Wednesday 12 February 2020

What About Those Who Don’t Attend?

In every church group I’ve ever worked with in any capacity, there is always someone who raises the question of those who don’t attend. Sometimes the tone is quite militant and aggressive, but more frequently it’s sad and wistful. Often the speaker is coming from a place of deep affection for both the church and the “other person.” The community of faith is important to them, perhaps even central. They wonder how the other gets through life in the absence of the nurture, fellowship and support they have found in the gathered community. In the circles in which I travel, there’s generally no condemnation attached. The exception is only when “the other” seems to take the presence and services of the church for granted, when the members see themselves working endlessly to keep the location and ministries going.  Sometimes the term “unchurched” is employed in a judgmental way, that carries a lot of freight up to and including eternal punishment!  So, what about those who don’t attend? Can those inside the church understand them a little more clearly for everyone’s sake? How can folks like me – on the inside of the church – think more clearly and faithfully about our neighbours?
The first thing I have to declare on behalf of the nonattender is that, much of the time, it’s not about us (insiders)! What I mean is that, in Canada today, nonattendance does not require a decision against the church. In previous generations, where church attendance was the norm and enforced by a variety of social forces, deciding not to attend required some effort of will. The nonattender had to calculate the possible costs of their choice. Not so today. If anything, the commitment to prioritize church attendance may involve social and economic penalties. The insight from this realization is that, if someone’s nonattendance has nothing to do with church folk, then we need to be very careful about changes that are designed to overcome imagined problems. I’ve seen any number of situations where well-intentioned church folk, began programs or made changes to address imagined needs, only to have few results. Why – because the changes were addressing a non-existent issue. Do you feel guilty about not being in the mosque on Friday? Your local nonattender feels the same way about not being in church on Sunday.
I often hear folk use the language of getting people to “come back to church.” That phrase has at least two problems. It often overlooks the reality that if people left church they may have done so with very good and specific reasons. There’s some work to be done to identify and address those causes, and church folk are often reluctant to take those reasons seriously (or else get really defensive about them). More significantly, however, you can’t get people to “come back to” something they never knew. Many of the nonattenders you are concerned for may never have participated in church at all. Nor did their parents or grandparents. That church that you love so much is absolutely foreign and unknown territory. They are often intelligent but uneducated in the language and practices we may take for granted.
In a crisis, there are always people who will seek God and we want to be ready and willing to extend loving hospitality. Which is why I would never refuse to conduct a funeral, regardless of the status of the deceased or their family. Extending the hospitality of Christ is what we do – particularly in times of need. That’s its own reward, regardless of anything that might follow. But nonattenders are simply not all wandering around with big problems. So, if we’re waiting for that to be a spur, we’ll wait a long time. Some very successful people are quite happy in their lives without God.  So, if we can only address crisis, we may miss many of them.
For a lot of very good reasons, they wonder about this “Christian” thing. I’m sure you’re aware of the many examples of “Christian” and “church” in society that you want nothing to do with! At least you have something to contrast those negative examples with. For many nonattenders it’s all lumped together under one label. So, establishing a different content for the very label “Christian” is a large hurdle. So, be clear about that. Don’t assume that any faith language you employ communicates useful content.  Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the nonattender is a nonbeliever. They might be deeply offended if you treat them that way. Spiritual but not religious is a real thing, not just an excuse.
Looking at the lives of self-identified church attenders is not always that pleasant for nonattenders. They don’t always see faith making a big difference in our daily behaviour. Every day you are a walking advertisement for the values you claim and people are watching. Hypocrisy is poison, genuine transparency is inviting. The flip side is equally true: a life of genuine Christian love and honesty is a powerful attracter.
Let’s assume they do start coming. Be ready for the fact that occasional attendance may equal regular participation in their minds. Folk live complicated lives. An increasing number may be required to work on Sunday. Shared custody arrangements may be a normal disruption for them. Single parents face their own barriers and challenges and may even imagine they will be unwelcome. In most places in Canada, the accepted norm is for Sunday to be open season for any number of community, cultural, social, and sporting events. The key for the genuinely hospitable church is to find ways for these folks to connect at their own level of participation. Remember that one size definitely doesn’t fit all.  Some will jump right in, others won’t. Some will want to jump in the deep end, others will be testing the water for quite a while. Be welcoming to all.
If your congregation genuinely wants to be welcoming and connect with nonattenders you may have to have a hard conversation about “why?” Be honest. Do you genuinely care about them and want them to experience the good things you know from being part of a loving community of Christ or do you really want to get “new blood” to support you in doing what you already love to do? My skepticism arises from the significant number of times talk about attracting newcomers arises in the midst of a conversation about what a congregation lacks that newcomers can supply – generally energy or money. That’s dishonest and nonattenders can smell that coming a mile away. Either you care about people for their own sake or you are using them for your own ends.  Genuinely welcomed newcomers bring change – are you up for that?

