Wrong number, right message

We’ve all done it. Inverted two numbers, tapped the wrong contact, and ended with a surprise when the ‘wrong’ person answered our phone call. Almost always, this is an unremarkable event, but in Peace River, Alberta a wrong number led to a very special Back to Church Sunday for the parishioners of St. James Anglican Cathedral.

In 2010, the parish decided to try Back to Church Sunday for the first time. This is a special Sunday where members of the community are encouraged to ask someone new to join them at church. Dean and rector of St. James, the Very Reverend Dr. Iain Luke, turned to those he knew would have an enthusiasm for this small mission. He called to mind one member of St. James who had “always been a keen inviter, so I was counting on her to be an example.” An example she was!

She prayed about it and then settled on who she’d like to invite for the inaugural Back to Church Sunday. When the spirited inviter phoned the person she had in mind, she—accidentally and providentially—dialed the wrong number.

As it happens in a town of 6,000, the parishioner recognized the voice at the other end of the line anyway. The two chatted away and then, remembering the original intent of her call, the parishioner extended the invitation she had set out to extend.

Those simple words of hospitality landed upon the right ears at the right time. The invited family had been away from church for some time and were trying to find a way back.

The family came on Back to Church Sunday. Then again the following week. They came for their third consecutive week, which fell on Thanksgiving weekend, at the insistence of their daughter who exclaimed, “But we’ve never missed!” Luke laughs and says, “I guess there’s some truth that in the church if you do something twice it becomes a tradition.”

The meeting of this family and the parish was meaningful for all. The new congregants brought with them great talents in music and drama, and new connections into the community where the church had none before. People in the parish saw the impact of invitation and were transformed as a result. “It’s become much more part of the DNA of our parish,” reflects Luke, “because we know what can happen if we do.”

Though St. James carefully prepared for that one special Sunday, the effect rippled throughout the liturgical year and lingers today. The spirit of a special day of invitation and hospitality is now something that permeates much of their life together. “It made us more focussed on who’s around us and how we can engage them in God and the faith in our lives,” says Luke, “This is about changing us. The purpose is to transform our own culture so that people can show up any time.”

Now, a few years out from this wrong-number tale, the leadership at St. James continues to nurture the fruits of this first Sunday. One way this work continues is by encouraging invitations to regular and special events at the church, like concerts or Holy Week liturgies.

One might wonder if in a town of just 6,000 people if invitations might quickly reach a saturation point. However, Luke notes that Peace River is a community of transition, with people and families coming for jobs and then moving on. In this kind of town, the church can offer stronger connections to the people around you, intergenerational bonds for families who have left grandparents behind, and spiritual wealth in the midst of the material comforts many in Peace River know.

In the midst of the anxiety around invitation and building community, Luke insists it’s not hard to to reach out to others in this way. “It’s not the response that matters, but the asking. It is part of what the church needs to be now.”

The Back to Church Sunday initiative started in the United Kingdom ten years ago, as a way to encourage churchgoers to extend an invitation to others to attend church with them. As a result of the evolution of this ministry, 2014 saw resources emerge for the Season of Invitation, which seeks to extend the spirit of hospitality throughout the fall months . . . and beyond!

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