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Back to Church Sunday set for Sept. 21

Back to Church Sunday set for Sept. 21

If you ask them, they will come.

That’s the premise behind National Back to Church Sunday, a movement that touts the importance of extending a personal invitation to worship to neighbors and acquaintances. 

Springhead UMC members wave motorists in for a free carwash
Volunteers wave motorists in for a free carwash at Springhead UMC, part of the church's Back to Church outreach. From left, Anisa Castrejon, 13; Sandra Elmore, wife of Pastor Patrick Elmore; and Chasity Rademacher, 17, as Elmo. Photos by Susan Green.
Volunteer gets ready for first Back to Church worship service at Springhead UMC
A volunteer checks technology in the Springhead UMC sanctuary in preparation for the church's first Back to Church worship service.

On Sept. 21, thousands of churches of various denominations are expected to deliver that message nationwide. Back to Church Sunday, now in its sixth year, anticipates outreach to about 3.3 million people who don't belong to or attend a church for whatever reason.

Outside the U.S., about 1,300 churches also are expected to participate.

"This whole initiative is powered by personal invitation," said Jamie Stahler, director of partnerships and marketing for Outreach Inc., which supports the movement.

"The strongest evangelical tool is Christian people. We are excited to see this growing and to see people getting invited to church."

In Florida, Rev. Patrick Elmore saw promise in the idea. He signed up on the Back to Church website almost immediately after he became pastor of Springhead UMC, Plant City, in July. In fact, members of the little country church that is celebrating 75 years this fall are devoting a full month to the effort.

“We’re doing a little bit each Sunday,” Elmore said, noting that special events and video presentations for the surrounding community are on tap, and volunteers are working on posters and fliers that will go up in nearby stores and gathering spots. The church kicked off the month Sept. 6 with a free carwash for people who stopped by the church and a special appearance by Elmo, the Sesame Street character.

“We’re building momentum, so when the 21st arrives, it will be the culmination,” Elmore said. He also has asked a local radio station that broadcasts in Spanish and English to promote the special day.

“That’s our audience,” said the pastor, a veteran of 43 years of ministry. “That’s who I want to reach.”

The church officially claims 70 members, but average Sunday turnout is typically about 35, Elmore said. Some worshipers come from as far as Brandon, Bartow and Lakeland.

“They’re not agricultural but professionals and paraprofessionals … who like the smaller church atmosphere,” Elmore said. “There are young people in these (attending) families, but they go elsewhere because the church has been so steeped in traditionalism that it doesn’t appeal.”

Deanna Lemelin, a longtime Springhead member, remembered when the church youth ministry was large enough to support outings geared toward young people. The mother of 12-year-old Bailey, she is hoping Back to Church will help resurrect that ministry.

“At one time, it was a very lively group,” Lemelin said, citing fond memories of fall festivals and other events. Now the church struggles to generate volunteers to stage such events.

About 25 miles away, another small rural church, Asbury UMC, Bartow, will participate in Back to Church for the third time.

Pastor Carol Sue Hutchinson is a believer in the concept, which has led to two families joining the church family. 

Matthew Rawls scrubs a hubcap in a free community carwash at Springhead UMC
"It's trying to rebuild, which is a good thing." Matthew Rawls of Springhead UMC scrubs a hubcap in a free community carwash to promote Back to Church Sunday. His father, Richard, who joined the church in 1951, also volunteered.

"I think people respond to an invitation," Hutchinson said. "They are looking for a place that is warm and inviting."

She plans to preach her usual service. She doesn't want to oversell the church, just make first-time visitors and returning worshipers welcome.

"That's so people can know what to expect (each week) rather than something special," she said. "We use it like a rally day."

Asbury registered on the national website to get some exposure, but the congregation can’t afford to buy the pre-designed promotional items. Instead, volunteers will craft their own invitations – about 50 – that will go to children of church families who have been absent during the summer months and others who signed up for Bible school but didn't list a church affiliation.

Larger churches also see value in the movement. Grace Community UMC, Lithia, a church of 350 to 400 worshipers close to a large suburban community, is participating this year for the first time.

Worship leader John Herbet belonged to a church in Ohio that celebrated the event, and he brought it to the attention of the Grace congregation. Instead of a back-to-school event, they put their energies into Back to Church Sunday.

"We were looking for something to give us a good push in September, when people are coming back from vacations and children are headed to school," Herbet said. "It's more of an outreach to the whole family."

Advertisements in local newspapers and fliers are spreading the word, but Herbet expects the personal invitations from church members to be most effective.

"We don't mean for people to ask people who go to another church but to ask those that are unchurched and people who have been out of circulation awhile," he said. "We're really trying to reach people and share a real living Jesus in today's world."

The day’s traditional and contemporary services will be tailored to the theme with performances by adult and children's choirs. Refreshments will be served between services, when attendees can browse among display tables for information about Grace ministries. Hot dogs will be served for lunch.

The first Back to Church Sunday in 2009 was inspired by statistics from Thom Rainer's book, "The Unchurched Next Door," which suggested that only 2 percent of Christians invite people they know to church. Rainer is chief executive officer of Nashville-based, nonprofit LifeWay Christian Resources, whose research division is an event partner.

The movement enrolled about 600 churches in its first year. Participation has increased steadily, fueled in part by social media.

Churches are encouraged to create their own Facebook pages. They can purchase toolkits and promotional materials, but a listing on the national website is free.

Florida Conference pastors interviewed said personal contact is still the key to success.

"We've got to start talking to people," Herbet said. "They may not be comfortable talking about the salvation message, but we're trying to create an invitational culture here. Ultimately, that one question could change a person's life for eternity."

Elmore said he knows the Back to Church idea is not a silver bullet. Plans for Springhead include hosting a continuous stream of community activities, and not just on Sundays.

“What this is doing is creating an awareness that this church is alive and well,” the pastor said. “Once you get them (newcomers) in the door, then you have a chance to evangelize.”

-- Kathy Steele is a freelance writer based in Tampa. Susan Green is the managing editor of Florida Conference Connection.