published Saturday, September 8th, 2012

Cooper: Personal touch beats all

More than 10,000 churches nationwide will participate in National Back to Church Sunday on Sept. 16.

There are banners in Soddy-Daisy, a special message series in Dalton and a circus theme in Hixson.

But nothing, say ministers at three area churches, is better than a one-on-one invitation to get people to attend or return to church.

"They say it takes seven touches" of communication by a congregation before someone is likely to visit, said Alan Rogers, pastor of New Salem Baptist Church in Soddy-Daisy.

New Salem is advertising the date on its website, on banners in the community and through mailouts to inactive members, previous visitors and newcomers to the area. Sunday school classes have a contest to see how many each can invite.

"We're challenging people to commit and each one to invite one person to come," Rogers said. The challenge, he said, already has drawn several "very moving commitments."

Outreach is a year-round job, according to the Rev. Kenny Ott, outreach pastor at First United Methodist in Dalton, Ga. "We're constantly doing new things. It's an ongoing thing for us."

The church's annual fall worship series meets a real need in people's lives, Ott said.

Families, especially, are "getting back into the swing of the school year" and feel the need to "get back to church," he said.

Throughout the year, Ott said, church members do random acts of kindness as they go about their daily business.

Last year, at Christmas, the church gave the community a gift by buying down the price of gasoline at one local station. "We couldn't pump it fast enough," he said.

Tim Toler, minister of music at The Ministry Center, said "Life Is a Circus" is the theme for Sept. 16 at the Hixson Church of God congregation.

The illustrated sermon, he said, will include circus performers. In addition, members can give their friends printed tickets to remind them to attend.

Several months ago, teams of church members reached out to inactive members, neighbors, friends and family "to prayerfully urge [them] to come to church that day," Toler said.

The service will be followed by a five-week series on the purpose of church, said Toler. "It's a one-two punch. We wanted to have a purpose for people, if they were hanging in the balance [on whether to attend]. It will give our church people more incentive [to participate].

Recent surveys, according to the National Back to Church outreach, show that 48 percent of church members have not invited an unchurched person to attend a worship service or other program at their church in the past six months.

"It is the personal invitation that is most convincing," said Toler. "Statistics are pretty strong on that, whether they're coming initially or coming back."

In 2011, according to the outreach, the 3,800 churches that participated reported an average of 26 percent increase in weekly attendance.

about Clint Cooper...

Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...

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