Two Seacoast Episcopal churches are launching a program of invitation and welcome called “Come and See.”
The campaign, to be jointly offered by Christ Episcopal Church on Lafayette Road in Portsmouth, and Trinity Episcopal Church on High Street in Hampton, is designed to make it easy for church members to invite their friends and family by creating a worship experience specifically tailored toward welcoming visitors.
The program kicks off with three “Come and See” Sundays, on Feb. 16 and 23 and March 2, aimed at reaching those who have a spiritual hunger, but have not found what they are looking for in the churches they experienced earlier in life.
The campaign is based on a simple idea: If you ask such people to come with you to church, mostly likely they’ll say yes.
A 2012 research study found that 82 percent of those described as “un-churched” people surveyed said that they’d be open to visit a church, if a friend or family member invited them.
Unfortunately, said the Rev. David Robinson, pastor of the two congregations, few church members invite their friends and neighbors.
“Only two percent of church members invite an un-churched person to church,” he said. “Ninety-eight percent of churchgoers never extend an invitation in a given year.”
Organizers say most people who drop out of church haven’t lost their faith in God. Instead, they fell out of the habit of churchgoing.
Some moved or had another change in life circumstances, or had a falling out with their former church and simply drifted away. Most often, life simply became too busy.
That means they are open to returning to church.
“Many people are a simple re-invitation away from coming back to church,” said Robinson.
But inviting people is only part of the campaign. The other part is getting the church ready for them to show up.
A key part of the program is a “behind-the-scenes” effort to make sure the church’s buildings are visitor friendly — and be sure those who come can easily follow and participate in the service.
Diocesan officials, who have provided training and assistance with the program, encourage local churches to pay attention to small details — like clear signage and clean bathrooms — that are important to visitors.
“When people come to church for the first time, or come back after a long absence, they notice everything,” says the Rev. Jason Wells, a Concord pastor and chair of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire’s Evangelism Commission. “In fact, most of them form innate judgments about the environment within seven seconds of walking through the door.”
Organizers point out that returning to church is a process.
“Rebuilding trust with this group is essential, and building trust requires authenticity and consistency,” says Wells. “Otherwise, your returning guests may feel that you have tried a ‘bait and switch.’”
The basis for the program, and its name, comes from an invitation repeated several times in the Gospel according to John: “Come and see.”
Sometimes the invitation came from Jesus. At other times it came from Jesus’ disciples. But always it was an invitation to simply come and see what it’s like to be in the presence of Jesus.
Between now and the Feb. 16 and 23 and March 2 “Come and See Sundays,” parishioners will be asked to extend the hospitality of Christ by inviting someone they know to one or more of these Sundays.
“It is our prayer that they will experience the presence of Christ as they worship with us — and may discover that we have something worth coming back to learn more about,” Robinson said in a recent sermon.
In mounting their effort, the churches will have back-up support. In addition to publicity in the local papers, members will be placing posters in store windows and local bulletin boards, and the diocese is underwriting a saturation mailing to Portsmouth and Hampton households.
“But the key,” Robinson said, “is not the media we use, but the personal invitations we make, and how we make them. We need to find ways to overcome common objections such as ‘church is boring,’ or ’Christians are judgmental and hypocritical.’ Neither of these things describes our churches, but stereotypes persist. If people would just ’come and see,’ they’d discover we have something wonderful to offer them.”
“’Come and See’ has the potential to be an experience that changes the future course of someone’s life,” Wells said. “In a state where so many people fall into the definition of ’de-churched,’ this is a doable effort for any congregation that wants to reach more people in the name of Christ.”