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In my tradition, twice was the norm. Growing up in the Christian Reformed Church, attending church twice every Sunday was a non-negotiable, a near creational given. ”Oncers” were deemed on a slippery slope to perdition, an accommodation to the ease of culture and all its entertainments (and how I desperately wanted to be a oncer to stay home and watch Disney as a kid).

Today, many churches no longer hold two distinct worship services each Sunday (some do offer a number of versions of the same service). In fact, I’m beginning to notice a new trend in worship patterns – not twice a Sunday but twice a month seems to be the new normal.

 At the church I served in Calgary, we noticed some slippage in Sunday worship attendance. Many took this to mean that people were leaving the church. My hunch was elsewhere, that, in fact, we were increasing our ministry reach to a wider group of people. However, the metric of Sunday worship attendance wasn’t a helpful measurement of our ministry influence.

To test my hunch, I conducted an informal survey at a meeting of about 40 of our core leaders (Elders, Deacons, ministry leaders). I asked everyone there (remember, these were the core of our church, the highly committed) to review the past four weeks. I asked, how many attended our church’s Sunday worship services for the past 4 weeks? How many 3 weeks? For 2 of 4, and how many just 1? The results surprised everyone in the room. Of these core leaders, the clear and dominant majority (over 60%) had attended our church’s worship services only two of the past four weeks.

We did a quick analysis of why – what kept them from worship on those Sunday’s they missed. Most prevalent: traveling out of town, visiting friends, on a family trip into the mountains, or just needed a space to breath after a busy week. No lurking dissatisfaction, no backsliding. Just busy people in a highly mobile society with (probably overly) full lives.

I was reminded of this at a staff meeting this week (in a different church, a different part of the country, and a different denomination) when this same reality popped up again. We were discussing our church’s communications and noted how our communication vehicles now carry the burden of keeping people connected over wider swaths of time. Why? Our anecdotal evidence showed people we knew exhibiting the new normal – twice a month.

This new reality (among fairly committed Christians; imagine what its like for others) begs all sorts of questions and invites necessary conversations. For example, how do we understand time (is all time equal or are there special moments we need to set aside)? How are we allowing the rush of our schedules to shape our lives? What are the created rhythms of life that our culture ignores or avoids? Why is it so easy to let gathered, public worship get crowded out? What is so important about gathering together with others for worship when I can download better sermons and finer music? How might we renew our sabbath practice (without getting legalistic)? Has the reality of our mobility and individuality (leading us to attend sanctuaries often distant from our homes and communities) negatively shaped our practice of worship?

And then there’s the whole role of habits and practices. Martin Marty found the simplest of observations about declining worship attendance – it was a change in habits. He writes, “Why are they declining? Certainly not because a few atheists write best-sellers. I always look for the simplest causes, such as rejection of drab and conflicted congregations and denominations. Or changes in habits. I watch the ten thousands running past in Sunday marathons or heading to the kids’ soccer games and recall that their grandparents and parents kept the key weekend times and places open for sacred encounters.”

I’m convinced we underestimate the importance of basic habits to shape our lives and form our hearts (read James K.A. Smith Desiring the Kingdom for a good philosophical background on the practice-shaped nature of spiritual formation). The old notion of a regula, a rule of life, looks like a saving grace for a church trying to find its way in a culture of distraction (on that note, do check out Arthur Boers Living into Focus too).

Over to you – do you see a similar trend unfolding in your life or church? How do you feel about it? Is it a good pattern? Are you finding different rhythms for weekly worship?


Great article Phil.  I'm going to show it to our council. Even out in here in rural isolated America, the same problem exists.  I've been wresting with the best way to do ministry and worship in that context, especially when your church is small to begin with.  I would like to see a study that trends that sort of attendance with giving habits.

I'm still looped in Paul!  Thanks for still wanting me around.  

I'm now thinking through some of the implications of this for ministry.  Would love to hear your thoughts on what you think needs doing - do we aim to correct the trends? Explore new forms of gathered worship (small groups for three weeks, one large worship gathering for the fourth week?).

