Churches across the United Kingdom are pulling out all the stops to welcome lapsed Christians back to church this Sunday.
The Back to Church Sunday initiative has grown year on year since its 2004 launch in the Diocese of Manchester, and bishops and members of 38 churches have come up with novel new ways of making the welcome back for this year's newcomers and "returners extra special.
The Bishop of Sherwood, the Rt. Rev. Tony Porter, is heading down to Welbeck Colliery on Tuesday to hand out special Back to Church invitations to miners coming off their shifts.
"I'm looking forward to having a taste of what it is like to work below the surface," he said. "The coal mines are an important part of our heritage and many of our communities were established around the local pit … Our message this year is that everyone is a VIP and important to God – we are trying to extend our invitations as widely as possible."
Members of St. Wilfrid's church in Cowplain, near Waterlooville in Hampshire, rolled out a red carpet from the front entrance last week to raise awareness about Back to Church Sunday.
St. Wilfrid's vicar, the Rev. Paul Moore, said, "It's so easy for people who don't normally come to imagine that they'll be unwelcome intruders if they walk into a church service. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. We will aim to make them feel really at home.
"Sometimes people lose touch with church because of family commitments or personal circumstances and then feel it would be hypocritical of them to come back again. Our job is to persuade them that they are actually very welcome."
Organizers are encouraged by recent research by Tearfund which found that around 3 million people would come back to church if invited. They expect as many as 30,000 people to return to church this Sunday in England alone.
The Team Rector of Ellesmere Port, the Rev. Gordon McGuinness, invited the former town center manager of Ellesmere Port, Lorraine Taylor, after the pair worked on urban renewal projects together.
"Inviting people back to church is often inviting them to surroundings they are unfamiliar with. For some people, going inside the church after a gap of many years will be like entering a betting shop - unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable, and so we have to make them feel as comfortable as we possibly can," he said.
Five people have been invited to Chester Cathedral by the Bishop of Chester, the Rt. Rev Peter Foster, for a red carpet champagne reception. Also, the Bishop of Doncaster, the Rt. Rev Cyril Ashton, will take to his motorbike on Thursday and ride out to four areas of the Diocese of Sheffield with six other bikers where they will hold a short service of prayer and dedication to promote Back to Church Sunday.
"This is a great way to launch Back to Church Sunday," said Canon John Thomson.
He added, "The bishop's biker prayer visit will certainly help to energize those taking part. Back to Church Sunday is something any congregation can take part in. It's simply about welcoming people back to church."
Churches hope to build on the success of last year's Back to Church Sunday, which research from the Diocese of Lichfield suggests brought 6,000 people back to church. The research also found that six months later, as many as 900 had become regular members.
The Archdeacon of Walsall, the Ven. Bob Jackson, commented: "People invite their friends on Back to Church Sunday with no strings attached. We know many people will gladly respond to this. What we've proved is that up to 15 per cent like it so much they want to come back for good. No wonder Back to Church Sunday has been such an encouragement. This year we want to work hard on improving our welcome even more."