Three Hymns and an Anthem? The Sequel
As an extension of the first question, let me offer a second. “Why do so few people in most churches participate in worship?” This might be more of a mainline statistic when compared to some of our brothers and sisters in more evangelical and community church models, but typically my observation is that around half of a church’s membership is in attendance at any one time for worship. So just for clarity, if your church has 100 total members, you might expect to find about 50 worshipping with you on a typical Sunday. This changes of course on “alumni weekends,” Christmas and Easter, but is pretty reliable most other times. Why is that?
Several reasons might be offered. Maybe people are sick? I truly hope your community is not quite that afflicted with cold and flu season. I don’t think that’s it.
Maybe it’s because lots of our members travel on the weekends? In many affluent communities there is a lot of truth to this one. At a former church I served in South Carolina, we used to say we were an “up and down congregation” in the summer months, meaning our members were either up in the mountains or down at the beach. However, again the numbers change some but even at most other times of the year we don’t break the trend all that much. So perhaps that’s not it either.
Any other suggestions? What do you think? Where is everybody?
Let me offer one. Could it be that we don’t have a very high ideal about worship? What if even this question was related to the question I offered in part one? Let me explain...
If worship remains simply about personal style and choice, then by it very nature it is all about me. We hear it often in response to worship. “That song really spoke to me today.” Or, “I didn’t get anything out of being here this morning!” Each of those comments seems oblivious of the reality of offering oneself to another as an act of worship. It’s another opportunity for our church to provide a service to a member in exchange for their support and commitment. It remains simply all about me.
I would suggest that this “me first” mentality then translates to whether or not members participate at all week-by-week. If the mandate to attend worship is totally in my control, then I decide when and if I want to worship. If there is something better to do, then I can choose that over worship. If the weather is nice and I want to be outside, well there is always next week. If the weather is not nice, and it’s a hassle to drive across town, well then there is always next week. You see the point.
Let me say, I want to be clear that I am not offering a theology of worship that is devoid of grace. This is not an ideal that should become a burden, and make us feel guilty. We certainly have enough of that in Protestantism. I am not saying that worship is salvation, and that if you don’t come to church you aren’t as faithful as you should be. I actually think there are several good reasons not to participate in worship, but that’s a different topic for a future discussion.
I would like to suggest that we more critically examine our choices when it comes to worship. Is it simply about us? Or is there more at stake than that? When I was a youth pastor, I used to tell our youth, “Sometimes we come to youth because we need something, but then at other times we come because someone else needs something from us.” It’s become a bit of a personal proverb for me. I would apply that same axiom to worship. Sometimes we attend worship to be fed spiritually, and to experience the presence of God for ourselves. At other time we come because our presence can foster an experience of God in someone else. In a world in which individual choice and personal preference rules the day, a community that gathers in spite of preference and individual choice can be a wonderful witness to faith in God. In our independent culture, a witness to unity in spite of differences might provide a bridge for someone else to begin to see God in the midst of our world.
It has always been so. The Apostle Paul faced a divided church in his day. He appeals to the church at Corinth for unity. (1 Corinthians 1) There were those that identified with other leaders, and who were willing to divide the church over the issue. Paul called the church to stay together as a witness to Christ and to Christ’s cross. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those that are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” -1 Corinthians 1:18 (NRSV). Unity is the very power of the cross.
Again I ask, “What do you think?” Let’s talk about the witness of Christian worship in the midst of our culture.