Hi church. I’m composing this to follow up on the remarks I made at the close of yesterday’s service. I appreciate the kind thoughts and words several of you have said to me in relation to yesterday’s family chat.
What I did yesterday after our morning service was attempt to bring awareness to a trend of low church attendance as well as habits of not getting to church on time, and why addressing it was important on a few levels. It wasn’t to any one person or family, of course, but rather the whole church.
I talked about the rationale behind why we’ve set up our church week the way we have. Sunday morning services are to come together for worship and general nourishment from the Bible. I also ensure to preach a Gospel application in just about every Sunday Morning sermon since that’s the time newer attendees and visitors are usually there. I said that if that service were enough, we could just call it good and though we have room to grow in faithfulness to that service, I’m generally encouraged by how well it is attended.
I said that my job as a pastor is “to equip the saints for the work of the ministry,” and to “preach the word…” which includes the duty to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching,” and to give instruction in sound doctrine.” And as much material as I try to cram into a 45 minute message on Sundays, I don’t think it’s enough to fulfill the teaching and training aspects that depend on our coming together. And though these kind of applications can make their way into a Sunday message, it gives very little time to talk about doctrines and general Christian living (e.g. marriage, children, finances, understanding the Bible, apologetics, etc.). So, at least one other gathering is important to handle those matters in a more teaching/discussion type of format.
I also said that a midweek gathering is like an oasis for the church. It allows Christians to take a break from worldly affairs and encourage each other at some point in the middle of the week. When we originally set up our week, we also included the earlier Sunday gathering so that we would have a time to pray, share, and discuss what members were reading in their personal devotions and to talk about things in our world that pose questions that the Bible has answers to. I also spent several weeks early on in our church plant discussing why we have 10:00 AM and 11:00 AM as our starting time, but don’t actually formally get things started until 15 minutes later. The purpose is that fellowship is often the first thing to go even though it is vital. So, rather than people coming at the last minute before the worship service starts and leaving in a hurry afterwards, we built it in so that there would be a few minutes of talking and bonding. What’s happened, however (and it has happened over time), is rather than coming at 10:00 or even 10:15, members (besides the same one or two) are showing up closer to 10:30 or 10:40 or not showing up altogether. So, it becomes impossible to have any sort of regularity or program for that time. And the same is true for Wednesday evenings. Right now, members should be ready to have a time of prayer at 7:15 and conclude it at 7:30 so that we can start a 30 minutes teaching time right at 7:30 and be done by 8:00. But people are showing up and talking at 7:15 or 7:20 and we don’t even get to the teaching/discussion till about 7:40.
And then, as of late, we’ve had many Wednesdays where no one but the same one or two people show up. One byproduct of this when it comes to teaching is that I’ll plan a 12 week series to go through so it doesn’t drag the same topic out forever, but due to absences
and the very low attendance, it takes more like 24 weeks (or more) to get through the material.
I view my job as a pastor (shepherd) somewhere between a parent and a coach. I feel a deep sense of love as well as a great and grave responsibility. The writer of Hebrews, when calling the church to “Obey your leaders and submit to them,” says to do so “for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” I take this very seriously. I will be accountable to God for your souls.
When I see individuals or families who, in the past, would have almost never missed a service but now do so regularly, or I see folks who have not yet learned the discipline of faithfully gathering, but who I know would be so much more equipped to live their Christian life, or I see a general laziness or unconcern about coming when it’s time to meet, I am burdened, especially when I see it in the lives of believers who have been believers for several years or decades. The “parent” side of me as a pastor aches as I see so much hope and potential for fruit to happen in our church, much of which would be realized if members would simply be there when the gatherings take place. The “coach” side of me as a pastor feels compelled to call you all to a higher Christian life. I know that not only can you work this discipline into your life, but that you will see unimaginable change and fruit produced in your lives and families.
I began singing in a choir last year. It’s probably not your cup of tea, but for me it’s been fun, extremely challenging, and rewarding. The members take it seriously and the result has been that they have been host to and guests of some of the most prestigious composers, conductors, and venues around the world. I graduated with a vocal performance minor in college and continued to be involved in choirs, performing groups, even leading a couple groups around the country for several months visiting hundreds of churches and schools. And yet after all of that, this recent choir experience has been by far the toughest musical experience I’ve ever had. We cram an immense amount of music into to a few short weeks of practice in order to be ready for several performances. If I miss attending (and I’ve had to miss a couple), a couple of things happen: I’m become behind everyone else in being ready for our next concert. I also get practically interrogated by some of the other 75 members in the choir as well as my director as to why I wasn’t there. There is a high expectation of attendance and every member knows the importance of being there and the consequences if they’re not. The same would be true if you were a part of a high school/college sports team, a play, or had a gig you were committed to.
