As a church pastor I suppose I should say “amen” when I read yet another article about the hit and miss attendance of church goers in this generation compared to what was the case up until the 1970s.

I should say “amen”, but I’m cautious. Writing in The Gospel Coalition’s Australian site, Queensland Baptist Pastor Murray Lean, laments and warns against the growing trend of “absenteeism” from Sunday services.  You can read the full article here.

Murray starts the article with a vital question and a genuine concern:

Have you noticed how church attendance fluctuates from Sunday to Sunday?  Perhaps it’s just my church, but I have my strong suspicions that a trend is emerging across conservative evangelical churches that is a cause for genuine concern.

So far so good.  But it’s when he opens up and explains what he believes the causes to be that I have some concerns of my own.

For a start he points out that growing secularisation is a part of the problem. Well it may be, but let’s be clear: it’s not just church that has seen a dramatic collapse in participation rates in the past forty years, it’s every form of volunteer organisation across the board in the Western world.  And that issue runs far deeper than merely people not being bothered to turn up any longer.

We can hardly blame secularisation for secular organisations rapidly dwindling membership and loss of volunteer hours.  Something deeper is going on at a cultural level that is enervating people and seeing them shy away from the growing complexities that volunteer organisations require.  Deep structural changes in the culture are wearing people out, even before they get to work on a Monday morning.

Clearly something has changed in the wider culture than merely an increased list of busy activities that Christians, especially young families, find themselves signed up for. Murray does point out those activities, especially the ones that used to be traditionally Saturday events (school friends’ birthday parties for example), now being Sunday morning activities instead.

But if all it were was a reduction in the number of activities then the trend would be reversible. But I suspect there is more to it.  It’s not merely the increased number of activities that are the problem, but the increased complexity involved in that increased number of activities, and the church is simply mirroring the culture in that regard. Church no longer feels like a place of rest.

Church just feels like a sanctified busy activity or round of activities.  And activity and a perceived requirement to be active is wearing people out.  For the average family juggling mortgage repayments in the commuter belt, working two jobs, with three kids in two different schools ten kilometres from each other, and ageing parents two hours drive away, busy is the enemy, whether that’s secular busy or church busy.  Church no longer looks like a safe place, regardless of whether it’s signed up to Safe Churches or not.  Church feels like a busy place, and busy is no longer safe.

The complexities of running a church, and the increased expectations of both staff and attendees of what that church can achieve, are way beyond what we could imagine back in the 70’s when we turned up to church twice on Sunday, once for the good sermon, and once for the passable sermon thrown together than afternoon by the pastor. And there was the weekly prayer meeting at the church, the odd fellowship lunch and the termly working bee.  Apart from those, that was about it.

Now? That’s just base camp for a committed member of the congregation.  The peak of Everest is at least one growth group, a men’s and women’s ministry, youth group, music team commitments beyond what any church organist could dream up in the 70s, leadership groups, mercy ministries, and the pack up and set up in a building that is no longer a dedicated church meeting place.  Oh, and don’t forget to evangelise your work colleagues.

Murray points out significant downsides to the lack of regular attendance, and they’re hard to disagree with.  He lists the usual suspects including an inability to commit to serving in Sunday ministries, especially children’s programmes.

Let’s face it, there are children’s programmes and there are children’s programmes.  And getting involved in a children’s programme in a modern day evangelical church is not simply turning up on a Sunday to teach a simple Bible story and pray together.  No, it’s way more complex than that!

These days unless it’s got all of the pedagogical bells and whistles that people come to expect then it’s not going to fly.  And don’t talk to me about compliance and sign ups and training and post-church meetings to get it right.  The sheer level of competence and commitment required has a complexity to it that requires more than the old school-marm volunteer of the past had to deal with.

Even in small groups it seems beyond the ken of many people that simply sitting and reading the Bible together and praying for an hour may be enough.  We have given the impression that we don’t believe that the Word of God can do the work of God among the people of God.  It’s got to be a course or a program or a specially tailored event.

And since there are no longer two regular services on a Sunday (morning and night), then anyone who signs up for this round of activities (in a world of fewer volunteers), will likely find that the only sermon they get to listen to will be that John Piper podcast during the week, especially if they are the kids’ ministry people.

And that goes for most of the ministries on a Sunday.  What ends up happening is that our core team members – the ones in the front line spiritual fight – are the ones least fed by the ministry of the Word on a given Sunday because we have them so distracted and busy. Every ministry in church has taken on a complexity to it that is way beyond anything in the past.

Murray’s key belief, and one I share, is this:

In some mysterious way Christ is present among His people when they gather together. Anything that fosters this closeness will enrich the whole church family, deepen its fellowship, and allow us to put into practice what it truly means to love one another

Yet the desire for it to be so, don’t make it so!  My observation is that the same pace and bustle and complexity that is wearing people out in the day to day world is exactly the pace, bust and complexity wearing them out in church.  Modern day evangelical churches are aping the culture in deep subterranean ways.

Murray is right – Christ is present among his people when they gather together.  But gathering together no longer seems to be enough.  It’s supposed to achieve something!

It’s not simply that we ape the communication styles or the attention to detail that public gatherings in the secular square offer, it’s that we tap into the drivenness of the modern era, the need to always be on the move; always setting and reaching goals; always moving to the next thing; always on a quest for something.  Modern day evangelical church has tapped into that, and people are tapping out of it.

