English Churches Set Out to Pack Pews on Sunday

In its latest attempt to curb shrinking membership, the Church of England has launched a "Back to Church Sunday" campaign to boost attendance in the pews this Sunday.

Since Monday, 200,000 invitations, aerial advertisements and podcasts have been distributed and launched in an unprecedented effort involving 2,000 churches. The campaign aims to encourage churchgoers to invite a friend, who has stopped attending church for whatever reason, "back to church."

"Millions of people remember and love church, but perhaps they've just drifted away for a while," said the head of the Church of England, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams, who supports the initiative. "Back to Church Sunday is a chance for church people to invite a friend to come back and see what they've been missing, and to help them reconnect with God in special services of welcome across England."

The initiative builds on research revealing the effectiveness of personal invitations. According to the Church of England, 6 percent of the adult population, or 3 million people, would come back to church if they received a personal invitation.

In addition to invites, churches are promoting the campaign with hundreds of balloons released across London, Essex, Derbyshire, Northamptonshire and Manchester to raise awareness of the Sunday event and weeklong radio and poster advertising in the region.

"People can get out of the habit of going to church but I am sure that church has a lot to offer people in 21st Century Britain – especially those considering questions about the purpose and meaning of life," said the Rt. Rev. David Urquhart, bishop of Birmingham.

Back to Church Sunday follows an earlier initiative by the Church of England to draw more youth to the churches amid declining membership. Recognizing the potential of YouTube, Williams encouraged church leaders to post their sermons on the popular network to bring preaching to people where they are at.

The latest initiatives come as many churches in England have seen their membership fall steadily over the years. Congregations have continued to decrease at an alarming rate of 2.3 percent per year, according to the 2005 English Church Census.

Anticipating fuller pews on Sept. 30, churches have been preparing for special "open day" style services and improving their welcome techniques throughout the summer.

"The most important thing about Back to Church Sunday is ensuring that those returning to church get a truly warm welcome," said Canon Paul Bayes, the Church of England's National Mission and Evangelism Adviser, who believes the event is a key opportunity for churches. "Things like the length of services, the hymns and songs we sing and even the way we give out notices can all have an impact on the welcome people feel. It's also critical that churches think though what they can offer people who have made that brave step to come back. I hope many churches will be setting up an informal course explaining the Christian faith, or perhaps holding special lunches over the next weeks for returning worshippers to meet each other."

Back to Church Sunday was launched in 2004 by the Diocese of Manchester and has grown steadily to involve more dioceses. Organizers predict 20,000 people will return to church this Sunday.