Church development is about many things — best practices, capable leadership, listening to the world — but the most difficult to grasp, conceptually and practically, is the changing place of Sunday morning worship.
For farther back than anyone can remember, “going to church” has meant attending Sunday worship. Religion’s ups and downs are measured by average Sunday attendance.
If the pews are full on Sunday morning, church leaders beam. The preacher feels confident. Decisions grounded in optimism flow readily, such as adding space.
If the pews feel empty — occupancy of 30% or less — leaders wonder what is wrong and who is messing up. Bold decisions seem difficult to make. Staff get nervous. People start to develop “growth” strategies that mainly have to do with doubling down on Sunday morning and trying to be nicer. The building begins to feel like an albatross. Conflict among leaders worsens.
We need to step outside such time-honored assumptions about Sunday worship and see how much has changed.
Even “regular” attenders are coming only one or two Sundays a month, not three or four, as before. In their minds, they are still loyal members. Despite being routinely mocked as slackers, Christmas-and-Easter folks feel just fine about coming to church only twice a year.
When asked, people identify strong needs for faith, spiritual guidance, engagement with other believers — especially in mission — and a personal relationship with God. That doesn’t equate with Sunday worship, however. In their minds, it equates with being part of a lively faith community that offers multiple avenues of engagement, some of them far deeper and more transformative than sitting in a pew on Sunday morning.
This isn’t news. But many church leaders remain stuck in a belief that eventually everything will feed into Sunday worship.
What they don’t see is that, in many instances, Sunday worship is their problem, not their solution. For many, belonging to a small faith group is what matters. For others, it’s being part of a mission team. For many — and this is hard for leaders to hear — Sunday worship is perceived as an obstacle, a negative experience, when all that is wrong with religion comes into play.
For them, Sunday is an uninviting time for church. Sitting passively in a pew holds little appeal. Being read to, sung to and lectured to is received as boring. The typical Sunday service tends to have too any elements, too many egos being stroked, too much effort to do all of the church’s work in one 60-minute event.
Effective congregations are dealing with such views. They are probing the faith experiences of their constituents and listening to the world outside their walls. They are determined to serve, even if that means reconfiguring their operations, re-examining assumptions, re-purposing staff and learning how to leverage technology in innovative ways.
This re-examination of Sunday morning is difficult to do. Defensive constituents immediately accuse leaders of planning to ”abandon Sunday.” That isn’t the point at all. Sunday just can’t continue to absorb all available resources and carry the weight of all expectations.
In my opinion, dealing with the Sunday worship problem will prove to be the watershed between having a promising future and closing the doors.
TOM EHRICH’S new Fresh Day online magazine offers fresh words about faith and life, fresh voices, fresh ideas. For a free trial go to freshday.org.