No longer do we have an ethnic glue nor a worship glue that provides a framework.  I'm interesting in how monastic communities functions, how their rule of life goverened their community.  Northumbria, in England, functions as a dispersed community but tethered together by their rule.  Could churches function - dispersed throughout the week but united in a rule of life?

John Zylstra on May 20, 2012

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I wonder if part of the reason why people many only attend church twice a month on average (which is similar to findings of national gallup and diary surverys), is because we can seem to  discuss this issue so cooly and intellectually.  Without passion, without purpose, without a sense of urgency or committment, there is no real reason for people to be concerned about whether they attend church every week or not.  The lack of passion that allowed people to put social visiting, or football games or hockey games, or disney ahead of any extra effort it might take to gather together as God's people to honor God, rather than self, rather than human beings, rather than our own comfort or convenience, rather than work which could be done at another time, is the same cause for our present twice a month average as it was for our once a Sunday service (instead of twice a sunday, plus young people's in the evening). 

I know people will come up with exceptions and all kinds of examples to the contrary, but the stats speak for themselves.  In spite of fewer services, many people do less service and worship outside of worship services than they used to do in spite of twice a sunday worship.  I'm presently reading thru Kings, and the repetition of a certain phrase sticks in my mind.   A king would do what is pleasing to God, but he did not remove the high places where the people offered sacrifices and incense to other gods.  Always the other false gods were in the background, causing a divergence of worship, replacing the single minded devotion to God that God himself required.  In the end, Israel and Judah paid for their attempted worship of many gods, in a very serious and sad way.  I wonder what we ourselves are really like. 

Personally I just can't imagine how people could neglect worshipping God on sunday, in whatever location they are in, with whatever group of christians they can find.  It would be like going to live with your secretary, or your boss, or your football friends every other week, instead of going home to your wife and kids.   We are not removing the many "high places" of false worship in our lives. 

Phil Reinders on May 22, 2012

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thanks for your thoughts John.  I'd be interested in the sources of the surveys you cite - if you could send along references, I'd very much appreciate it.

Thanks, Phil, for this post. Its something our church has been discussing for pretty much the whole time I've been here. That said, I think there's two things I'd like to add to the discussion:

First, I think we need to figure out why attendence of worship services is important. I mean, I know all the cliche and even some theological ballpark reasons why, but why is weekly attendence important - and why is that better than bi-monthly attendence....and for that matter, why are we not meeting daily as the early church did? If we don't know the answers to these questions, that's a good place to start.

Second, I think we need to recognize our own bias & emotional investment as pastors. I don't know about you, but sometimes I feel really discouraged when we get a small turnout with no real explanation. And that personal pain shouldn't factor into the "why" rationale for attendence - for those of us where every-2-weeks is the norm, I think all too often we fall into the trap of resentment - the heading off of which is something we've now purposefully built into our leadership development - our musicians & artists take the pain of poor attendence & lateness even more starkly than we as pastors often do.

Phil Reinders on May 21, 2012

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Mark - great thoughts.  I tried to stay away from any value judgements in the original post, and stick to observations about what seemed to be a trend.  I think the new normal does foist on us important discussions.  And you're right - the why of our practices is really important to consider.  The why of weekly along with the what of our worship practice.  What do we need to practice, and how often do we commit to these practices, to spiritually form people in the way of Jesus?  

I know of one church that meets in small groups for three of four weeks and in a large group worship gathering on the fourth.  It's an attempt to maintain a regular worship practice but in a way that was contextual to their setting.  I've been thinking a lot about "a rule" that provides a new axis for a given congregation.  

Bev Sterk on May 22, 2012

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Why is attendance important?  It's one indicator of our heart's desire to love God with all our hearts, souls, mind and strength, it is one indicator of seeking His Kingdom first.  That God and spending time with Him is our top priority.  God tells us over and over again to seek His face, worshipping together is a key way. 

