Saturday, March 15, 2014

Faith Works 3-22-14

Faith Works 3-22-14

Jeff Gill


What churches need to know about not going to church



Last week, I talked about how church attendance often looks to those of us who have always gotten up and gone. We're "churched" people, as the phrase goes, and the churched often don't understand, or have never thought about, how church looks to the un-churched, or the de-churched.


Why do people NOT go to church? One obvious reason is that they don't believe in what churchgoers do, but that was a big part of last week's column: that's a small fraction of those not showing up anywhere on a weekend. So we can nod to the intentionally unchurched, and look more closely at reasons most folks might, but don't go.


First, they're tired. You really can't just sniff and frown at that one. Yes, grandma was dying of tuberculosis and still struggled up the steps in 1927 the day before she died (and probably gave TB to someone else), but judgmental stuff aside, they really are tired.


I see it, as a preacher, even among those who are in worship: it can be hard for folks to stay awake. I won't say I'm the best preacher in town, but I would hazard that I'm far from the most boring. Plus I have a disturbing tendency to walk away from the pulpit and up the aisle from time to time. IT DOESN'T MATTER. People, not the elderly, not the young, but everyday working folk struggle to stay awake while sitting for an hour.


Our culture has created new norms of work schedules and viewing habits that mean we are all tending to go around sleep deprived, averaging 6.5 hours of sleep where we are made to need 8 or more. This is a handicap when you hit what is often the one morning of the week that people have any say over whether or not they get up before 7:00 am. Lots of folks are very honest when they say they tried to sleep to 8:30, and suddenly realized it was 11 am.


Does this mean evening worship on Saturday or Sunday would help? Could be.


Another obstacle: work schedules do munch right across the week without regard to any one day. It's just not the case that anyone, not sports teams, schools, or most significantly, employers, will work around a Sunday morning for you. Some do, and sincerely: God bless them! But as a church body, we're forced to make shifts (some of which I mentioned last week) in our assumptions. Good, solid, community minded people just aren't going to be present 50 or more Sundays a year anymore. Again, multiple options become more important.


And last week's column garnered a comment that was very important, I thought (and thank you, Renate!): people are often sitting at home trying to understand the Bible, and worried about two things. First, will those in church judge them on the basis of appearances. I can answer that – yes, they will. To some degree, we all do this. Congregations should do a better job at this than they do, but there are very few places anymore that will be outright hostile if you don't dress up, etc. If you think "I may have people look at me funny" and that's a reason not to go, the fact of the matter is that entering any group or space or room, like visiting a neighborhood bar you've never been in before, is going to get you some looks. So that's why the only real solution to this one is for people to do more personal invitations, and to not only invite them, but to go to church WITH them. If you have a regular right by your side, the whole look/glance/question thing goes away. Boom!


The other worry, though, is more aimed at pastors and leaders: I am still learning the basics, some fear, and if I go to church, they all have the same translation (not the one I happened to have), they already know and sling the lingo, and are "ahead of me." Where can I go to not be an idiot for my questions?


Honestly, we're all beginners. Some of us have learned to fake it better. And there's a certain amount of in-group games going on with how we talk about the Bible, and beliefs, and our churches. I believe that our default assumption on EVERY Sunday morning should be "how does what I'm saying (announcements, greetings, sermon) sound to someone who's never been here?" We can fix that.


Next week, let's talk about why it matters to go to church at all.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him why you don't go to church at

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Faith Works 3-15-14

Faith Works 3-15-14

Jeff Gill


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 or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.