Church attendance is not improving. As researchers continue to study the habits of Americans when it comes to Sunday worship, they are discovering the harsh reality — “even with a broader definition of church attendance, classifying a regular attendee as someone who shows up at least three out of every eight Sundays, only 23–25 percent of Americans would fit this category.”
Three decades ago, a very active church member attended three times a week.
When I was a kid, most pastors admonished Sunday morning only Christians, warning them that their lack of commitment to the local church would bring consequences they would later regret. Few pastors in 2019 openly condemn those who gather together only on Sunday mornings. In fact, most pastors count it an accomplishment when families or individuals show up on Sunday mornings three out of four weeks.
A Theory on How This Started
For the last 30 years church leadership and church members have erroneously contended that church life was about attracting people with a variety of programs. If the church hoped to keep its current group of people and pull new families and members into its group, it had to offer more and more and more. A church must have a great children’s program, a great teen program, a great college / singles’ program, a great newly marrieds’ program, a great women’s program, a great men’s program, a great recovery group program, and a great senior citizens’ program. A church without these options would decline in participation quicker than you can say, Have it your way.
The natural result is church life is now about what you get out of a church, what you take away from a service, or what a ministry contributes to your life in that moment. In essence church life has become blatant consumerism. Church life is one of the many options available to you, and it’s a great option when it will do something for you. When it doesn’t do something more for you than other options available to you, meh.
Pastoral Comments Don’t Help
Pastors have too easily reinforced this with their comments promoting people to come. From the pulpit you will hear him say, “You don’t want to miss being here. It’s going to be really great!” Well, what if the last time he said that, it wasn’t all that great? What if there is something else equally great that is also an option? Why not do that great thing instead of the great thing the pastor is suggesting? Who’s to say which great thing is better?
Is gathering for worship to sing the same songs and hear the same preacher better than completing that unfinished house project you’ve told you’re wife you’d complete?
Is going to a weekly small group meeting better than staying home and having a family night with the kids?
It is flawed thinking that leads to decisions of participation in the Christian life based upon what’s in it for me.
Thinking Differently about Why You Go to Church
Similar to what he wrote in 1 Corinthians, Paul also addresses participation in the Christian life in the book of Ephesians. He told those churches that God had given to each one in that church the capacity to contribute to the spiritual lives of the rest of the church. With capacity comes responsibility to act. Paul taught that Christians show up where the church gathers not to receive but to give (4:11–16).
When you miss Sunday worship, you forfeit your opportunity to encourage with your smile a sister-in-Christ who hasn’t attended in weeks. She leaves wondering where was her friend.
When you miss your Sunday School / education hour class, you deny others the opportunity to receive from you the insight only you can provide.
When you miss your weekly small group gathering, you squander your opportunity to join in corporate prayer with the others in your group.
All Our Reasons Make Perfect Sense to Us
Our explanations for why we missed worship, the Lord’s Table, our weekly small group meeting, or Sunday School all sound good to our ears.
We were out late the night before.
We just returned from a long trip.
My cough would distract those around me.
It’s so cold outside we decided not to venture out.
It’s so nice outside we decided to take advantage of the great weather — this is Minnesota, you know.
The kids were up during the night.
If my kid is going to be a varsity athlete, he has to play travel sports.
We had a family party.
I needed to get this chore done that I’ve been putting off for months.
Is This about Me?
I suspect some might be wondering, “Is he writing about me?” I’m writing about all of us. I have no one particular person or scenario in mind. Nor is this post a recent thought. This has been in my head for many months. This is a real issue in the American church and an issue Paul addressed in his letters. Paul could not be more clear when he writes, “every person doing his share causes the growth in the church by the edifying of itself in love” (Eph. 4:32). When we fail to show up for whatever reasons, the members of the body do not receive from us.
Our churches would be healthier if member absenteeism from the gatherings became the rare exception and not the norm.
We are disciples of Jesus Christ. In the New Testament, we are called farmers, slaves, and soldiers. The commonality between the professions is sacrifice for the benefit of others. Jesus told his disciples, “take up your cross and follow me.” Sometimes taking up the cross might be as simple as showing up week after week after week at the gathering of God’s people.
Next week I want to convey to you the four occasions in the life of the church that you simply cannot miss. You just can’t. I look forward to interacting with you again.