Protestant churches participating in the Back to Church Sunday effort will experience a temporary bump in attendance, but then what?

SOUTH JORDAN — Pastor Grantley Martelly has some advice for congregants who fear they will jeopardize a friendship if they invite a coworker or neighbor to church.

"People form opinions of us long before we share who we are with them. They have already decided on your friendship," he said. "I constantly remind people that who you are is being told about you long before you open your mouth."

The senior pastor of a church called Impact Multicultural Ministries, Pastor Martelly has been stressing that message recently to prepare his flock for their recognition of national Back to Church Sunday, an annual outreach effort to encourage Protestants to share their faith and invite a non-churchgoer to a Sunday service.

Based on the past three years of the program, congregations that participate will experience a spike in membership on Sunday. But the impact of inviting someone to church can be more far reaching than a blip in attendance at a time when statistics show rolls at Protestant faiths around the country are thinning and only a small percentage of Christians are willing to share their faith with non-churchgoers.

"The church is doing this for the long-tail impact so that after that initial bump in attendance you can enfold them into small group Bible study and regular worship services," said Philip Nation, national spokesman for the movement and director of adult ministry publishing for Lifeway, an affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Combating decline

Mainline Protestant churches have declined in membership since the 1970s, according to the National Council of Churches, and Southern Baptist, the nation's second largest denomination behind the Catholic Church, has experienced a decline in membership since 2006.

Coupled with the decline is recent Lifeway research that found while 80 percent of churchgoers believe they have a responsibility to share their faith, just 48 percent had invited someone to church.

"They are just relying on clergy to do all the work or relying on a mass mailer to be enough to invite friends to church," Nation said. "(Back to Church Sunday) began as national rallying point to reengage the membership to do the personal invitations rather than just rely on post cards in mail or billboards on the highway."

He said the program has evolved to include resources to help churches get members involved. This year's innovations are a "Pastor Rap" video posted on YouTube and resources on how to use social media as a way to reach out to non-churchgoers.

The program is boasting that more than 12,000 churches have signed up to participate compared to 7,600 the year before. But the number of churches participating this year is likely inflated because of the registration process. A spokesperson for the program said congregations that signed up in the past were automatically signed up for this year whether they are participating or not. A church that is automatically registered can opt out, however.

And no research has been done on what percentage of the Back to Church Sunday attendees return for the long term. Martelly, who calls his congregation’s invitation program "Friend Day" and will be holding it Sept. 23 instead of this Sunday, said last year's effort attracted about 20 new people, of which one family has returned periodically.

Risking collapse

But congregations that don't have some kind of outreach program to attract new members risk stagnating and possibly collapsing, explained Kevin Dougherty, a sociologist at Baylor University who studies religious congregational growth and decline.

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.

Social obligation

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."

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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."