Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Invite, Welcome, Befriend


You may have heard of 'Back to Church Sunday' - it started in England about ten years ago, encouraging local churches to have one Sunday a year where every member had the chance to be an evangelist in a low-intensity manner: invite a friend to go to church with them.

There was an initial flurry amongst Methodist churches in Ireland, with a few success stories - one year, (as far as I remember) around 120 people came to Methodist churches across Ireland with a friend on that Sunday, and continued in worship from then on: the equivalent of planting a new church.

But the energy began to ebb, churches started saying things like 'we did that last year' or (because the set date was at the end of September) 'it's too close to Harvest'. Essentially, our folks got too focused on the EVENT instead of the ATTITUDE.

Back to Church Sunday have changed tack this year, morphing into 'A Season of Invitation', offering church members a series of opportunities to invite friends to join them in worship. The reasoning is that multiple invitations increases the statistical chance of a person becoming part of the fellowship, which hopefully will lead to contact (or renewed contact) with the Gospel and the family of believers. I think that's a healthy and helpful shift. But if local churches run with this programme simply as a programme of events, the energy will once again leak away to nothing after one or two years.

The key (as explained in some B2CS training a few years ago) is the attitude within a whole congregation of inviting, welcoming and befriending. When the whole body has the heart for people and love of God that is expressed through inviting friends to meet someone they love, that is winsome. When the friends make that bold step to walk into a church building (or any gathering of Christians, there can be a fair amount of apprehension if it's been a while since being part of a fellowship, nomatter where or when we meet), there needs to be a warm, real welcome - smiles, handshakes, thoughtfulness, food! And the attitude of all the people needs to be 'these could be new best friends!' (rather than the approach of, 'I wonder could they do youth work?').

Recently we visited a church on a weekend off. Their website didn't have service times on it and didn't mention whether there was a Sunday School or creche. We drove past the building the evening before to get the start time but weren't convinced our boys would survive without some age-appropriate content. We didn't set an alarm! But we were woken at six by one of our little angels and were able to get there a minute after start time. The front door was closed. Then there was a corridor with no signs pointing to the sanctuary. The door to the sanctuary was closed and no-one was there to open it, say hello, or tell us about children's stuff - and once inside, the back rows were filled with local folks so we had to troop to the front.

It was an uncomfortable exerience for us, making us wonder why anyone without the habit of Sunday worship attendance would ever put themselves through it. Certainly, the folks were warm afterwards. But it made me think about our own place of worship and whether we can better help people who make the brave step of coming out to church. I'm encouraged when I chat to newcomers and they tell me they had meaningful conversations with several of our people during coffee time after the service. I hope we are good welcomers. We can probably do better.

But Inviting, Welcoming and Befriending does not happen just because we're told to do it. It happens because a people's hearts are on fire with the love of God. And it's also not evangelism - at some point we need to be ready to gently share the hope that we have in Jesus.

When did you last invite someone to accompany you to a worship gathering?