Twice (a month) – the new normal?

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?

11 thoughts on “Twice (a month) – the new normal?”

  1. I know what you’re talking about… and we’ve seen similar trends in other churches we’ve attended over the years. But honestly, we’re seeing the exact opposite in our church right now – numbers are growing – more people are coming. Our kids even look forward to Sunday service, youth group, Thursday night Connexions… If they had a second Sunday service, I’m sure we’d be there too! We’re more connected and engaged now than I think we’ve ever been and it’s a wonderful thing!

  2. I have not noticed this trend in the conservative church we are currently attending, but it does bring to mind a heated conversation with our sixteen-year-old regarding how far do you extend yourself to attend Sunday morning worship. Or the regular conversations I have with my children about the importance of forming “good habits” — attending Sun. morning services being one.

  3. You forgot to mention one other major factor for those of us in the service industry (retail, restaurants, etc.). Years ago it was optional to work on a Sunday, now most businesses require you to include Sundays in your schedule or you don’t have a job! In the 25+ years I’ve worked in retail I’ve watched the Sunday hours go from 0 to our present 11-7 and there’s talk of even longer days. Even my new second job at the library requires that I be available to work Sundays.

  4. You’re on to something here, Phil. Our choices for Sunday are not between good and bad, but between good and good. It’s really good to run a race, be part of a team, to have down time, to get away with family, etc. And it’s really good to be part of a worshiping community, to add your voice to the community’s gratitude for salvation and blessing, to be formed by God’s word, etc. The ancient Christian practice of worship on the holy day of Sunday seems to have lost its weight in our lives because Christianity is seen as a private thing. If “Jesus and me” are okay with each other, it’s an easy step to let go of traditional Sunday observance.

  5. We talked about this recently as we were making nominations for Elders and Deacons, I remember when one of the criteria for nomination was that people attend worship twice a Sunday, now we nominate them if they attend twice a month.

  6. Greetings from Calgary. Thanks for the encouragement to take life habits serious in the way that our lives are shaped and lived out. It strikes me also that habits, by their very nature, once lost are difficult to regain or replace. It is therefore important to be aware of which habits are important to us in order to be purposeful in retaining them. In our family our children have now all grown in to young adulthood. I am thankful that during their formative years we were part of a church community and circle of friends where weekly Sunday church attendance was an expectation, if not a rule. It has provided them, and us together, a rhythm that takes faith, worship and spiritual formation seriously, as well allowed for the experience of being part of a committed church community. Other habits worth preserving, I suggest would include family dinner together, whenever possible, as well as saying grace before and having devotions after the family meal. Thanks, I enjoy your blog and photographs.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts Hans. I agree that its so hard to restore habits that we’ve let slip away. I like how you’ve given your family a rhythm for life, a way of ordering their days. If we don’t supply an order or rhythm, one will appear just maybe not one we’d want. Great to hear from you.

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