For the ten-year period from 1994-2004 worship attendance declined dramatically for all major Protestant denominations. The PC(USA), sadly, had the worst record. For us, average weekly participation declined by more than 107,000 people, a loss of 9 percent of our congregations.
Apparently there has been no improvement since. According to Dan Chun in his sermon to the General Assembly in 2008, we have been losing members for more than 42 years and 75 percent of our churches have either reached an attendance plateau or have experienced declining attendance. As Chun put it, “We should admit before God we have made some bad decisions. We should be saying to God, ‘Give us strength to transform and reform before it’s too late.’ Things will never radically change for the better if we continue doing the same thing. People’s lives and souls are at stake.”
As church officers (and pastors) we need to be concerned, not only with the loss of members in our Sunday pews, but must take serious stock of our own worship participation and that of other congregational leaders.
In a recent blog on Twenty-First Century Liturgy, Donald Stake calls attention to the important connection between worship and faith (July 26, 2009, http://21stcliturgy.blogspot .com/). Rephrasing the ancient saying that “the law of prayer is the law of belief,” Don puts it more simply — “our worship shapes our faith.” He says: “Historically, the followers of the Risen Christ relied on common worship for some three centuries before a creed was ever crafted. … It is my own experience that my early years spent at the side of my parents in congregational worship, listening to and speaking the prayers, having the words of the hymns pointed out before I could read them, watching the faith of my parents acted out … all of this and more was significant in the development of my own faith.”
If worship really does form our beliefs we should be deeply anxious about the change in worship attendance taking place. Clearly, many congregations (including ours) have been working hard to make services more attractive, interesting, and contemporary. We have used popular music, computer projections, even learning to use Facebook and Twitter.
But more seems to be involved than our failure to make worship exciting and pertinent. If we are concerned about future leadership of the church we might ask, “What kind of leaders are we producing if those who provide a model of behavior are so pressed for time, so wrapped up with chores and family outings on Sunday, that worship for them is no longer a spiritual necessity or a requirement, but another choice among many, an option that can be added or dropped as needed.”
Worship is the ground of our lives, not a choice in Sunday entertainment.
It is the source of our weekly fellowship with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
It is the place where we express our deepest concerns to others and find out what their heart-felt prayers are.
It is where we hear God’s Word and are admonished to give ourselves to the direction of the Holy Spirit once more.
Yet we make a mistake if we think that worship is all about us. In worship we attempt to reach out to God and re-establish and strengthen the most important relationship of our lives, now and for eternity. Our faith is formed and re-formed when we encounter the Word and are challenged by new interpretations of it for today. It is the time of the week when we look at our road signs and make sure that we are traveling in the right direction.
One of my professors at Princeton Theological Seminary, Paul Scherer, put it succinctly in a sermon, “The Risk of Prayer.” “Prayer is a lifetime — a year, a month, a week, a day, an hour, a moment — of vital contact between the soul and God” (Facts That Undergird Life, Harper &Brothers Publisher, n.d., 161). Or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his popular book Life Together (Harper & Row, 1954, 71), “The prayer of the morning will determine the day. … Decisions which our work demands will be simpler and easier when they are made, not in … fear … but solely in the presence of God. … Our strength and energy for work increase when we have prayed to God to give us the strength we need for our daily work.”
We must face a blunt fact. If worship truly shapes faith, what hope does the church have if elders and deacons and other congregational leaders do not worship regularly? How can our young adults teach our children about Jesus Christ if they do not encounter him themselves through systematic prayer and continual Bible study? If, as the Reformed tradition teaches us, true worship takes place wherever the Word of God is rightly preached and the sacraments are given, why do we insist now that worship is optional if it is not entertaining, titillating, or thoroughly meaningful every Sunday for me?
Our current situation exposes this danger: we are facing the possibility of creating a church that has directionless leaders who take us on a ship that has a broken rudder, a vessel without a proper cargo of faith because those at the helm have forgotten the course the Master has set. If we fail to see that worship is not just an option but a necessity for us, we have every right to fear that the church of the future may easily end up on history’s rocks.
If the prayer of the morning determines the day, the prayers of the week will determine tomorrow.
Earl S. Johnson Jr. is the pastor of First Church, Johnstown, N.Y., and adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College.