Getting visitors does not guarantee that your church will grow. However, I guarantee that your church won’t grow without getting visitors. I agree with those who argue that the “Attractional” model of church growth is no longer the best model in our largely post-Christiandom culture, and that we must take on a more “Missional” model where we go out into our surrounding communities to connect with non-believers. Once you connect with them, you still, eventually, have to invite them to something. You still must bring them into the church where, in community, they will be transformed to be like Christ. So inviting people to church remains an essential component to church growth.
Yet, even with all the preaching, teaching, poking, prodding, and even sometimes guilting that church people receive about inviting others to church, most of the time they don’t. In my opinion, many Christian’s reasons for not inviting people to church can be summed up as immaturity in Christ or selfishness. I’ve seen this often in my work in church revitalization. However, even mature selfless believers who care deeply about the salvation of those near and far, still don’t invite much. My contention is that it is often due to fear. One way to help people overcome their fear of inviting is by creating fun events for them to invite people to. Here’s an example from my own experience as a rector.
After years of being in rented spaces, we bought and moved into our own facility. Although for years we had done a Halloween alternative event like so many churches do, we discovered that a church just down the street had been doing one for 20 years and it was huge. We quickly decided not to bother competing and let them have that one! No one around was doing any kind of fun event around Christmas so we decided to try something then. We created a Christmas Carnival with a Chili Cook-off. We held the first one on a Saturday and frankly it was not successful from a purely human standpoint. No one invited anyone and the attendance was poor. We only had one unchurched mother with her two children come because she read the sign in front of the church.
It turned out that this mother was an active drug addict who had bad experiences with church in the past however she really loved chili. She decided she could put up with church people long enough to get some free chili and then get out. While there, she saw the brochures for Celebrate Recovery, a Christ-centered, 12 step ministry that our church offered. While eating her second bowl of chili she commented that she needed recovery and maybe it wasn’t an accident she came. Maybe indeed! Well she was invited to come to church and of course Celebrate Recovery. She ended up first coming to a Wednesday night Bible Study and brought her husband. I was teaching on Matthew 5:3, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” After a small group discussion on this verse she admitted that being poor in spirit described her and we prayed with her to repent and believe in Jesus to become a Christian – to enter the kingdom of heaven. She and the family all came to worship the next Sunday and the husband became a believer that day! The whole family came to believe and were all baptized together. Their lives where radically transformed. She started inviting all sorts of people to church, to come and see what Jesus can do! Their changed lives were leading to more changed lives!
Well that whole story was just to tell you this: this same woman came to me and suggested that since she came because of chili, maybe we should do a Sundae Sunday where we give away free ice cream sundaes! Great idea! We discovered that the third Sunday of every July is National Ice Cream Day thanks to President Ronald Reagan. So, on that day we planned to give everyone a free sundae after the church service and included a 15’ banana split for the kids. And of course, we asked church members to invite unchurched people to come. And guess what? They did! We had our third largest attendance in Sunday worship that year in the middle of July! The only bigger days were Easter and Mother’s Day. We had many new young families visit – for ice cream – but heard the Gospel proclaimed and had a good experience with church people. We added members as a result. More lives were transformed. Now, not all who came joined, but some did! As I started this article saying, getting visitors won’t guarantee your church will grow but I guarantee it won’t grow without getting visitors.
So, one fun event that seemed like a complete failure led to another fun event that was a huge success in getting people to invite. Since National Ice Cream Day is July 15th this year, it’s probably too late to do a Sundae Sunday on that day. But you could do it later in the summer! It will still be hot and people will still like ice cream. Or you could try it next summer. Or don’t do that at all and come up with your own creative idea that will work in your area. What could that be? What fun event could you do that would help bring down the fear for people to invite? Don’t be afraid to try different things. Some will work, some won’t, but nothing will if you don’t try.
The Rev. Canon Mark Eldredge is Director of Church Revitalization and Coaching at the American Anglican Council.