Christian churches are pretty much either ignoring the level of burn-out among ministers, or passing on the responsibility to deal with it to professional counsellors. Yet somehow those same churches with burnt out staff are capable of offering “rest” and “deep fellowship” and “truly love on another” moments?  I am not convinced they can offer to others what they cannot find for themselves.

I recently wrote a piece called Christian Restivism and had some push-back, especially from those who worried that I meant we should just slack off.  That misses the point. The point is that church simply looks like another self-justifying activity for so many people, and that is from the level of the paid ministry workers down.  If it’s like that at the top, then no wonder people further down shy away from it.

My biggest concern with Murray’s article is in the section he labels Pastoral Response. He states:

Ultimately it’s a pastoral issue.  And for some of us it’s time to muster the courage to take some action.  Here are some suggestions:

  1. Remind people from the pulpit of the positives of regular attendance, including its impact on others in the church family
  2. Preach relevant passages that reinforce commitment to the local church, and also the harm caused by absenteeism

Maybe I am missing something here, but those are not pastoral responses.  They’re guilt inducing.  The true pastoral response is to offer those who are stuffed on the white bread of the world, and who have failed to slake their thirst at the broken cistern, the true nourishment of the Bread of Life, and the true Water of Life that will never leave them thirsty again, and the true Rest that their weary souls need – Christ, and Christ alone.

Christ is the pastoral response.  Why? Because only Christ can make you want something that you previously didn’t want!  Only Christ can make you say no to drivenness outside  in the secular world and inside the church.

And only Christ can makes us see that the drivenness in the church is as much a problem as the drivenness in the culture.  If we’re asking people to swap frantic secular lives for frantic ecclesiological lives, we’re trying to change the wrong thing.  It’s the frantic nature of life, secular AND ecclesiological, that is the problem.

Most Christians I know feel guilty about irregular church attendance.  They know regular attendance is positive.  They know  absenteeism is harmful.  They know the law!  They know when I say I haven’t seen them in a while that somehow that’s a bad thing and that I probably feel a level of dissatisfaction with them for that. They know all that.

Yet it’s not as if they view the rest of their lives as one technicolor TV advertisement full of fast cars, beers with the boys and shiny teeth.  It’s a grind too. Absenteeism is increasing across the board.  School just started back today for my two kids, and guess what?  It’s a grind!  I would rather them home every day, where life starts off slow and we work ourselves into the day according to the rhythm of the day and night, rather than the “have-to” of the Education Department.  And the grind won’t start at 8:30 in the morning, it will start at 8:30 at night when, for the umpteenth time, we pack the lunches.

Ministers, we need to preach the gospel to ourselves more often. Because we know full well that when people don’t turn up regularly we start to resent it.  We “tsk, tsk” because that family, or that couple, or that single who needs to be here, isn’t here – again.  When church is only two thirds full we feel the sting, and we get ticked off that the visitor who turned up this week for the crap service wasn’t here last week when it was pumping, because that would have impressed them or something.  And if you’ve never thought like that you’ve never been the minister of a church.

And then we go home tired on a Sunday to complain about it to our spouses.   And all the while we forget that, as Murray said, the worth of the church service is that Christ is present! What funky, hip, successful expression of church could ever compete with Christ’s sheer exhilarating presence?  If that’s not enough for us, then nothing will be, no matter how much effort we put in to it.  There will be no volunteer not worth burning out if Christ’s promised presence among his people is not enough for us.

And the reason we resent all this pastors, is because somewhere in there we are not resting in the gospel either.  Somewhere in the mix is the same cultural drivenness that our people are experiencing.  Only we get to justify it by the fact that we’re busy doing church activities, not busy doing whatever they’re doing Monday to Friday, which in our eyes – and from how they hear our sermons – is nowhere near as important as what we are doing.

I know that sounds harsh, but there’s more than a grain of truth to it, and it comes out in our worst moments when we say to God “All these years I have served you and you have not given me a growing church that I might celebrate with my friends.”

Now I completely agree with Murray when he makes this observation:

Regular attendance in church is a good spiritual habit, but it’s much more than that.  It’s an important opportunity for the whole body of Christ to worship together and to grow spiritually, both personally and in our relationships with one another.   We really do need each other in this increasingly de-personalised world. 

I agree.  We need each other.  We desperately do.  But the way we do church in the late modern West risks keeping us from each other. Our big rock in the jar at our church is a “thick Sunday” – one in which we do “thick liturgy” and “thick community”.  But there’s a trade off.  And the trade off is that we lower the bar for absolutely everything else that we do.  Everything else.   We’re pretty budget on a Sunday, and that’s ok.  We’re pretty budget because in Christ are hidden all of the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.  As long as we showcase Christ we’ve knocking it out of the park.

Yet when the mode of church simply apes the de-personalisation Murray speaks of we risk the law of diminishing returns.  From the sign-in for three kids to go off to two different rooms to be taught by six different teachers you don’t know; from the once-per-term communion with a small disposable cup and the wafer sealed into the pre-packaged lid; from every service that is designed to operate as much as possible like a Christian convention; from the man who simply disappears from church because he’s left their spouse for his secretary, yet the church has nothing to say about it or any disciplinary measure to take publicly; these are the places of de-personalisation.  These are the things that make people think, “You know what, I think we’ll stay home and enjoy being a family this morning.”

The solution is not to cajole or preach better sermons or whatever, but to create the space necessary for people to enjoy simply being in the presence of their King for who he is; for the true bread and water he offers; for the true rest he provides. Because only when we do that will people think, you know what, “I think we’ll gather with God’s people and enjoy being a family this morning.”