Depending on the church culture you grew up in you may have experienced that great evangelical motivator, ‘guilt’, (often accompanied by its friend ‘duty’.)
In the world I grew up in these two factors seemed to play a large part in why people went to church, why they got involved in church service and would explain some of why weekly church attendance was normal and predictable.
If you weren’t there ‘the pastor’ would call during the week and your absence would be enquired about. The elders would note your absence and the ‘roll’ would show an ‘x’ next to your name (yes – there was a roll…) If the reasons for skipping church were inadequate, then there would be at very least a silent ‘tutt tutt’ of disapproval from the pastor. No one liked those kinds of pastoral visits or those phone calls that said ‘we haven’t seen you in a couple of weeks…’
But guilt is a powerful motivator and it did have its desired effect of keeping attendances (and offerings…) up.
However guilt is also a hollow motivator – as soon as someone calls it out, names it and shames it. No one wants to be driven by guilt. No one wants to own that as their raison d’etre.
Even now I encounter the legacy of those times when I call to check in on someone who hasn’t been around and they immediately feel the need to justify their non-attendance and let me know that they will be back at church again soon.
That wasn’t why I was calling…
Or was it?
It makes me question my own motives sometimes. Am I ok with people skipping church?… Am I latently trying to guilt them back in?…
I have a hunch that what’s happened in the last 20 years is a pendulum swing away from compulsory weekly attendance based on guilt. We have been so keen to make sure people are not motivated by guilt that we have given them permission to choose – to choose to attend – to choose to stay home – sleep in – go away – whatever they ‘need’ to be doing that day is fine. We wouldn’t want you to feel guilty about not attending Sunday worship…
And while I see value in the shift, I also see a developing Christian culture that is not able to sustain a community. The average Aussie Sunday church attendance is now probably about 1 in 3. There are some who will be there every week and others who will be there once a term, but on average it seems ‘regulars’ get there one week in three. It used to be 1 in 2 but I sense it has shifted even in the last few years.
What’s that mean for us as the church?
Do we just accept this as ‘how it is’?
Do we challenge it?
Does it even matter?
I have to put my hand up as one who said ‘church attendance is not the big deal – being part of a church community IS.’ And I still believe that is completely true, but the reality is that most people who don’t attend church weekly are not part of any other expression of church community. Its those who are regular on Sundays who are also regular at bloke’s groups and women’s groups etc.
Which ultimately means that those who aren’t consistently gathering on a Sunday most likely aren’t gathering anywhere and aren’t earthing themselves in Christian community, and that has to be a concern. The gospel is inherently communal. There is nothing solitary about following Jesus, but a busy, consumeristic world and a self centred culture have led us to accept that maybe this is as good as it gets. If this is discipleship then we are screwed.
At QBC we have joked about who is on the ‘attendance roster’ this week. We have talked about rolling with it and accepting that this is the world we live in. But lately there is a part of me that has just got gnarly about it. There is a part of me that wants to say ‘ok guilt sucks – and that was bad – but this lame excuse for being the church is hardly a better solution.’ I think its more than a personal indignation or offense. I feel it is a God stirred thing because it won’t go away and I feel it rising in me as something I can’t ignore.
The mere term ‘church attendance’ still gives me a shiver down the spine because it so badly misses the point of what it means to be a church. However we may need to start again with exactly this.
Maybe the first thing to challenge people with is their commitment to the community that gathers on a Sunday?
My observation is that the erratic (or maybe predictable but disappointing) attendance patterns affect others who are there. When there are 120 in your church and 50 on any given Sunday then it is hard to form a healthy community. The necessary connections that lead to mutual spiritual formation just don’t happen because there isn’t a foundation for them. So instead we press on and hope that an inspirational sermon might find its mark somewhere and might stir someone into action for another week.
It might… but a sermon every three weeks is not what discipleship looks like and that we have come to accept this is disturbing me.
In moments like these I want to quit Christian leadership because it seems like a dead end task. It seems almost impossible to work within this culture to create something that looks like the church.
Or maybe we need to go back and challenge people about this issue? Maybe we need to take the risk of ‘guilt’ raising its head and just call out laziness, selfishness and misplaced priorities? Maybe this is one of the prophetic roles of Christian leaders in this time – to say ‘Christian community is not a convenience – it is a commitment – and it will cost. Deal with it.’
Yeah… I’m chewing on it. I’m wondering how you say these things in a spirit of grace and with a depth of conviction that doesn’t simply take people back to their ‘guilt scars’ and evoke a ‘you can’t tell me what to do’ kind of reaction. I’m wondering how we inspire people to a better vision, because it will be a costly vision.
But I do know that if this is as good as it gets then I probably need to do something else because it isn’t a model I want to invest my life in
(By the way – the image is of Lesmurdie Baptist Church in 1969 as it was beginning)