Why are we not meeting daily like the early church?  I would love to see this happen.  Curious as to when and where did we lose this rhythm?

under the emotional investment... whatever we do is first unto the LORD!  He is our audience of One!  I help lead an extended time of worship, and it doesn't matter how many people are there, because we are there for Jesus!  Because He is worthy of our praise.  God takes the pain of poor attendance and lack of enthusiasm to spend time with Him far more "starkly" than we ever will.






Phil Reinders on May 22, 2012

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Bev - one way the church continued to "meet together" even when they weren't together was through the practice of praying the daily office.  It was a daily form of prayer that the church prayed and worshipped with together.  It was a way of forming a unified worshipping body even when scattered throughout the week.  I'm pretty convinced that reclaiming this daily office is vital - as a way to continue to "worship together when where not together" and as a way of both extending our Sunday worship into the week and then preparing for our next time of corporate worship.

Bev Sterk on May 22, 2012

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

thanks Phil, I agree that it is a key component for the health of our congregations... I'm hoping to watch the workshop you shared at the prayer summit on this... do you know if they are available for viewing yet?

I think I will work on encouraging believers in the use of the daily office, maybe through a website such as oremus, to use as one of their devotional times... 

blessings as the Spirit gives you insight to build up and edify the Bride of Christ...

Thank you Phil and others for your comments.  This is a very important discussion for the future viability of the CRCNA.

I think the primary focus for us as church leaders should be to help people know how to do what they do as representatives of Jesus.  As one elder put it in speaking to her congregation, "We don't want you to do different things, we just want to help you do the things you do differently."  It strikes me that although we see lots of evidence of Jesus spending time in personal worship with the Father there does not seem to be an emphasis on weekly worship attendance at the synagogue or temple for that matter for Jesus.  Now I realize that Jesus is an extreme case, and that descriptioin does not equal prescription, but it does beg the question, "What does it really mean to follow Jesus?" and "How can we emphasize mutually accountable personal worship and growth in the grace and knowledge of Jesus, rather than simply using pew time (church attendance) as the criteria?"

Phil, and Mark.  Attending church is all about value judgements.  If we have to ask why we do it, if we don't know why, then that alone is part of the problem.  God gave a command of keeping Sabbaths.  If we think we are smarter than God, then that is part of the problem too.  For me, it is not about a personal investment as a pastor.  That would be a problem in itself.  No one ought to be attending church to satisfy the personal investment of a pastor or a song leader.  

The values attached to church attendance simply have to do with honoring God.   It has to do with saying and indicating that honoring God is more important than the superbowl, more important than my personal physical comfort, more important than the latest reality show, more important than my work, more important than cutting the grass or cooking a big meal, and more important than the so-called wants and desires of family and friends.  That is what the weekly worship signifies.   Its not about making a pastor happy, and its not about making me happy, and its not about making my kids happy. 

For that reason, church attendance is an indication of the values that are important in our lives.  Church attendance is not about us.   It is about God. 

We should not confuse alternate methods of church attendance with a total lack of attendance.  If a small group worship is done sincerely and completely, then it is still a worship service.  A small church with ten families is just as much worship as a large church with 400 families.  But if it is merely a friendly social barbecue, without prayer and bible reading and exposition and examination of the word, without praise, and without singing, then it is not a worship service.  There is a danger that small group worship can deteriorate into a social party, if the leadership is not very determined and purposeful, so small groups need this extra warning. 

We should also recognize that because people do travel much more than in the past, that they may not be participating in worship at home, but can still participate in worship at a church in another town.   This happens for students, for retirees, for vacationers.   Sometimes family reunions will establish their own church service on a Sunday.   Sometimes people  may even worship at another church in the same town for special reasons.   While this is not desireable if it happens too often, it is not the same issue as someone who stays home because they need a break, or someone who sits on the beach or goes on a hike as a substitute because they are on vacation.  God does not take a vacation from us.  Parents cannot take a vacation from their young children.  And we ought not to take a vacation from our relationship with God.  It hurts our relationship with God. 

