I was at General Synod, and ran into friends, Lucy and John, from one of the congregations I worked with in NY as the Regional Conference Minister, Scarsdale Congregational.
After I’d caught up with them, I was asking after their local church, which through some search committees and other questions facing that congregation, I had come to know fairly well. (Even before I was on conference staff, I also admired and followed the sermons of their former pastor Phil.)
They told me that their most recent Senior Pastor had left, and after some discerning, the congregation had called their Associate as their next Senior Pastor. (This seems to be an increasingly common move in our larger suburban churches. I like thinking about the possible reasons behind the trend…)
I asked about how membership was faring. Lucy’s quick response surprised me. She said something like, “We’re holding our own, but for many people, now coming once a month is how they participate in church.”
Her comment struck me because it rings familiar. I have noticed — and others too — that we have grown to serve a larger community, but as that’s happened, people’s attendance is less frequent.
Folks, I think, there are some important questions for us to consider, and I like doing so with reference to another church’s similar experience. I don’t bring this up to shame anyone into more frequently coming to church. Or to suggest there is some failure on the part of our congregation involved in this phenomenon.
I guess we could… should ask if there is something we should be doing differently that would make attendance easier and higher. I have for some years, for example. wondered if the Sunday morning slot was the best for most of the people we mean to serve. Would 5 p.m. on Saturday or Sunday, with a community dinner afterward, or some weekend evening work better for many folks’ schedules?
But more than suggesting any solutions, I just want to name a reality that is already effecting how we do church. Or how we are struggling at doing church as we have done it in the past. I believe that if we can put this situation on the table — and take away any finger-pointing and recriminations — that if we can think about and talk about it openly, we’ll be better for it.
The first part of this exercise, I believe, is considering the reasons this changing reality might be so. Let’s assume for a minute, that what I believe is a trend is a clear and true fact: that people who are committed to our church do not make it to worship with as much frequency as people used to in the past. They continue to sign up for leadership positions. And they support our ministry financially. And, when they are away from us, their behaviors and decisions are affected by their faith.
Church, this would not them be for us a “the sky is falling situation.” But, as is often the case for the church, the world around us is changing quickly — likewise the people who we mean to serve — and we’re not quite willing to acknowledge the changes or how they might call our church life to change.
First, I want us to think about what some of the reasons could be? The easiest go-to explanation is to blame those who miss worship. Sometimes, in frustration, one hears around the church, “People today just don’t understand that coming to church is important.” I respond, “Well, people who are part of the community can’t be faulted for failing to think that church should be a part of their lives! But that doesn’t mean they intend or even wish to be here every Sunday…”
Clearly, there’s less peer pressure to be at church since a growing percentage of the population never is. And I do wonder, as attendance has become more erratic, it’s harder to expect that coming to church, you will see everyone there you want to catch up with.
But could there also be other reasons that the frequency of attendance seems to be dropping? Well, unquestionably, Sunday morning hour is no longer sacrosanct and reserved for church. Others feel completely free to plan events and schedule activities on Sunday mornings. And, even church folks often want to participate in Sunday morning happenings other than worship!
But I wonder if this pattern doesn’t also have something to do with families where both parents work increasingly longer hours. There’s just so much time off in which to get done a whole host of family activity and household necessities accomplished. Maybe parents are just needing a bit more of downtime. And kids too.
Could our attendance patterns have as much to do with people’s struggles with work-life balance and how lives are schedules in contemporary America as with the importance the people in our community afford their faith or the church as an institution?
And could it be about being farther from extended family? Or a greater frequency of visiting out of town friends on weekends? Or the need to get away from one’s home — and our constant e-connectivity — more often? I’m just want to remove the personal blame which usually shuts down these conversations, and begin to think of the possible, larger, institutional or social differences that could be factors.
Second, I think we do well to acknowledge how changing patterns in attendance affect church life as we know it. I assume that as much as half of any Sunday’s attendance wasn’t in worship the week before: that has implications for how my preaching can be an on-going conversation. At the least, I can’t reference last week’s sermon without some explanation.
And think about Sunday School. It’s not unusual for teachers to have completely different kids from week to week. That certainly changes the way they need to do lesson planning.
Or how does the Music Director rehearse pieces of music when the choir’s personnel composition is so dynamic from week to week.
Even our hospitality teams — they’re struggling a bit, as a team on it’s assigned Sunday might only be a person or two.
Truth be told, if I could make it happen, I’d have everyone come every week. It would be so much easier for our programming and planning. And for strengthening our fellowship. And I believe enough in what we are doing to feel confident that one gets more from church the more one is involved and participates.
That said, it’s not all up to me. Of any of you. Even your ability to attend — that’s not all in your hands, but if a function of things bigger than you and beyond your control.
So, is it ok to consider how church could change — might have to change — in light of a more scattered congregation… when all of us are in and out, and it’s even harder to stay in touch with one another, or even to realize someone might be missing?
I think it’s a conversation we need to undertake now. No shame or blame. Simply, the most basic question for every age: how does God mean for us to be church in light of the day and time and ways in which God has placed us and called us to be and do church?
See you in church,