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Back to Church founder shares tips on church growth


By Carolyn Purden

Michael Harvey, founder of the Back to Church Sunday movement, came to the Diocese of Toronto May 30 to June 1 to tell clergy and laity how to “unlock the growth” in their churches.

In a two-hour seminar that was both humorous and thought-provoking, Mr. Harvey discussed a number of tools that could help congregations double their size. The important thing to understand, he said, is that God is the one directing church growth. “God wants people back in relationship with him,” he explained. “The momentum is coming from God.”

Back to Church Sunday, he said, is all about the people who are not in church. “How much time in your meetings do you spend thinking about the people who are not here?” he asked.

Success for Back to Church Sunday is all about the inviting, Mr. Harvey said. Success is one person inviting another person, but it does not necessarily include that person saying “yes.”

“The problem in this diocese is that we don’t get enough ‘no’s’,” he said. “The more ‘no’s’ you get, the more ‘yeses’ you get. If you want to succeed more, fail more.”

One characteristic of Back to Church Sunday, in the Diocese of Toronto and elsewhere, has been that only 20 per cent of the congregation invites a friend. The key to church growth is understanding why the other 80 per cent do not participate, and then those issues can be addressed, he said.

The primary reason for not asking is fear of rejection. “We’re afraid of the word no.” But, he added, Jesus himself was rejected, and Jesus is our model. Another reason for non-participation is indoctrination, he said. We have been told that religion is one of the three things it is not polite to discuss (the others being sex and politics.) “But where in Scripture do you find that we don’t talk about our faith?” Mr. Harvey asked.

Other reasons for non-participation include lack of confidence, a fear of what the invitee might say or ask, and a feeling that it is the minister’s job.

Mr. Harvey suggested that the minister should ask at the vestry level, and then at the congregational level, why people are not going to invite their friends. “Write down everything you hear and turn it into sermon material,” he said. “God is going to tell you through the congregation’s mouths what his agenda is for your congregation.”

Contrary to belief, Mr. Harvey said, most churches are not welcoming. As proof, he cited the fact that 85 per cent of the people invited do not stay. He proposed the following 12 steps to kick the habit of being an unwelcoming church and becoming an invitational church:

  • Church leaders should tell congregations that if everyone invited a friend, and they accepted, the congregation could double in size. “It’s not about bums in seats,” said Mr. Harvey, “but about encouraging our whole congregations to invite. It’s up to God if they accept. And we need to say ‘well done’ to the congregation if they say no.”
  • The church leader needs to say, “I have invited someone. Have you?”
  • The church leader personally invites every member of the congregation, one-on-one, to invite someone. This will allow the reluctant person to say to the invitee that the church leader asked him to do it.
  • The gift of friendship.
  • By telling our stories, we remind ourselves we were blessed.
  • Who has God been preparing in my life? This is a tool especially for those who say they have no friends or no one to invite.
  • Practice the question: “Would you like to come to church with me?”
  • Pray for courage, “for the people you are going to invite, for other people’s courage and for the people they are going to invite.”
  • Make the invitation. “Relax, you don’t have to get a yes,” Mr. Harvey said.
  • Walk or drive with them to the church service that day.
  • Introduce them to your friends over food or coffee.
  • Assume they’re coming the following week.
  • Finally, Mr. Harvey said, “Keep on inviting them until you hear the word no, then ask God what to do next.”

Back to Church Sunday is being held in the Diocese on Sept. 25. Visit our Back to Church Sunday Resources page to help you prepare for the day.