If you follow the liturgical calendar, you will know that the the first half of the church year is made up of diverse seasons that tell the story of Jesus – Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter. And then comes a long season of counting Sundays called Ordinary Time.
Towards the end of that second half of the church year, there are a bunch of “one-off” Sundays that mark an occasion for a single Sunday, rather than a season. Thanksgiving (it is in October in Canada ), Reformation Sunday (for Lutherans), Halloween/All Saints, Reign of Christ, the Christmas Pageant and then Christmas Eve.
I find it interesting that for most churches out there October through Christmas is often the busiest, most active time of the year. It probably has to do with the beginning of school and the lingering fall weather that keeps us looking for opportunities to get outside before winter.
But I often wonder if it says something about the changing nature of commitment of active church goers. In decades past, active church members were defined as those who attend every Sunday or nearly every Sunday. I have seen the old buttons, pins and stickers of the 60s and 70s for people to collect from the churches they attended while on vacation. These were for those going for perfect Sunday school attendance records, and probably to ward off nosy pastors inquiring as to why you missed a Sunday.
In the last decade or two, active church membership has been counted by those who attend once a month or more. There simply isn’t a statistically relevant number of people who show up every Sunday. There are still some who can be counted on to be in their pew every week, but often the active members of a congregation attend 1 to 2 times a month. These are people who are leaders in churches, serving on council, leading music, teaching bible studies, chairing committees etc…
There are lots of factors to this of course, and no, it is not Sunday shopping and sports. I think it has more to do with most households shifting from 1 income earner to 2. Longer work weeks – 50 or 60 hours – being demanded of many. The snow bird schedules of those who have the chance to travel in retirement. And our changing tolerance as a society for long term obligations and duties. We simply have less time and energy because we work more and earn less – so our personal/family/recreation time comes at a premium.
So when the church has a bunch of one-off Sundays like Thanksgiving, Confirmation Sunday, Reformation, All Saints, Reign of Christ, the Christmas Pageant in Advent and the most one off Church events of them all – Christmas Eve – people start showing up. We are now a society that can handle committing to show up once… but not usually more than that.
This change is the reason why Sunday Schools struggle to keep going. Church councils and committees struggle to find bodies. Choirs, men’s and women’s groups, and bible studies are falling out of the commonplace in the life of congregations. It isn’t that people don’t want to do these things, it is that there isn’t time and energy for many weekly or even monthly obligations anymore – there is barely time to go to church at all more than one or two times a month.
And one of the one of common concerns you hear from church leaders, from tired out folks wanting to give up their long held commitments, is how to get “those other people” to come and take on more. How can we get people to come back?
The thing is, we all know that this is the wrong question, we just don’t know who to frame it differently. It just isn’t going to happen, we haven’t turned the clock back before and we won’t figure out how to do it now. People aren’t going to just come out of the woodwork to volunteer in droves for 3 year committee commitments and 25 year Sunday School teacher terms.
I think we also know what the right question is too.
I think most church leaders and members know that the real question lies in how the church shifts from being a social obligation to a place where we practice our faith in community. And more importantly, shifting our own understanding of what this means.
It isn’t actually bad thing for churches to differentiate ourselves from the local cultural club or community centre or YMCA or arts community or PTA or soup kitchen. We might have aspects of those things, but those thing are not core to our identity as churches.
Churches are primarily places to practice our faith – to gather with other believers and hear again the good news of Christ given for us.
Churches are places to follow Jesus, to experience God’s commitment to us, rather than be burdened by our commitment to God.
Churches are places where we are a community of people brought together by Jesus, by a common faith that we want to share with others. Not a group of friends who also sometimes pray.
The transformation from place of social and culture obligation to place where faith is practiced is pretty damn scary. In fact, it so scary to imagine that we would rather just complain about “those other poeple” who aren’t taking our jobs from us so that we don’t have to do them anymore.
It is scary to imagine what a church full of people who actually wants to follow Jesus together and to see where Jesus leads will look like… because it will be very different than what we look like now.
It is scary to ask how we get there too – even if we know that this is the question we need to ask and the one being asked of us.
And it might mean allowing for a world full of poeple who cannot give more than a day or two a month to commit to something… but is also means preaching the gospel to a world full of people carrying heavy burdens, who need communities of faith to share those burdens with, and who need to hear about a God who is deeply committed to them, no matter what.
It might mean reimagining what commitment to church looks like, or rather imagining how churches can be places that give people grace, hope, mercy and meaning… instead of slave labour in the form “volunteer jobs…”
Oh, and it might also mean giving people that new life thing that Jesus likes to talk about too.