Back to Church Day outreach fills up the pews, but for how long?
He said that new churches are at particular risk of closing their doors for good if they don't experience growth in their early years. "The research shows that if a religious organization can't get 30-40 regular participants in that first decade then the organization collapses," Dougherty said. "If it can make it past that first decade it is highly likely they will be around for 50 more years."
A Protestant church must attract a sufficient number of individuals to sustain the ministry long term, staffing and operating the child care, youth, self-help and other programs that help targeted groups in the community.
Dougherty said it is those types of specialized programs that keep people coming back to church or provide varying points of entry into a community church. "It's not only the place to go for the Sunday sermon and music, but this is where you go for help with children or addiction recovery. Then (church) becomes a place where relationships are fostered and that’s the key to the survival of a congregation."
Research points to various reasons someone would grace the doors of a new church, coming either from another faith or from no faith at all. A 2009 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found the religious service or style of worship to be an overwhelming factor for someone to join a new church.
But both Nation and Dougherty said a common motivation for someone to show up at church for the first time or after a period of non-involvement is a significant life change — marriage, raising children, divorce or death. Larger community tragedies, such as a natural disaster or a mass shooting, have also been found to cause people to turn to religion for solace or answers.
"We have seen significant increases in attendance following national tragedies like 9/11," Nation said.
But the personal invitation from a friend is one of the most effective ways to get someone back to church, Dougherty said.
"There's a social obligation that comes with a personal request" from someone you like or trust, he said.
Dougherty explained that people tend to be with others who are like them. For example, co-workers often have educational, economical, cultural and social similarities that create a natural bond or trust in each other. They share tastes in food or entertainment and discuss politics or religion. "You say, 'I know him, I am like him, so that place must not be that bad,'" Dougherty said of entertaining an invitation to church.
Pastor Martelly said he tells his congregation to look for opportunities to share their faith and assures them it won't damage their friendship.
"Even if a person doesn’t agree with your faith walk, it doesn’t mean they won’t be your friend," he said. "It doesn’t mean they won’t be friends if they don’t agree."
Getting members to overcome the fear and discomfort of sharing their faith is a secondary benefit of outreach programs like Back to Church Sunday, Dougherty said, citing the LDS Church's missionary program's effectiveness in building a commitment and loyalty to the faith among young adult missionaries.
"In simply inviting people to church I am staking a claim that my church is a good place and I will put myself out there to say that," he said. "That does something to the individual doing that invitation. It encourages them to think more highly of their place of worship and fosters a sense of belonging to that place. They may have had that before, but it forces them to grasp that on several fronts."
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