“Regular” worship attendance is now defined as participating twice in one month, according to EWSA (Evangelical Worship Statistics of America).
Seriously, I don’t know who really makes such a decree, but when I heard I nodded in consent. It sounds about right. Most of us in the church knew this before it was declared officially. But expecting 50 percent attendance for your “regulars” changes many assumptions about the way we do church—everything from children’s ministries to volunteers, offerings and finances, to continuity in worship. I don’t have answers for any of that. But we’ll have to stumble upon some in the next decade.
I try not whine about it, or wag the finger of shame. Less regular attendance is just another sign of the times, the end of Christendom, perhaps. Trying to go back in time won’t work. Play the cards you are dealt. All sorts of reasons are put forth for the decline—the “spiritual but not religious” mindset, online resources, more travel—both business and pleasure, and many, many more Sunday options. As much as I try to be mature and understanding of the changing realities, I enjoyed this spoofing article "After 12 Years of Quarterly Church Attendance Parents Shocked by Daughter’s Lack of Faith.”
Recently a young couple shared their experience with me. The first Sunday of the month they traveled out of town for a friend’s baby shower. The next week, their infant was sick so they stayed home from worship. The next week, the mother had to work on Sunday, and dad wasn’t quite up to the challenge of going alone with the baby. The next week, they spent the weekend visiting parents about three hours from home. “Our pastor must think we hate her and that they’ll never see us again,” they said. It’s hard not to be sympathetic with the couple.
Speaking personally, but generalizing for the entire species, pastors are pretty insecure creatures. When someone doesn’t show up in worship for a month, we know we shouldn’t take it personally. But we do. When we’re healthy, we realize that it isn’t about us. People have their reasons. Their loyalty should be to Jesus and the Church, not to me personally. But who of us is healthy all the time? Next time “Pastors’ Appreciation Month” comes around, don’t get your pastor a mug, a wall plaque, or some other terrible tchotchke. Go to church. It is the gift we most appreciate.
When we meet with potential new church members, I tell the group that we are “a church with a long leash.” We don’t give a tug every time you’ve missed two weeks. We let you wander a while, assuming the best, trusting you’ll return. That’s not to say we’ll ignore you—or at least, not in theory. Recently, someone told me that they did feel unnoticed in their absence. This person specifically remembered my “long leash” phrase and said something like, “I don’t think it’s a good idea. It gives the impression you don’t care.” Trying to avoid pushiness and guilt, we instead send a message of not caring. It’s not an exact science.
I am not a head counter at church, even though we are supposed to report our “average worship attendance.” We don’t count partly because we reject the bean-counting methodology of the church growth movement. And partly, we don’t count because my ego just couldn’t take it. I don’t want to feel blue until Tuesday because attendance was down 18 compared to last year, nor swaggering because it was up 11. At my healthiest, I’m not like that, but…
One of the places I’ve found help and comfort is Jesus’s parable of the sower. As a young person, I heard it as admonition. I had better get my soil in shape. What a gift when someone suggested that this parable may be Jesus struggling with—or exploring, if you prefer—the mystery of how faith takes root, why do some receive and others reject his message?
The reason I can imagine Jesus struggling is because being a pastor forced me to ask similar questions. Why do some people flourish under my leadership, while others drift to the margins or totally disappear? Why did that visitor only come once? What about that young family that seemed so energized, but after six months we never saw them again? Why do I receive such mixed results? Am I doing something wrong?
It isn’t just Jesus or pastors who have these sorts of questions and doubts. Spouses, close friends, parents, all who try to share the Gospel with those closest to them. Sometimes for decades you have tried to exude and exemplify the Kingdom, with absolutely nothing to show for your efforts.
For me, there is great relief and consolation in the parable. Why and when the seeds of the Gospel sprout is a mystery. People with perfect attendance, those who come half the time, those who drift away—it is not my job to instill faith in any of them. The parable helps me to be patient, hopeful, persistent, and extravagant in scattering seed. Then, let the rest be up to God.