When the staff of the Covington First Untied Methodist Church first heard the statistic last year, they were taken aback. Could it be true that only about 20 percent of Newton County residents regularly attend worship services?
"I think that shocked us all," said Gil Gainer, missions chairman at First United Methodist. "When we heard that, we all felt like we needed to do something about that."
The staff was unable to identify the study and the numbers are debatable - Gallup polls regularly find national church attendance closer to 40 percent of the population and groups such as the Barna Group and "The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion" have reported attendance anywhere from 47 percent to 17 percent - but what's undeniable is that it sparked a serious conversation about the focus of church activities and outreach.
"We have always been involved in the community, but this provided a sense of urgency that we need to get out and meet people and invite them to church," said Gainer.
Senior Pastor John Whatley observed that the church was always evangelistic, but that there's been more emphasis on outreach lately. "It's been a gradual shift," he said.
To address the large number of the "unchurched" and the influx of newcomers to Newton County, the 14th fastest growing county in the United States by population, FUMC is holding a number of events and initiatives to reach out to the local community.
Church members are canvassing new subdivisions three to four times a season to invite new residents to the church and personally visit the homes of all new church members.
FUMC will hold the first of its "Make a Joyful Noise" concert series on Sunday, June 24, at 7 p.m. in the church sanctuary featuring the Rev. Kenny Williamson.
Other events include participation in the Back-to-School Bash on the Square on July 21, held by MainStreet Covington and a "Blessing of the Backpacks" on July 22.
FUMC is also one of the leading churches in Faithworks, and interdenominational organization made up of 26 churches which provides one-time emergency assistance with rent and utilities payments.
When asked what barriers prevented people from attending services, staff members had a variety of opinions.
Gainer felt that many people who don't normally attend church have the misconception that they have to be perfect to attend.
"They think that when I walk in the door, I have to be this special, really perfect, living individual otherwise I'm not welcome here," he said. "Well they are."
Evangelism Chair Bill Morris felt too many people are caught up in other forms of entertainment that take them away from personal and community interaction.
And Children's Director Kye Haymore thinks many people just want a personal invitation. "It can be very intimidating to walk into a building like this," she said.
However, said Gainer, attending FUMC is not the most important thing.
"We are Methodist and we love our church, but it's so much more important that they find faith," he said.