My comparison of church to this is twofold:
1) Do you think our choir would be even close the choir it is if members only showed up half or less of the time? Ask the same about sports practices, games, play practices, etc. Obviously the answer is no. There is no substitute for showing up if you want to have an effective group. The same is true of a church. A church cannot effectively do God’s work if they don’t gather faithfully
2) People show up to what matters to them. They also show up if not doing so means a consequence. If you missed a quarter of your sports practices, you won’t get playing time, or you’ll get dismissed from the team. If you missed a quarter or half of your play practices, the director would give your part to someone else, and you certainly wouldn’t be asked to play an important role (if any) in the near future. If you missed a gig, people will probably not hire you for another one. People show up to what matters to them, even if they’ve had a long day, a long week, if they’re not feeling 100%, or if they have to rearrange their schedule to make sure that they’re there. This is no secret. People will make it work if it is important to them. Yet, while a member would scarcely miss another such commitment on account of physical fatigue, mild ailment, busy schedule, stress, kids, etc., that they have during the same week, they will much more quickly miss church.
What makes all of this difficult in relation to church is that it’s easy to not notice the consequences of neglecting to show up. And it’s difficult to see how well or how poorly a church or even an individual is doing on account of lackadaisical attendance . We’re not in a church league where we compete with other churches, and where we lose the game if members didn’t attend. We’re not selling tickets and losing an audience because we didn’t practice. Members are not being benched for not coming.
And so, because there’s very little immediate or visible consequences for staying home, it becomes an easier choice or habit to say, “I’m just not going to make it this time.” But are there consequences? Will there be any loss or long term detriment for not prioritizing coming to the gathering? Of course there will be. I’ll share three such consequences for the sake of brevity.
There’s a disconnection from the body.
Let me liken it to an analogy my brother shared not long ago that I’ve found helpful. A family has dinner together every weeknight intentionally as a way to bond, share, and build each other up. They’ve always done this. But one evening their 14 year old daughter says, “I have a lot of homework. Can I skip supper and just get a snack later.” The parents, who love her, reluctantly say, “Yes, that’s fine.” But then the next night, she makes the same request. The night after she says she’s not feeling well. The next, she goes to a friends house. The next, she says she’s not hungry and just wants to listen to some music. Finally a few days later, the parents ask her, “Why aren’t you coming to dinner with us?” She says, “I just don’t really feel a strong connection to this family.”
What happens over time is the more you miss, the easier it is to miss. Church members lose connection with the body. You don’t see people enough, so you’re not comfortable sharing your burdens. You feel stressed being around people rather than comforted and lifted up, so you don’t attend. The church becomes a begrudged habit rather than a joy. You lose your desire to gather. Absence, in this case, does not make the heart grow fonder. There’s an old saying about the Bible that says, “Either the Bible will keep you from the world, or the world will keep you from the Bible.” I think the same is true about the church. Either the church you keep you from being swallowed by the world, or the world will keep you from the church. Things are always clamoring for your attention, and in the modern era we live in, this is more true than ever. There is always something else you could be doing instead of coming to church. This is why I’ve used the word “discipline” to describe this habit. Meeting as a family for dinner or holidays, like going to the gym, in a sense is a discipline. You may not feel like it at one time or another, but you do it anyways because of the importance it is to connect with your family and the potential consequence of becoming distant or estranged.
I can’t pastor you.
I mentioned yesterday that I know you all well enough to know some of the struggles you face. I have my own struggles as well. If all you needed was a video to watch or an audio sermon to listen to, the church would be unnecessary or superfluous. But that is not what God intended. Rather, if you’re in a church, he has you there to be nourished by teaching and counsel in that context. I, as a pastor, don’t buy my sermons or lessons off the internet. I purposely agonize over what I’m going to say and teach. Your faces are in my mind as I prepare lessons and sermons. I craft my sermons to speak to things in your world. Sometimes, I will have a particular passage I’m preparing, and I’m thinking about one or more you and thinking, “This would be so helpful for that person. I’m excited to share it with them.” And then you’re not there, and you miss it. And besides prepared teaching, there are all of the other chances to talk informally — the “What’s happening in your life” type of conversations. It’s the conversation you have after things have wrapped up and you’re talking about something you’re struggling with, or trouble you’re having with another member. It becomes nearly impossible to pastor you when you’re not there, and so you’re missing out on maybe something life-changing, family-changing, marriage-changing because you’re not there to be shepherded. And so, you suffer spiritually, your family suffers, the world around you suffers, and your marriage suffers because you’re not bearing the fruit you should be. When you’re not there, I can’t play the role God has given me to pastor you and encourage you in your Christian life.
