We are fond of saying that we ARE the church, we don’t “go to it.” So why do I care whether people come to the Sunday meetings (and all the other meetings)? Why am I worried that our LEADERS are only at the Sunday meetings half the time?
The obvious answer is that it is hard to BE the church if one does not exist in real time as the church. The meetings are an expression of our reality; we embody the Spirit; we have a location that is not just in our mind or in our belief system. Like Jesus showed his skeptical disciples: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe” (John 20:27). People doubt if there is no wounded side for their fingers.
What’s more, the Bible is pretty strong on the idea that we are what we do. So the writer of Hebrews teaches, “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another,” (Heb. 10:24-5). S/he reminds me of NA folks repeatedly saying, “And keep coming back.” The meeting matters because I showed up, no matter what happens in it.
Why are people half-time when it comes to meetings?
Most of our attenders probably agree with what I just wrote, certainly most of our many leaders. But most of them miss plenty of meetings. Let’s consider a stereotypical married couple. Of the 52 Sundays a year, they could easily gather for worship 31 times and still think of themselves as deeply engaged. They lost 5 Sundays to vacation and weekend getaways. They lost 9 Sundays to the kids’ sports and art activities. They lost 3 Sundays to the diseases the kids brought home. They lost 2 Sundays to visiting relatives or friends. They lost 2 Sundays to Thanksgiving and post-Christmas. You can see how attendance can make a person’s commitment seem “spotty” if that is all you are measuring.
What do we do, let each other know we are watching how many times they miss the meeting? On one hand, yes, exactly. We’ve got a team sport going and it is hard to play if no one shows up for the game. On the other hand, no, obviously. Few people need a friend who has an equation in the back of their mind to apply to their schedule.
So why do people seem to be coming to church meetings, even ours, less these days?
- They are richer
Money gives people options. U.S. personal disposable income is at an all time high.
They have technology options, travel options, options for their kids. Do you think the richer people are the further away they are from a committed engagement to the mission of their congregation?
- If they have kids, their activities run the schedule
A growing number of kids are playing sports. And a growing number of kids are playing on teams that require travel. Many of those sports happen on weekends. Affluent parents are choose sports over church.
- They are travelling
Despite a wobbly economy, travel is on the rise, both for business and pleasure.
More and more families of various ages travel for leisure, even if it’s just out of town to go camping or to a friend’s place for the weekend or a weekend at the lake.
- Blended and single-parent families have less-reliable schedules
When custody is shared, “perfect” attendance might be 26 Sundays a year. A single parent has many challenges others don’t. Transportation can be harder, taking care of the house, balancing work and family time. If being part of the church does not help with those challenges, it is hard to get into the schedule.
- People can, and do, get better stuff online
Many churches have created a social media presence and many, like us, podcast their messages. Some churches with a strong online presence have seen it impact physical attendance. Anyone who attends our meetings has free access to the online resources of any church. Even my blog post on Monday was viewed by people form eight countries.
- They don’t feel guilty
People who grew up in church (and we have plenty of them) feel guilty when they don’t show up to the meeting because that was a major thing in their childhood. Going to church or not marked them as good or not. People don’t get that so much anymore. They don’t feel any more guilty about not being in church meetings than you do about not being at the mosque on Friday.
We tend to make it plain that we don’t really want anyone to come to a meeting involuntarily, as if coming to the meeting makes them something. People in meetings who are fulfilling an obligation wreck the spirit of the meetings. So maybe our lack of guilt-production contributes to irregular attendance which contributes to flabby faith that is susceptible to disease. I’m not sure.
- More people all the time have a self-directed spirituality
People are looking less to churches and leaders to help them grow spiritually, and more to other options. We live in a era in which no parent makes a visit to a doctor’s office without having first Googled the symptoms of a child’s illness and a recommended course of treatment. I did it to my dermatologist this week, to her dismay. We research everything we buy online.
In an age where we have access to everything, more and more people are self-directing their spirituality…for better or for worse. They don’t trust institutions to do it for them and don’t feel obligated to them.
- They don’t sense there is something for them at the meeting
Even among people who say their love our church, their attendance might be spotty because they don’t see a direct benefit. They don’t see the value in being there week after week. That could be because the meetings are held because we’re supposed to hold a meeting or because there is value that they simply don’t see. Either way, failure to see a direct benefit always results in declining engagement.
We could help each other, not just evaluate
Assuming these things are true and we care about BEING a visible church by means of having meetings where people can stick their hands into us, what might help people experience something that make the meetings relevant? Why would the leaders make the effort to make them relevant?
We embrace people where they are.
People are not ideas and they certainly are not machines that should perform on a schedule. Like Jesus, they have wounds; we can see them.
Maybe Thomas was sulky because he thought of Jesus’ death as a rejection. If someone doesn’t come to the meeting and I do, what does that say to me? Did they reject me? If you are an insecure church leader people can feel when you feel rejected.
Before the meetings stats make us feel rejected, we need to find out what’s really happening with people. Chances are they did not make a relationship with us on the basis of coming to a meeting. The relationship is bigger than the meeting. Jesus is with us always, even as you are reading this. We need some object permanence so we can embrace people who are somewhere else for a bit.
We separate the mission from the method
Our mission is to lead people into a life-changing, life-long relationship with Jesus, not just get them to come to our cell or Sunday meeting.
Our meetings are great vehicles for mission and there will not be much community for people to share if no one spends time building it face to face. But our mission is not to fill our empty chairs, it is to lead people to Jesus and stay there with Him. We should be obsessed with our mission, not with filling seats.
Some of us are more in love with the method than the mission. Circle of Hope has wonderful methods that have been very successful, but doing them perfectly and defending them from detractors is not our job. People who move into authentic relationship with Jesus Christ show up more regularly.
We use technology to help people not corral them
Social media and even email can help deepen someone’s journey with Christ. Communication tools are not just for “selling” our latest event. We use them to help people. I don’t think we can overestimate how much help everyone needs right now. It would be nice if they thought what we put in their inbox or on their newsfeed was about them and their needs and not about their attendance. We are an opportunity to serve and grow, not an opportunity to make the church succeed.
We consider output not just input
Church leaders, like most organization leaders, are programmed to measure inputs, not outputs. We measure how many people showed up, how much money they gave, who they brought and even online traffic. But we rarely measure outputs.
What if we developed ways to measure all we do? It would be interesting to know how much time people spend attending to God each day — according to a recent study, 57% of Americans read their Bible four times a year or less. What if we found out if people were better off a year after their covenant than they were before? What if we collected stats about the difference our attenders make in their workplaces and neighborhoods? Leaders tend to get passionate about what they measure. So we should watch what we measure.
You probably want to be part of a “bloody” church, like I do. It is kind of gross to think about Thomas putting his fingers in the Lord’s side. But it is kind of great to think about Jesus being that face-to-face about Thomas having trouble with showing up for the resurrection. Every time we have to BE someone who is different than our prevailing feelings or different from the ways of the culture, it is going to be hard for us. So building the church is full of hard things. Let’s help each other make a church, not assume it is already made and we’re just blowing it when it comes to participating.