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Interview: Michael Harvey, Back to Church Sunday developer

06 June 2012

‘I believe invitation is at the heart of God’

Over the past 12 months, I have visited 47 dioceses across the An­glican Communion as an itinerant seminar speaker, with the aim of restoring invitation into the life of the Church. I have had the privilege of speaking to thousands of church leaders and lay people across ten countries. I would normally conduct three two-hour seminars each day.

I’m not stipended, but I’ll do about 400 seminars this year. It’s the old-fashioned way of going and not taking anything with you. We start the month with no money, and, by the end of the month, we somehow re­ceive money. I suggest an honor­arium: some­times I’m blessed; some­times I’m surprised the other way. . . I’ve been doing this full time for just over two years now. God does provide.

Invitation is at the heart of the gospel. When Jesus said: “Follow me . . . come and see,” he was offering an invitation. God says through Isaiah: “Come all those who are thirsty and I will give you rest.” I believe invitation is at the heart of God.

You don’t need to be an intellectual to see we have a major problem with invitation; so that’s when I began to divest myself of business responsibilities. I founded a number of financial businesses, and consumer electrical goods.

One business was bought by an insurance broker in the City, and I ended up as a director there. Do I miss it? Not in the slightest. I always like to start new things.

The seminars strike at the heart of the problem: the heart of the soul of the people in the congregation. The question is: when was the last time we invited someone to church? The better question is: what decade did we last invite people to church? What is missing? Invitation.

Through the lens of invitation some­­thing wonderful comes through to the individual. What we discover is the same in every culture and denomination: the immediate reason we don’t invite people is that we fear the word “no”. That’s the fundamental problem why the Church is not growing today. Nothing to do with post-modern-society rub­bish. We fear rejection.

Christianity has an answer to that problem. The Bible says “Don’t be afraid” quite a lot. It’s staring us in the face — almost as if God is anti­cipating there’s going to be a prob­lem. How to get over this? You do the things you fear. Fear is an indicator of a growth tension; so, if you have this in your own life it’s often the area that God wants to grow next. Find the fear in yourself or your congregations and help to release it, and wonderful things happen.

The real corker in all this is getting over the rejection bit. Do you know someone in the Christian faith who was rejected? Someone quite import­ant? The glorious news is that we will be rejected — get over it. It’s the discipleship path.

We’re keeping away from the path of rejection, but why would we feel rejected if we are playing to an audience of one — i.e. God? We’re the sons and daughters of God. Right at the heart of rejection is an identity crisis: we as a Church don’t know who we are.

The truth sets you free, but before it sets you free it makes you blooming miserable. It’s not easy stuff. We have the formula to deal with it, but it’s not easy.

God chose me to do this because I feel fear and rejection constantly. I’m trying to invite church leaders to participate, and get ignored and turned down constantly. You just have to keep on. It’s part of the Christian life.

If we were in the Early Church, how long would we survive? It’s a pale shadow of Christianity that we’re living at the moment. Frankly, I could summarise it as: “Can’t we just worship, Michael? Why do we have to do this other stuff? That was never part of the deal.” We lose the radical idea that it can actually deal with people’s problems.

Back to Church Sunday gives a focus to this. It’s also a reminder that we have lost the art of invitation. I believe it helps if we know we are part of a larger effort to invite across an area or across the nation.

I think the initiative is challenging rather than popular. Surveys have found that, six months after Back to Church Sunday, a minimum of ten per cent of those invited are still worshipping in the church to which they were invited. Last year, we saw something like 67,000 accepted invitations.

We’ve failed to communicate that, without God, there is something missing from people’s lives. But, as the Archbishop of Canterbury has just said, what Back to Church Sun­day has demonstrated is that you don’t have to dig too far to find that desire for connection, a memory of a connection in the past — which might have been as systematic as going to Sunday school every week for several years, or as distant as a good memory of a family funeral.

Back to Church Sunday plugs into all that. It plugs into the sense people have that, if they knew how to do it, they wouldn’t mind being a bit better connected.

I pray that one day I might see one million Christians invite one million friends on one day.

I would challenge the current mind­set that we are a welcoming Church. This might sound terrible, but I think we should be a trans­formational Church, but we have made ourselves as congregations so welcome, that the thought of change is beyond the pale.

I was born and brought up in north Manchester, and never lived with my mother or knew my father as a child.

I am married to a wonderful woman called Eike, and have three marvel­lous children, Ben, Kirsty, and Lydia. We live in picturesque Saddle­worth.

The dream was to be a journalist. When I sent the publisher my book, he said: “Michael, you can’t be good at everything.” I said: “Are you saying I’m rubbish at writing?” It seems speaking Mancunian doesn’t work in a book; so that’s why I got Rebecca Paveley to help. It was a dream, but I was nowhere near.

I would like it to be said of me that I was about my Father’s business.

My youth leader at church, Frank, who really believes in God and demon­strates it in his life, really influenced me. He is now 70, and still my youth leader.

Jim Rohn’s The Seasons of Life and Alison Morgan’s The Wild Gospel are my favourite books.

A sermon by Tony Campolo really affected me as a youngster: it’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming. Good Friday is when we’re down, and all hope is gone, confidence levels are really low, what we thought would happen hasn’t happened, failure, disappoint­ment. . . But the great news is that Sunday’s coming — resur­rection’s coming. So, whatever situ­ation we find ourselves in, if you look into the seeds of disappointment and dis­cour­agement, if we look very closely at our failures, there’s the pos­sibility of incredible life and growth.

Cape Town is my favourite place. It’s got the meetings of the Indian and Atlantic oceans, Table Mountain; it’s very close to wine country; you can eat out at night in the warmth of the open air. . . Brilliant.

My favourite part of the Bible at the moment is the Acts of the Apostles; my least liked is Leviticus.

I’m happiest when I’m in the midst of a seminar, and I have the audience laughing.

I’m hopeful, because God is eternal. Whatever mess we make of our lives, God can see the beginning from the end, and will work everything out.

I’d most like to get locked in a church with Nelson Mandela. I would like to discuss his journey from terrorist to man of peace.

Michael Harvey was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Unlocking the Growth by Michael Harvey and Rebecca Paveley is published by Lion Hudson, £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop, £8.10); 978-0-8572-1198-9.

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