Warm contacts, wider contacts

The Revd Dr Sandra Millar, Head of Projects & Developments, Archbishops' Council

Every week the Church of England is involved with around 3000 funerals, 2000 baptisms of children under 12 and 1000 weddings.

Each of these services attracts a congregation – we don’t actually know how many people we meet as the numbers are not recorded anywhere. (We all count congregations at every funeral, wedding and baptism [!] but they are not required for Statistics for Mission, and it is doubtful whether numbers attending crem services are recorded.)

Congregations at these events are often getting larger as families and friends scatter, and opportunities to come together become more important. A good guesstimate is that the Church of England has contact with around 500,000 million people each week through these services.

There will be many in these numbers who are attending more than one service: those in the 18 – 40 age group are particularly likely to be at weddings and baptisms, whereas a lot of older people may be finding themselves at funerals all too often. In some of our rural communities many clergy will have contact with over half the population through the occasional offices, making these occasions important and significant.

The vicar of an idyllic Devon church, where there are a large number of weddings, said: “I don’t know if the hundred wedding guests are in church for the first time in their lives, perhaps the only time, so I need them to have the best possible experience they can.”

Wider contacts are all too easily dismissed because ‘we never see them again’, and have no idea where any person might be on their personal or faith journey. What we do know is that a negative experience of being a guest in a church service which marks a life event makes it really hard the next time we try to share the good news of Jesus Christ. So it makes sense to be welcoming, share a relevant message and include them as much as possible.

One of the best ways of involving the wider congregation is to involve them in prayer.

One of the best ways of involving the wider congregation is to involve them in prayer. There are several creative ways of doing this – some are shared in our Baptism Ideas section as videos, or, you might like to hand out one of the prayer bookmarks available from the Print Hub for funerals and for christenings. There are cards that can be given to wedding guests too.

Warm contacts are those who are the heart of every occasional service. These are the people who have chosen to ask us for help at a key moment in their life. In our contemporary culture no-one needs to feel they have to involve the church when they marry, when they welcome a child into their family or when someone they love dies, but many, many people still choose to give us a call.

We then have an amazing opportunity to be in touch with those at the heart of the service. For weddings that is two people; at a funeral it might be 10 or it might be one, but a good average is 3 people who are involved in the organising of the service; and for the baptism of a child we have warm contact with 6 people: a child, usually two parents, and at least 3 godparents.

through these occasions the Church of England has contact with 1.2 million people each year

This means that through these occasions the Church of England has contact with 1.2 million people each year. That’s such a big number it needs some scaling down. For example, in one North West diocese, the Church of England potentially meets more warm contacts through the occasional offices than Christmas service attendance!

One vicar took this formula and looked at the numbers of occasional offices over the past year in her middle England, middle Anglican parish. She worked out that in 2015 she had had warm contact with around 442 people. She then challenged herself and her congregation to see between 1 and 5% returning to church, which would mean between 5 and 25 new people a year!

Praying for funerals, baptisms and weddings suddenly gains a new focus and offering a warm welcome, building relationship, and maintaining good follow up become real tools to make a difference.

Very often we will not know what happens to those we meet, whether wider or warm contacts. They may have gone to light a candle in a cathedral or a small church when on holiday; years may go by until the next occasion triggers big feelings, big questions, big thoughts. But we are touching many lives every week, sowing seeds of the good news of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ, and known in love, hope and grace in life’s big moments.

As the Church of England, we have the privilege of meeting people and journeying with them, locally and nationally, in prayer and in person. Let’s recognise and value all whom we meet.