400,000 Invited Back to Church in U.K.

As thousands of churches in the U.K. welcomed back former churchgoers on Sunday, the Archbishop of Canterbury told believers that people still desire for God.

In a message for churches that took part in Back to Church Sunday, Dr. Rowan Williams said, "The desire for God is undimmed in Britain. This country has not turned its back on God or spiritual things."

"And the Church of England is here for the whole nation: we are a spiritual home on every street corner," he added. "Many more people would come if they knew they were invited, so I'm inviting you."

Every year, churches across the denomination participate in Back to Church Sunday, a U.K.-wide evangelism event where invitations are extended to friends and neighbors. This year, around 400,000 invitations were sent out.

This year's campaign was accompanied by a radio campaign, with a short advertisement airing on Classic FM and Heart FM in which churchgoers say what church means to them. The advertisement was broadcast three times a day and heard by an estimated 1.3 million people.

Back to Church Sunday was first launched in the Anglican Diocese of Manchester in 2004 but has since been rolled out to all 44 dioceses in the Church of England.

"There are many people who used to come to church – perhaps in the Sunday School or youth group – but who, over time, have drifted away as life crowded in," commented Bishop of Bangor the Rt. Rev. Andy John. "Back to Church Sunday is a chance to encourage them to come back and see how the church has changed over the years and what it can offer them now."

Other denominations have got on board, including the Baptist, United Reformed and Methodist Churches and The Salvation Army.

This is the first year that the Baptist Union of Great Britain has issued resources specifically tailored for Baptist churches.

The Baptist Union has rebranded the initiative "The Big Welcome" and more than 400 of its churches are participating this year.

BUGB Head of Mission, the Rev. Ian Bunce, said the response to the new materials had been positive.

"People have appreciated that it's not about church, but a welcome; that they're not tied to 'back' so people feel happier about inviting people who have never been to church; and that it doesn't mention Sunday – some churches are hosting other events, like my own, which is having a harvest supper," he said.

The initiative has also spread across the globe, including the U.S. where only about 20 percent of the population attend church, according to LifeWay Research.

U.S. churches already held their 2010 campaign. On Sept. 12, many of the more than 3,800 churches that participated broke attendance records.

"We were pulling chairs out of everywhere just to get everybody in there," said Todd Vinson, pastor of First Baptist Church, Keiser, Ark. Attendance that Sunday rose from 165 to 240.

"If there are still people not going to church, there's a mission field," said Vinson.

Participating churches reported an average increase of 26 percent in weekly attendance.

This was the second time U.S. churches held Back to Church Sunday. The national event is organized by Outreach Inc.