Others are worse off because you’re not there.
It’s subtly deceptive to think that when you choose not to go when you could have made it work that you are the only one affected by it. This is the furthest thing from the truth. You are the body of Christ, and you are each members of each other. Body members need each other. They are vital to each other. And when you’re not there to play the part that God has gifted you with, others suffer. They may need you wisdom, your joy, your embrace, your compassion, your love, your help, your support. When you’re not there, they suffer.
If you are a leader or parent in your family, your absences and the reasons given behind them speak volumes to your children or your spouse. It teaches them when it is acceptable to be absent from church. It shows them the value of church, whether for good or bad.
When you’re not there, we’re not able to work together on community outreach efforts that share Christ with others and bring others into our gatherings. And it a puts a burden on those who do show up to muscle the load for others who don’t.
And of course, there’s also the consequence related to poor attendance when visitors show up. It puts a lot on a visitor socially to show up to a gathering with 2 other people. Your being there to welcome and keep them from being so much in the spotlight might make all the difference of whether they come back and get the help they need.
When you’re not there, others are worse off.
I’ll conclude with two things:
1) The church is God’s idea, not anyone else’s
I feel compelled to call our church to more faithful attendance because the church is the body of Christ. It is founded by Christ, indwelled by Christ, and the most important corporate institution for this time in history according to the New Testament. Our Church Covenant states:
“We will not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, but instead gather to stir one another up to love and good works. We will not be deterred from this as the end draws near, but will strive to be all the more faithful as that day approaches. We will meet for instruction, fellowship, the ordinances, and for prayer.”
“We recognize the church as the primary institution by which Christ is manifested to the world, and that other God-ordained institutions, namely home and government, should not compete with, but complement the church as also the church complements these other institutions. No other man-made institution, organization, or assembly should be given priority over the assembly, duty, and fulfillment that rests upon the church.”
I believe this whole heartedly am I’m calling you as your pastor to believe the same. Since this is God’s idea, and it’s the body of Christ, you should not be trying to see how you can squeeze church into your week, but rather how to squeeze other things around it. This may mean you need to rethink your week, your habits, your hobbies, your schedule, and the other things you choose to do. You may need to stop doing certain things or do less of the same things in order for church not to feel like a burden just to attend.
And of course, as I said yesterday, I’m totally open-minded if it makes sense for the church as a whole to switch our service times to not be unnecessarily burdensome. However, my gut tells me that it isn’t about the time of the services. We’ve switched the service time more than once before. Either way, we’ll try to make it work for everyone as best we can. And either way, whatever time we land on, you should work diligently to block it off in your schedule, as this is God’s institution, and we should prioritize it.
2) Don’t be discouraged by this.
I recently had a talk with the young staff at our local business that was similar in tone to what I’m writing here. While things were not burning to the ground at the shop, it was clear that we certainly were not operating in the best way we could. Quite simply, the team had gotten sloppy, and I wasn’t holding them accountable either. The discipline of setting goals for the day and pursuing them had vanished. Meetings that were supposed to keep accountability in this regard were not done well. Messes that had been messes for a long time were never cleaned up. A lackadaisical attitude set in regarding what got accomplished for the day or week. The team knew it. I knew it. And so, we talked. I didn’t want to discourage them, but rather, call them to something better. I knew they could do better. They knew they could do better. They admitted as much. I wasn’t sure how my chat with them would go,3 but I knew it needed to happen.
To my delight, they were not discouraged but instead energized. I had set a vision for our business and their daily work which challenged them to do something worthy of their skills and talents. By the end of the following week, it was like walking into entirely different business. It looked different. Their attitudes were different. There was a hunger to excel and to conquer. There was satisfaction in their work. They weren’t discouraged. They were energized.
That’s my hope for you as well. I want you to do some soul searching with the Lord. I want to you to offer him your schedule and your will. Make whatever necessary changes to your life and your schedule you need to to make His work and His church your priority. And then be energized by His grace to do his work.
When you plan your week, determine to show up. Show up early. Be ready to encourage someone. Be ready to learn. Be ready to grow. Be ready to see God do something amazing things through our church. Be ready to see the fruits of your obedience and zeal.
I can guarantee you that if each and everyone of you take this seriously, you will see our church like you’ve never seen it before. You will see God work like you’ve never seen Him work before. It will be something special.
I will pray to that end, and I hope you will do the same.
I love you. God Bless.