I have once in the last five years, remained in a resort hotel on a Sunday morning with my family, because we had arrived late the evening before, and did not know where a local church was in a strange town.  We watched five different worship services on tv that morning, in sequence, an enlightening and enriching thing in itself.  But it is no substitute for worship, for actual participation in singing and prayer and fellowship. 

Merely analyzing trends in some cold objective fashion and justifying or finding a way to adjust, will do nothing to bring us closer to God.  God accused the Israelites of committing adultery against Him when they did not keep his Sabbaths.   They committed adultery/idolatry when other gods were worshipped on the "high places" and altars of the false gods.   Whenever we think we are somehow inately better than the Israelites, and that our practices cannot be judged, then we have fallen into the same trap as the Israelites.  And what makes us think that we will not suffer a similar fate that the Israelites and old  kings of Judah suffered?  Do we think that our pride and smug superiority and other sacrifices will redeem us? 

Faith without works is dead, we read in James.  While attending church will not save us from our sins, because only Christ redeems us, it is still an indication of where our heart is, and how we value our relationship with God.  It is not just a social trend.  It is a direct indication of what is important to us, and where our heart is. 

God help us! 

Phil Reinders on May 22, 2012

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

John - thanks for your passion for worship.  My comment to Mark about the absence of value judgements in my post was not to imply there are not values to affirm in this conversation - only to say that the original post was at the observational level. 

Church attendance does demonstrate a value, for sure, but I'm not convinced for all people and at all times, it has to do with honoring God.  For some, it's a love of community with similar folk.  for others, its an aesthetic experience in the music and liturgy.  For most, I hope it reflects a love and honour of God.

I hope you don't hear me advocating for a diminished corporte worship practice.  I'm convinced its probably the most spiritually formative practice for the church (see a blog post I wrote further on this a while ago - you can read it here - )




Phil Reinders on May 22, 2012

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Here's the link to another post I wrote related to this (the one above doesn't seem to work).

This actually kind of cheers me up. I get a little down looking around on Sunday mornings and seeing big gaps between people. But it's true that even our dedicated members (myself included) are often traveling or busy and not making it every Sunday.

Phil Reinders on May 22, 2012

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Mavis - its true, this can be a bit of light in a situation where others might cast as altogether gloomy (namely, that maybe we aren'd declining but instead our patterns our changing).  Now those changes might be troubling but at least knowing what is going on enables us to thoughtfully engage the realities and prescribe helpful change.

Great article Phil.  It brings to mind for me the difference between approaching this as a technical problem to be solved or an adaptive challenge to learn some new things about.  We have also seen the same thing developing over the past few years.  It seems the shift has come on fairly quickly of late.  We are tracking some who are simply moving to other churches or are in crisis and other things, but that does not account for the up to a third of the congregation that is missing on any given Sunday.  We have noticed rythms in the year around school time (some parts of the school year are busier than others), long weekends, the ebb and flow of snowbirds, even the local weather makes an impact on this.  There seems to be a broader connectedness of people with others and they more readily go to friends and neighbor gatherings when there is an event of any kind on Sundays. 

I wonder how this connects with what I perceive as a growing lonliness in our communities.  People seem hungry for fellowship.  I also wonder if our experience of fellowship during worship is an adequate experience to even be recongnized as a balm for loneliness.  Of course we are being trained in this culture to answer emptiness with surface stuff, entertainment, experiences that stimulate us or give us pleasure.  Meeting with God in worship doesn't seem to fit that bill very well.  I think of our traditional sancturary set up (long narrow an all looking straight forward) based on the hearing of the Word.  This does not lend itself to a sense of meeting with the Lord and His Body, but more of indiduals listening to a sermon.  My sense is that people are desiring real connection with God and real connection with one another.  But this requires some new (yet old) things to learn about openness, confession, forgiveness, vulnerabililty and safety with others.  Anyway, I think I might share your article with my Council as well as others have mentioned doing.  Thank you Spirit for using Phil in this way. 


Phil Reinders on May 22, 2012

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thanks for your kind words, Colin.  And you're naming good insights that might lie behind some of these trends. 

