Sports-oriented parents with school-aged sons and daughters frequently find themselves involved in tournaments on weekends. Many of those tournaments occur in distant cities. Planners for these events now schedule games and matches throughout Saturday and Sunday.
Sunday sports commitments directly impact worship attendance among a demographic that congregations say that desperately want and need. Young families.
Now if our pews were already jammed and our coffers overflowing, we might hardly notice. Or, we might simply acknowledge this hectic phase of life with some nostalgic compassion for a time gone by for us and a hearty relief that our own schedules have slowed to a more manageable pace.
But our situation is very different.
While some congregations are growing by leaps and bounds, many are struggling to maintain their membership numbers. Others watch with increasing sadness as attendance and resources steadily dwindle.
So I understand when I hear clergy and laity alike scold these sports-devoted families in absentia. “They ought to bring their children to church! They’re teaching those children all the wrong values! They don’t know the Bible!”
Failing to see the irony, they then ask, “How can we make them come to church?” The irony I mean is this. Who wants to worship with a bunch of judgmental scolds?
As I said, I understand that some respond this way. But I also believe that such a response is completely misguided.
Here’s what I mean.
Please assume along with me that parents—at least the vast majority of parents—love their children more than life itself. They will sacrifice time, money, career, social life, and vast amounts of sleep to provide for their children’s growth, nurture, and well-being.
They seek out every available opportunity to foster their children’s growth. And let’s not assume that parents don’t seek to nurture the whole child. Moms and Dads attend to their children’s mind, body, and spirit. They are thus drawn to and diligently pursue those opportunities for their children’s and their own growth and strength and wisdom that seem most vital.
Let me repeat that. They are drawn to and diligently pursue those opportunities for their children’s and their own growth and strength and wisdom that seem most vital.
Their declining attendance at worship and their sagging participation in the life of our congregations suggest that they are find this vitality elsewhere. They seek other sources for spiritual nurture and character formation.
Let’s stop blaming these parents for refusing to follow patterns familiar to and beloved by previous generations. Instead, let’s see their search for spiritual depth and meaning as the occasion to reflect.
The question we should be asking is this: What kind of community do we need to be to nurture and support young families? (And if young families are not a significant demographic in your ministry context, fill in your group: unmarried young adults, the homeless, single parents, empty nesters, retirees, single professionals, and so on.)
Their changing spiritual patterns provide the catalyst for us to reflect upon how we have organized ourselves as the Body of Christ and how a changing cultural and social and economic landscape are urging us to change in order to engage God’s ancient and eternal mission. The mission of reconciliation and restoration. The mission of mending the torn fabric of the world and making all things new.
For starters, we might look at how we are increasingly perceived by those who attend sporadically, by those who who are drifting away, and by those who are done with us. As one writer put it, people have grown weary of church as the weekly pattern of plop, pray, and pay
Sitting in the pew, going through the motions, and pledging some amount of our paycheck has, for some, become the dreary essence of church.
If being the church is reduced to going to church on Sunday and paying to keep the lights on, it’s no wonder that we hold little attraction for so many people.
This is not how we perceive ourselves. It’s not who we want to be. Alas, when our anxieties about survival push aside our impulse toward mission, we do begin to resemble this unflattering caricature of ourselves.
And even when our relative health staves off worries about survival, focusing on getting people to go to church we have undesirable consequences. We will grow increasingly out of touch with our unchurched and barely churched neighbors.
As I often say, lose the phrase “go to church.” You are the Church. Let’s start by being the Church, and take the Church to the people.
Here are some things that I am sure that people yearn for. They look for an authentic, life-transforming experience of God. Correlatively, they want to know how to make a difference in the world as a result of that relationship.
Worship nurtures disciples to go out into the world to be the hands and the feet of Christ. In other words, worship sends the Church—worship sends us—out into the world. By being followers of Christ in our local schools and playgrounds, our housing projects and chambers of commerce, our city council and neighborhood watch, we make God’s perpetual presence visible.
By inviting others to join us in the works of discipleship, we incorporate them into the Body of Christ. We draw people to Christ from the midst of the lives they already live. Instead of trying to get people to add to or to alter their already hectic schedules, we can insinuate ourselves into their lives right where they live.
In time, some will join us for the deep nurture of sacramental worship. Some will not. But the lives we touch through Christ extend beyond the narrow measure of average Sunday attendance.
The world around us is changing. It has changed in the past. We can anticipate that it will change in the future. Time and again the Church has shaped and reshaped itself to engage God’s mission in an evolving world. We live in such a season.
God’s mission of reconciliation and restoration remains the same. In this season it seems that our traditional liturgical worship and sacramental life are immensely attractive among increasing numbers of people.
What we must change in ourselves is not our worship style, but our style of engaging the world. Instead of getting the world to come to church, it’s time to take the church to the world. Let’s change the church to change the world.
This sermon was preached at the Celebration of New Ministry at Holy Trinity in Sulphur, Louisiana.