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Personal invite works better than gimmicks to fill churches

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 12:59 PM

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It's not as if churches haven't tried.

Coffee houses. Edgy music. Illustrated sermons. Bible studies based on everything from Harry Potter to The Simpsons. Facebook. Even, as curious as it might sound, liturgical dance.

What does it take to fill those empty pews with people?

According to a national study by Lifeway Research, the answer may be pretty simple.

You invite them.

"It happens. You got people out there who were connected to a church at one point in their lives and, for whatever reason, they've wandered away and just quit going," says Dawn Anderson, pastor at Forest Hills United Methodist Church in Tampa. "And they're not coming back, either out of embarrassment, fear or apathy."

On Sunday, Anderson's church will be among some 13,000 from 34 denominations around the country – including about 200 in the Tampa Bay area – making a proactive attempt to bring former members and "unchurched" people back to the fold.

Participation in National Back to Church Sunday, now in its fourth year, has nearly doubled since last year. And it comes at a crucial time: Lifeway reports that some 150,000 people walk away from church every week.

That's the bad news. The good news, says Lifeway's Philip Nation, is that 82 percent of non-churchgoers said they would be likely to attend if they were invited by a trusted friend or relative.

"You can put up billboards, send out mass mailers, post invitations on Facebook," Nation says. "But the more personal you make that invitation, the more effective it becomes. Yet our research shows only about 2 percent of church members actually extend one."

The initiative is a joint effort of Lifeway and Outreach Inc., a church communications resource provider. At www.backtochurch.com, participants can access an interactive website with free resources, or digitally download a $60 kit that includes graphics, promotional materials, sermons, videos and other tools to encourage congregants to get involved.

Outreach also produced an amusing rap video (search "pastor rap – back to church Sunday' on YouTube or GodTube) with several actors portraying a diverse group of pastors inviting people to their respective churches. It's generated more than 220,000 views so far, with comments from "hilarious!" to "disgusting … this is near blasphemy."

"We wanted to convey that churches can be fun and relevant," says Eric Abel of the Colorado Springs-based Christian marketing firm. "There are different churches for people from all walks of life. We've got to get that message across, and what better way than to use popular culture?"

At a time when some 4,000 churches open every year – and another 7,000 close – Larry Shrodes decided he did not want to become a statistic. So three years ago, the pastor of Northside Assembly of God in north Tampa did a "relaunch," changing the church's name to "Celebration" and revamping its programs and approach.

He says he was alarmed by the slow decline in attendance, which had dropped to about 150 people. And given that Florida's church attrition rate is about 20 to 30 percent a year, a church that doesn't grow is doomed to fail.

"I was tempted to put up a sign that said 'Under New Management'," he says. "Because if people have a bad experience, they just move on to another place or quit altogether. You have to ask yourself: How can we do better to serve? What are we missing?"

The relaunch worked. Celebration now claims about 250 members and continues to grow. And the church keeps making adjustments to have a broader appeal. For example, last week Shrodes threw out the traditional Sunday School classes, renaming them "Life Groups" and making them more interactive. Attendance at the revamped program nearly doubled from 60 to 91.

"I've often said that a pastor with 10 years experience is really someone with one year experience, just doing the same thing over and over," he says. "You can't just keep doing things the way you've always done them. It's change or die."

Sunday will be the third time that Celebration participates in the Back to Church initiative. He's hoping for a bigger crowd – but not necessarily one that will translate into bigger numbers for his church.

"Getting them in to the door to show Christ's love and how it can impact their lives is the real motive," he says. "If they choose to attend somewhere else or go back to their former church, that's ok. We just want to get them past the barrier that is keeping them away."

That may be a challenge in the Tampa area. Despite the area's 3,000-plus churches – with Catholics, Baptists and Methodists making up the bulk of the population – this is surprisingly a not-so-religious region. In a 2010 ranking of more than 50 metropolitan areas, Tampa-St. Petersburg places next to last in the percentage of people who identify themselves as religious adherents. The area landed just one place ahead of Portland, Ore.

Debbie Weisemann, minister of outreach at Bells Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon, doesn't see it. She's one of about 6,000 members of a "very enthusiastic" congregation with multiple ministries and programs catered to meet the needs of the membership.

Members there have embraced the Back to Church movement, she says. They've walked their neighborhoods, putting up 3,000 door hangers. They've talked to friends, co-workers and relatives, giving out 5,000 invitations. The church's coffee bar will be open from 8:45 a.m to 12:45 p.m. Sunday for guests, who also will be given a gift.

"We want everyone to feel loved and cared for," she says. "If they need prayers, they get added to our prayer list, whether they come back or not. God has made such a difference in our lives, and we want to show them how it can change theirs, too."


mbearden@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7613

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