This is not good news, and I find it a disturbing trend.   We/the crc are suppose to be a fairly mature denomination of believers.  This does not indicate that.   This indicates heart issues (faith formation?) that need to be addressed.  It seems we have made many other things a priority, other than the Kingdom.  I know there are many reasons why we can not be in church every time the doors are open, some are valid, some are not, but God calls us to seek His Kingdom first.  This is one indicator that we are not.    We are to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind... I know we will never perfectly attain this until we get through heaven's gate, but this is an indicator that we are not and instead maybe we are treating Jesus more as a "mascot" instead of as our "Monarch".  (see David Bryant's "Christ is ALL" p.12-14) 

The level of prayer in the North American church is another indicator of our lack of investing our resources into the Kingdom (95% of believers pray 5 minutes or less a day).

The giving level of believers at 2-3% of income is a significant indicator, and lack of fasting another indicator.   These are all serious problems in the Church.  Why?   We have significantly missed the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit for a variety of reasons.  I'm not saying we have totally missed it, but we have to a significant extent.

I appreciate John's comments.  and I would love to see the Church gathering on a daily basis at various levels...  I think the Koreans gather every morning for prayer... 


A couple of additional comments:  Phil, those who come for an aesthetic experience, or for community fellowship, will in the end find it easy to find the same things at a ballgame, or an art show, or a concert performance, or a curling rink.   And in fact they are finding it there, perhaps because they assume that if that's really the only reason to go to church anyway, so what's the difference.  In reality, the primary legitimate reason is to worship God together, and members ought to know and understand that first of all.   If they don't, its the fault of the preachers.  If they don't, they are being led astray by somebody.  Figure out who it is...  Change the message about the purpose of church getting together. 

Now I realize that new visitors and seekers will have different reasons, and we also ought to pay attention to that.  Fellowship in particular is also essential (but not foundational).  But other reasons can never be a long term foundational purpose. 

Last week I wrote a sermon about the "high places"  in our lives, similar to old testament Israel.  (tied in with Romans 6).  It is those "high places" that divert people to different purposes, and decrease both attendance of members, and membership itself.  If we don't have a good grasp of the purpose of worship, then it will be impossible for us to have any kind of grasp of the purpose of creation care, or christian education, or home missions, or christian relief efforts.  Instead of honoring God thru these other efforts, they will simply become false idols and other altars, if we do not understand the purpose of gathering together for worship (and make it our priority). 

I appreciate what Bev is saying too.   More prayer!  I can feel from week to week, when prayer is weak, then my faith life slides and suffers. 

Mavis, as a dedicated Christian, when you are out of town, do you still find a place to worship with believers?  Last Sunday we had a few missing as well, but I'm quite sure that they were worshipping at a very small church one and a half hours away, another church an hour away, or at another church seven hours away.  On the other hand, we had some guests too. 

One more comment regarding Joe who said that Jesus did not put much emphasis on weekly worship.  First, Scripture gives no indication that Jesus missed Sabbath worship.  Often it indicates that he was invited to speak in the synogogue on the sabbath.  Second, Jesus often had his own worship, with many more people than would fit in a regular synogogue.  And his sermons were better too.  He spoke with authority.  Third, Jesus did say that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.  But that does not mean he was suggesting that everyone should just do whatever they did every other day of the week.  The fact that the Sabbath was made for man, meant it was a gift to man.  A gift to be used for what it was intended, not a gift to be squandered and wasted.  Many people squander and waste the sabbath on their own selfish desires, on their own false gods of money, or business, or recreation, concerts, meetings, vacation, and organized sports.  For some, only a thin thread keeps them connected to the path that Jesus wants us to follow Him on. 

Bev Sterk on May 22, 2012

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

John, your posts make me think of Isaiah 58:13-14...

