Pastors have long tried to lure them back to the fold. Now they’re tacking a different tack.
They are now collectively called the “de-churched,” explained Donnie Sills, pastor of West Weaver Baptist Church.
“It’s a whole new idea,” Sills said. “The de-churched are those who have a religious memory, who have a Christian heritage. It’s those people who grew up in the church but for whatever reason walked away.”
The “de-churched” are one of the targets in the campaign that has declared Sept. 16 National Back to Church Sunday.
According to its website (BackToChurch.com), more than 14,000 congregations are expected to participate in National Back to Church Sunday, which began in 2009. Among those are at least 13 local congregations including Grace Fellowship, Harvest Church of God, Hope Community Church in Jacksonville, Victory Baptist Church in Ohatchee, Piedmont Church of God and West Weaver Baptist Church.
This is West Weaver Baptist’s first year to join Back to Church Sunday. Sills ran across a reference to the campaign in a magazine, thought it sounded interesting and passed it on to his staff.
“It was very strategically planned,” Sills said. “With it being Sept. 16, Labor Day has passed, summer’s pretty much over and people are getting back into their old routines … and with getting them to think about coming back to church, we’re hoping to get them starting some new routines and habits.”
Church attendance in Alabama
The logical question is: This is the South — the Bible Belt — just how necessary is a campaign to get people back to church?
In Alabama, 74 percent of people say “religion is very important in their lives,” ranking Alabama second in a 50-state poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life. Mississippi was first with 82 percent.
Yet when it came to attendance in worship service, Alabama ranked fifth with 52 percent. Mississippi, with 60 percent, remained first, according the same poll.
Attracting those de-churched masses back into the pews is a challenge that will exist long after the fervor of Back to Church Sunday, Sills said.
“It takes a lot of strategy, a lot of work, but mostly it comes down to blood, sweat and tears,” he said. “And it never ends. Showing people how much better their lives could be if they choose to walk with Christ is every pastor’s job.”
A study by LifeWay Research, which, along with Outreach Inc., is a major sponsor of the campaign, found that of the more than 15,000 Americans polled, 67 percent say that a personal invitation from a family member would be effective in getting them to visit a church. In the same study, 63 percent said an invitation from a friend or neighbor would likely move them to respond.
National Back to Church Sunday also has a splash of star power in Bethany Hamilton, the champion surfer whose life story becomes the inspiration for the movie “Soul Surfer.” Hamilton has long credited her faith for giving her strength to return to surfing after losing an arm in a shark attack.
Churches need to band together
For Sills and the congregation of West Weaver Baptist, however, there wasn’t much lure in being part of a national campaign. Rather, Back to Church Sunday serves as a reminder for how churches have grown apart, distancing themselves from one another while often fighting over the same people. This event offers the opportunity for congregational harmony.
“It’s the right time,” Sills said. “It’s a time for churches, especially evangelical churches, to band together in order to have a greater impact on people’s lives than they ever could just working alone.
“Churches have been doing too little of that.”
At West Weaver Baptist, Sunday’s sermon will be “amped up,” said Sills. The message will come from Psalm 34:8: “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good; Blessed is the man who trusts in Him,” which Sills considers to be an a “really upbeat invitation” to experience the love of Christ.
Sills said the choir has been putting in extra hours of practice so that the music will meet the tempo of the service.
Yet despite the promise of fresh faces in the audience, Sills isn’t putting too much pressure on himself.
“I definitely want to get this one right,” Sills said. “But standing in the pulpit and proclaiming the love of God is something I always take seriously, no matter what else is going on that Sunday, because you never know who out there might be giving God one last chance.”
Contact Brett Buckner at firstname.lastname@example.org.