Faith Works 3-15-14
Don't go to church? Can't do it.
You don't have to tell me why not to go to church.
I won't say I've heard it all, because there's always a new spin on the old story, but in outline, the basics are well known to me.
First off, a full admission: I go to church each Sunday in large part because I don't know how to do anything else.
Someone may point out: dude, that's your job. Well, yes, in those periods of my life when I've been the settled pastor of a congregation, it was one of those nearly unstated bedrock assumptions that you would show up on Sunday mornings. And preach, and stuff. You know.
Yes, that's true, but I've had a few stretches in my adult, married life when I wasn't on staff, didn't have a church "job," and I still went. Honestly? Each time I figured I'd give myself some slack, take the time to taste life as the majority of my fellow citizens, my friends and neighbors do, and stay home on Sunday morning. At least past 8:00 am.
In those times, I thought about checking out this thing called "Sunday brunch" (I'd heard bacon was involved), and maybe the whole read-the-whole-paper-plus-crossword-puzzle routine. At least a few times, it can't hurt, right?
I meant to, but it didn't happen. My wife and I are church-going folk, it's in the bone and the heart, and we even go to church when we're on vacation. Those have almost always been amazing experiences of worship and learning and growth for us, by the way. There is one occasion when I can remember us just not getting up out of the tent or motel room and hauling off to somewhere on Sunday, and it was a question of distance and uncertainty about the time of the service, and honestly? We regretted it. Not out of guilt, but an opportunity missed.
So I'm pretty hard on people who don't go, right? Well, that's a funny thing. In fact, many, maybe even most people I know outside of my own congregation are not what you'd call every Sunday or even twelve times a year folks. The stats bear it out: on any given weekend, about 80% of Licking County isn't going to worship services anywhere. The number within that 80% who mean to go, know where they will go when they can, and go often enough to call it a church relationship, that can be debated.
In the congregation where I serve, we average 165 or so a Sunday across the year, while our official membership is around 250, and our regular family members (if you will) whom we see often but haven't, for a variety of reasons, joined the church, is probably another 50.
What happens is the modern world of a) odd work schedules that don't allow for much planning ahead, including second shifts, four twelve-hours then four off, and on-demand hours, and b) a new degree of mobility by family and self, including a more active and mobile senior cohort, that means when people aren't working on Sunday morning (or until 4 am on Sunday morning), they may be driving across the state or into neighboring states to visit with folks who a generation ago would have been across town, or at least in the county.
So if we have 150 in church last Sunday between two services, we almost certainly have 300 who would like to be with us, intend to pray and sing and study scriptures with us, but 150 of them don't on that particular weekend. If we have forty people with perfect attendance last year, I'd be amazed (and it wouldn't include me!). So you know, as a pastor, that you're preaching to a changing set of faces in the pews, and some of your best leaders and workers don't hear you every week.
Dealing with this reality is why many of us preachers are doing sermon series', and presenting themes across weeks and months and a year. To tie together the fellowship, you can't just assume weekly continuity; it takes more tools than that. Social media is a glue that reaches across absence, and so are small groups that meet through the week.
I still think regular Sunday attendance is important; it is a spiritual discipline (that's another column). I need church, and the church fellowship needs each of us, ideally, all of us. But that "all" has to be seen in a different context than "any given Sunday."
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your perfect attendance pin at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.