Bev, in response to your hint for more official recognition of prayer and prophecy.   It has been said that influence often has more impact than "authority".   Of course, authority is required... someone must make some decisions.  But influence can change the direction of those decisions.   Thus often wives without direct authority still influence decisions of their husbands in very dramatic and significant ways.  Consider Obama saying that he was influenced to flipflop on homo marriage due to influence of his wife and daughters.  This is the practical side of whether it is important or not to sit at a particular table.  If decision makers decide that the holy spirit is very important in prophecies, and that prophetic utterances ought to receive more attention, that might be interesting, but it won't gather much steam unless people trust them or accept them or feel that it is important.  Another example is synod assessing ministry shares.  They do that, but the churches donate about 70 some percent of those shares (I believe).  Influence on the relative significance of synod's authority has more imact than the actual authority of synod itself. 

Why do I say this?   It is because if you really want to have an impact about the importance of prayer, and really want to highlight the possibility and significance of prohetic utterances and spiritual vision, then you have an unprecedented opportunity to do so on various electronic forums.  This probably reaches more people than a table at synod, and in a more effective manner.   People who respond and listen are more likely to change than those councils and administrators who toss correspondence into the garbage because there is already too much to deal with.   Changing practices and understanding from the ground up is likely to be more effective than trying to change it from the top down.  Invariably by the time it is changed from the top down (although we shouldn't call synod the top), it has already been majorly changed at the working level.  In my opinion. 

A prayer conference in Los Angelos or Sacramento does not require the approval of synod, for example.  Nor will it necessarily be more effective if it does get that endorsement.  Keep in mind also, that particular methods of ministry, or of prayer, may not be the guage of success.   It may simply be the amount of time we spend as individuals, and the attitude of prayer that prevails in all our ordinary daily activities.   It may be the cumulation of a whole number of different methods and priorities.   Carry on, Bev.  The need for prayer and the need for us to search for the leading of the spirit is very great.   Very great!  We need all the encouragement we can get.   

Bev Sterk on May 22, 2012

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

thanks John for your encouragement...  Believe you me, I am "influencing" every opportunity the Spirit gives me =) and I'm very thankful for forums like the network that let us discuss and sharpen concepts with others that have a similar frame of reference regarding our faith, as well as thankful to be given numerous occasions to have face to face discussions... but I will say I do get frustrated when people are resistant/fearful of this particular gift of the Spirit.   I believe there are many (and all do to some extent per Acts 2) in our denomination that have the gift of prophecy, but are basically unaware of it, because it has not been taught or identified; it seems it is not understood very well.  I have discussed this with numerous people, and when i share with them how the gifting works, it's like an "aha" moment for them... then there are others that insist God doesn't "speak" to us anymore other than through scripture and its illumination by the Holy Spirit, or that such "listening" is dangerous. 

No, it's more dangerous for us not to walk in this gifting (therefore quenching the Spirit), then to walk in it, even if we do make mistakes.   Again, scripture says to "eagerly desire".  Training and teaching on this gifting will hopefully eliminate many of the mistakes that can be made.  That is one of the reasons why people are resistant, because they can point to examples where significant harm was done because someone said "thus saith the LORD"  or "God told me..."  ..  that's why it's very important learning how to test, and test together whatever "prophetic" insight is shared.  Otherwise it is a door for people to get off track into a cult and chaos to occur per John McArthur.   Several keys for those operating in the prophetic are: to be much in the Word, to be much in prayer and worship, and to be in fellowship with and under the authority of a local church.  If believers are not willing to honor and submit to the authority of the church, that is an indication of not being in alignment with the Spirit.  I will say the Spirit really opened up this gifting for me as He worked on my prayer life, and I see this gifting stronger with those who spend significant amounts of time in prayer.  Now is that a hard and fast rule, probably not, but the 2 do seem to have a pretty strong correlation.

So yes, I'll keep "influencing"  ;)... but hopefully it's sharpening, because as Michael shared (oh yeah, that was in another thread =) so see PVK's thread on women and classis under the classis forum for that comment), everything must line up with scripture, we cannot go outside of scripture - that is dangerous, and that's why being in a body of believers is so important to keep us accountable. 

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