membership and attendance became a matter of private practice and preference. Today, with people moving around so much and not always even knowing their next-door neighbor, the natural affiliation with a faith community is not always there. That’s why Back to Church Sunday can be so important. In a world not as socially connected as it once was (forget the online communities for a moment which can be pretty thin) there is a need for a sincere and gentle welcome to all in our churches. Let’s just make sure we work on it every day. You never know who is going to show up, and you never know when.
People generally go to church for two reasons: the Spiritual and the Social. Healthy and engaged churches will work hard on both. Growing churches today work every bit as hard at meeting the social needs of their members as they do the spiritual needs. People don’t just connect in worship; they also connect in service, around study groups, and over shared meals. Growing churches work hard on ministry and mission not only on Sundays but every day in between and seek to be open to the world. They know the value of “Back to Church Wednesdays” as much as “Back to Church Sundays!” Both days can be occasions for rich encounters between those who belong and those who do not belong (at least not yet!).
So this Sunday let’s welcome all who come our way and make them feel part of the family. And let’s keep the welcome mat out on Monday! Welcome Back! Welcome Home!