In my tradition, twice was the norm. Growing up in the Christian Reformed Church, attending church twice every Sunday was a non-negotiable, a near creational given. “Oncers” were deemed on a slippery slope to perdition, an accommodation to the ease of culture and all its entertainments (and how I desperately wanted to be a oncer to stay home and watch Disney as a kid).
Today, many churches no longer hold two distinct worship services each Sunday (some do offer a number of versions of the same service). In fact, I’m beginning to notice a new trend in worship patterns – not twice a Sunday but twice a month seems to be the new normal.
At the church I served in Calgary, we noticed some slippage in Sunday worship attendance. Many took this to mean that people were leaving the church. My hunch was elsewhere, that, in fact, we were increasing our ministry reach to a wider group of people. However, the metric of Sunday worship attendance wasn’t a helpful measurement of our ministry influence.
To test my hunch, I conducted an informal survey at a meeting of about 40 of our core leaders (Elders, Deacons, ministry leaders). I asked everyone there (remember, these were the core of our church, the highly committed) to review the past four weeks. I asked, how many attended our church’s Sunday worship services for the past 4 weeks? How many 3 weeks? For 2 of 4, and how many just 1? The results surprised everyone in the room. Of these core leaders, the clear and dominant majority (over 60%) had attended our church’s worship services only two of the past four weeks.
We did a quick analysis of why – what kept them from worship on those Sunday’s they missed. Most prevalent: traveling out of town, visiting friends, on a family trip into the mountains, or just needed a space to breath after a busy week. No lurking dissatisfaction, no backsliding. Just busy people in a highly mobile society with (probably overly) full lives.
I was reminded of this at a staff meeting this week (in a different church, a different part of the country, and a different denomination) when this same reality popped up again. We were discussing our church’s communications and noted how our communication vehicles now carry the burden of keeping people connected over wider swaths of time. Why? Our anecdotal evidence showed people we knew exhibiting the new normal – twice a month.
This new reality (among fairly committed Christians; imagine what its like for others) begs all sorts of questions and invites necessary conversations. For example, how do we understand time (is all time equal or are there special moments we need to set aside)? How are we allowing the rush of our schedules to shape our lives? What are the created rhythms of life that our culture ignores or avoids? Why is it so easy to let gathered, public worship get crowded out? What is so important about gathering together with others for worship when I can download better sermons and finer music? How might we renew our sabbath practice (without getting legalistic)? Has the reality of our mobility and individuality (leading us to attend sanctuaries often distant from our homes and communities) negatively shaped our practice of worship?
And then there’s the whole role of habits and practices. Martin Marty found the simplest of observations about declining worship attendance – it was a change in habits. He writes, “Why are they declining? Certainly not because a few atheists write best-sellers. I always look for the simplest causes, such as rejection of drab and conflicted congregations and denominations. Or changes in habits. I watch the ten thousands running past in Sunday marathons or heading to the kids’ soccer games and recall that their grandparents and parents kept the key weekend times and places open for sacred encounters.”
I’m convinced we underestimate the importance of basic habits to shape our lives and form our hearts (read James K.A. Smith Desiring the Kingdom for a good philosophical background on the practice-shaped nature of spiritual formation). The old notion of a regula, a rule of life, looks like a saving grace for a church trying to find its way in a culture of distraction (on that note, do check out Arthur Boers Living into Focus too).
Over to you – do you see a similar trend unfolding in your life or church? How do you feel about it? Is it a good pattern? Are you finding different rhythms for weekly worship?