©2020 I Ross Bartlett

Wednesday 5 February 2020


I imagine we’ve all experienced it. The faithful, committed, often deeply-involved members, who are attending with increasing irregularity. They haven’t left church.  They aren’t mad or boycotting. They’re just not present as often. 
The good news: it’s not unique to your community of faith!  The hard news: there are lots of reasons. And like many of the things that impact a congregation they are not all in our control.  Some experts put the figure as high as 80% -- the number of factors that impact a congregation over which the congregation has no influence. I’m not making attendance into a golden calf here. But it is a symptom of a change that we need to be attentive to.
While it is not universally the case, greater affluence (or tolerance for higher levels of indebtedness) is a reality in many communities. That provides options as well as raising huge theological and ministry questions. But increased affluence, combined with a dramatically diminished societal emphasis on church attendance, allows for a range of choices.
Most ministry personnel are familiar with impact of a greater focus on children’s activities.  More children are involved in sporting and cultural activities (that’s a good thing). That increasingly involves travel on the weekends. Given the increased levels of commercial opening of Sunday combined with the force of peer pressure, a lot of families spend a lot of weekends on the road. That simply increases the larger number of people travelling
Changing family demographics are a huge factor. With a single parent or shared custody, attendance patterns shift.  If you still maintain a church school curriculum that assumes weekly attendance you may want to look at the participants.  “Perfect attendance” might well be twenty-six Sundays.  As Sunday retail continues to spread, the sole breadwinner in a single-parent family may be unable to arrange childcare that will bring the children.  Or, since single-parent families are more likely to struggle financially, they may not have reliable transportation available to attend church. Does your church make a point of connecting those who are willing to share transportation with those who need it? Single parents and blended families are welcome in most congregations I know – that doesn’t always extend to awareness of the challenges to their participation.
For those inclined to appreciate them, the multitude of online or television options can have an impact. That effect can be seen in everything from differing theologies, through worship styles and production values. It’s hard for the volunteers on the local church soundboard to compete with the technical expertise of the employees of a online ministry!  The online preacher who is free of the pastoral, educational and administrative duties of the local parish pastor (and who also has a research team) may seem bright and shiny. Of course, the online preacher will never be at your hospital bedside in a crisis, but the online church is here to stay regardless of our participation.
There is a power to habit and, dare I say it, guilt!  Since I moved from congregational ministry with its weekly rhythm of worship, I understand far more clearly how much of regular attendance is habit. As a habit, you get up on Sunday morning and you know, at an almost instinctive level, where you are going.  It is an unusual action to plan something else in that period of the week. For those who worry about such things, it is still very much a free choice, but not one with which you regularly wrestle. It is an easy habit to fall out of. Which is one reason why churches need to do a better   job of following up quickly when someone is missing from worship. Not in the mode of a truant officer but to say, “You were missed. Hope all is well.” When I was growing up there was a certain amount of guilt around nonattendance on Sunday. Our family did it, but there was always the feeling of having to explain – even justify – our absence. Today, there is little guilt around choosing otherwise on Sunday. Habit and guilt no longer function to encourage regular attendance.
Surveys repeatedly tell us that people are searching spiritually. For a variety of reasons, however, they don’t always look to the church as a resource in that search. So, people have lower expectation that churches and clergy will help them grow in that way and so seek other possibilities. The Internet allows us to research everything (even though the quality of the answers can vary wildly). We research health, vehicles, travel – why not spirituality and religion? More and more people are opting to craft their own spiritual menus, with strikingly mixed results.  Add to that the popular perception of the church as an “institution” and our cultural suspicion of institutions in general and the modern mind moves away from attendance as a resource for spiritual growth.
We’re all familiar with the truth that when someone says, “I don’t have time for that,” what they are really saying is “I choose not to make time for it.” We’ve all had the experience of an extremely busy week in which we find time for people or pastimes that we value. If we value it, we have time for it. If we’re not making time for church participation that itself is a statement. Then we combine that with our society’s obsession with immediate results and we have another reason why attendance is less regular – even for those who love the church. Genuine Christian discipleship rarely yields immediate results. The question leaders need to ask is whether or not, in our church, that’s because we aren’t providing value; or because it takes time, patience and experiencing walking with God to realize that value? Are there ways through which we can – with integrity – help people to recognize the value they are receiving?
Church traditions that count membership over attendance face a particular struggle in our day. As you’ve probably realized, a generational shift has resulted in an entirely different attitude towards joining.  The post- World War Two generation, that in large measure created the physical and psychological infrastructure of the mainline church, established identity through membership. Had you asked my parents about their identity they would have mentioned the church they belonged to, the fraternal order that they belonged to, the groups they belonged to, and so on. See the commonality? Joining equals identity. Today, many people are establishing membership by participation. They will tell you that their church is the one where they participate. Fair enough: most of us know plenty of people who are on the list but not involved. I’d rather have people involved. But when we haven’t committed (in the form of actually joining ourselves to something) it becomes easier to not participate. What can we do? Well, we can try and buck the societal trend. How did that work out for you the last time you tried it? Or, you can consciously begin to emphasize participation and engagement. (Here’s a thought: instead of (or along with) counting bums in pews, is there a way to count the number of people your church touches in a week? Particularly if they come to your church building for a program, they may think of it as “their church.” Can you consider them “your people”?)  Depending on your denominational traditions and rules your options may be more or less limited, but please think about it. And think about helping other leaders to understand a societal trend that they may have dismissed as simply lack of commitment.
So, we’re living through a huge cultural change.  You really needed me to point that out, didn’t you?! But the change has not yet settled into a “new normal”.  Or, perhaps, the new normal is constant flux. That means that you – whoever you are, whatever your role or title – are positioned to be the authority on what works in your context. Don’t be afraid to recognize the change and to try new things.
©2020 I Ross Bartlett