Sunday worship turning stale? Maybe it’s time to think small

I got a whole new look at my neighborhood on the west side of Manhattan the other day.

It was around 4 p.m. My 10-week-old grandson Gabriel was fighting sleep and yet needed sleep. So I bundled him into a stroller and headed down the elevator and out onto 54th Street — our first venture like this and a California baby’s first sustained exposure to cold weather.

Everything looked different. The sidewalk — rutted with ice and snow, filled with pedestrians who might or might not make way for a stroller. The people — none presenting danger, but I was alert in a new way. The weather — was he warm enough?

In time, this will become our new normal. But today this was new. And tomorrow something else will be new. Such is life.

Effective church leaders realize that their people are changing constantly. Sometimes in turmoil, sometimes in delight, sometimes big changes, sometimes small — but nothing stays the same, even in the most seemingly settled lives.

When the church’s message stays the same, it can start to feel stale and irrelevant, even offensive. If the message is up and I am feeling down, I start to ask, what is wrong with me? If feeling out of step goes on too long, I start to ask, what is wrong with them?

When my life changes and no one at church seems to notice, I can feel like a stranger in my own faith community.

How can one event — Sunday worship — possibly track with all the changes going on among people? It can’t. Every Sunday disappoints some and pleases others. Every sermon feels like a holy word to some and dull and irrelevant to others.

The wise preacher learns to tell stories, not just spin out theology, because a good story is likely to touch most people in some way. But even then, I know from experience, both as a preacher and a listener, that sermons often miss the mark.

If Sunday worship can’t do it all, what then? Addressing our fast-changing lives can happen in small groups — ministry groups like a mission team, fellowship groups, study groups, social groups, people raking leaves together or sharing nursery duty.

In those groups, someone will ask, ”How is it going?” And we can tell our latest story. Usually we just need to be heard.

I know that many congregations have a long history of resisting small groups. Too much work, too much intimacy, too much time, too much exposure to the odd people whom God has brought together.

All I can say, we need to get over it. Sunday worship is failing as a venue. If we want our congregations to have life and be of service as Jesus commanded us, we must do more.

There’s no way I could stand up on Sunday and tell people what it meant to me to take my grandson for his first walk in Manhattan. But I would love to tell someone.

That audience, in turn, will mean more to me than the Sunday sitting-in-pews fellowship. There I am one body among many. In my small group, I have a constantly changing story that they are eager to hear.


tom-ehrich-newTOM EHRICH is a publisher, writer, church consultant and president of Morning Walk Media, based in New York. He recently launched Fresh Day, a digital magazine presenting “fresh words about faith.” Go to to learn more and to see a sample.