“When you were born, your mother brought you to church. When you were married, your wife brought you to church. When you die, your friends will bring you to church. Why not try coming to church on your own sometime?”
– James Denney
It is something of a new genre within the world of devotional literature and theological reflection – “What are we doing about low church attendance?” A topic that strikes at the heart of almost every denomination, “What happened? Where have they gone?”
This is invariably the topic after most vestry/board meetings. In the midst of some of these meetings after the meeting, this leader decided to take his thoughts and reflections to heart and put them on paper. What are people now doing on Sundays other than going to Church, and what are people expecting when they arrive in a Church.
A Senior Lay Leader Writes:
The issues facing in our congregation are not unique to our parish. Churches across our city and the US are facing similar questions. It comes from a changing perception of what the church is – what its role is and what it means to be a member of a church. This manifests itself in a contradiction between what the clergy believes its obligations and directives are and what the parishioner is expecting.
To some degree, the clergy and the parishioners are pulling against each other, or at the very least, not working together.
The problem arises because, in today’s society, the reasons some people look to become members of a church are not consistent with why churches were formed. I am not talking about national churches, I am talking about local parishes.
When looking for a church home – these are generally the questions:
- How is the preaching?
- What is happening for the youth?
- What is happening in music?
- Times for service?
- Are they friendly?
- What is the social/political position of the congregation?
These are all questions about how the local church can serve “you” and whether they conform to your lifestyle . . . “We want to be served and not inconvenienced in our lifestyle.”
The clergy see its obligation to lead the members through personal transformation and change; worship, administering the sacraments, outreach, preaching and teaching the Gospel, self-study – these are the favorite tools of the clergy.
“This brings us to the question of why do I want to be a member of the church? If our wants and desires are not consistent with the clergy’s intention, then one, but probably both are going to be dissatisfied.”
Anyone involved in the ongoing life of an open community like a parish congregation knows well the rubric of living “the life of the better offer . . . ” I will see you at Sunday School, Vestry, the soup kitchen, or Sunday Morning . . . “unless I get a better offer.” After working and praying in the midst of this rubric, I have come more and more to see that our friends and members mean the clergy no harm . . . there is simply a wonderful world of God and adventure to grasp in our lives.
I do believe the clergy and the laity are often talking and visiting according to cross purposes. I recall reading an observation by a minister who said the greatest characterization he could see in his parishes in the 70 and 80’s is that the congregations were reading the works of Paul Tillich, and all of the ministers were reading Karl Barth. All well-meaning, but everyone generally meandering and sorting via personal preference – clergy included.
Over the next few weeks and months I will dropping into this space to offer thoughts and share feedback on this ongoing revelation called the local parish; I hope some find it useful and illuminating. And I hope to be on the receiving end of wisdom and illumination as well.
Blessings and Godspeed,