New figures show that 2.6 million people attended Church of England churches at Christmas last year.
This means the number of people attending church at Christmas is over double the usual.
Christmas is the time of the year where people who don’t go regularly to church, are even more open to an invitation. But church leaders often ask me why we don’t retain more of those who come at Christmas. I want to suggest that one of the main reasons is invitation.
At Christmas people often turn up uninvited. Some come on their own, some come with other unchurched friends, but they come uninvited. We should be honoured that God has prompted them to come. At church they are welcomed by people at the door, they are often welcomed during the service, some may even linger for coffee, but they are not connected to someone in the church who could invite them to take a closer look at Christianity.
We often think the act of worship should be enough, and sometimes it is, but more often people stay because they have been invited to stay by someone with whom they connected. So we need a strategy for those who are brave enough to turn up uninvited.
1. Seat visitors with regulars
Firstly I want to suggest that we seat the uninvited next to people in the church who understand what it means to host. They may invite them to coffee, and invite them back the next time the church meets, and even follow up with a personal invitation during the week. This at least makes sure that the uninvited get to know someone at your church. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we can transform God’s invited guests into our friends?
2. Create a culture of invitation
Christmas is also a time when we can encourage our congregational members to invite their friends. This time is a wonderful opportunity to move from considering ourselves purely as welcoming churches to becoming welcoming and inviting.
The Talking Jesus research found that about two in three non-Christians in England know someone they perceive to be a ‘practising Christian’. Most of these Christians are either family members (34%) or friends (40%). The same research also points to the importance of church and asked 'what positively influenced you to become a Christian?' 28 per cent said it was 'attending church'.
I would suggest that as a feature of the services in the run-up to Christmas that we interview some of our congregational members who have been invited to church over the past years who can tell of the impact of the invitation. Also if present, get the person who invited them to tell their story of how the invitation came about, and highlight the courage it took and the joy of process.
3. Ask God for help
I would suggest that at the end of one of your services, as one big congregation you ask God to whom you should offer a gift of invitation. God is the ultimate inviter. He is already at work. All we have to do is ask God who to invite and be obedient in his strength.
In my experience, 70 per cent of congregational members already have someone in mind to invite to church. God has already invited them to invite. Just imagine congregational members writing down the first name of the person God has called them to invite and asking people to come forward and laying the name of the person underneath your church Christmas tree.
Come and see
When the Angel of the Lord announced the birth that first Christmas and told the shepherds where the baby was, the shepherds took the announcement ‘for unto you’ as an invitation, just as so many people will do this Christmas. They went to find the Saviour.
Christmas is a time to see more people engaging or re-engaging with their local church. May we be ready to welcome our uninvited guests, for they have already been invited by God, may they leave us knowing that they have found Christ among us and that they have been invited by us to return. And may they also be so transformed like the shepherds that they also invite their friends into the story of Christmas.
Michael Harvey is the author of Creating a Culture of Invitation in your church and developer of a National Weekend of Invitation weekendofinvitation.com