“I can’t let my name stand for council this year. With how much of the year we spend in ______, I just don’t feel that I can dedicate the necessary time.”
The details change. For some, it’s winters in Arizona. For others, it’s traveling with sports teams. Church leadership bodies are forced to ask questions to which there is no easy solution: “How much time away is too much time away from the church to be able to serve in a leadership position?”
I understand the concerns and frustrations of those who see this as “scandalous.” Our models of ministry are built around committed church attendance. Our children’s ministries depend upon volunteers who will serve week in, week out. I want everyone to be able to feel connected to the life and ministry of our church, but it’s hard when one disappears for half the year.
At the same time, I’m with those who want to approach this matter gracefully. Many of those who are away for long periods of the year are actively involved in another congregation. Some face various physical and mental health concerns that make regular church attendance extremely difficult. As Bryan Berghof suggests, “Why not give people the benefit of the doubt instead of first thinking: ‘They’re up to no good, those slackers!’” In thinking about the importance of being a part of a church fellowship, I believe that it is important that we begin first from an attitude of grace, assuming the best in our fellow believers and developing relationships within which we can better come to understand why someone might not be attending church as regularly.
John Calvin wrote in his Institutes, “To those whom [God] is a Father, the Church must also be a mother.” Hebrews 10:25 encourages the believers to not give up the habit of meeting together. There is something important about being nourished by the fellowship of believers. Yet, at the same time, our local congregations may not be the primary community (spiritual or otherwise) of the members of our church. This is especially true in communities with strong ties between the church and local Christian institutions (such as colleges).
All of this leaves the church in a bit of a bind. Should we change our models of ministry to adapt to the changing patterns of our increasingly mobile congregations? Should we speak prophetically against the culture of self that overrides communal concerns? Must we, as Christians, be regularly attending a local congregation at least a certain number of times per year? (Probably yes to the first two, no to the third.)
As I reflect on this, some key ideas come to mind for a way forward:
- Prioritize relationships over institutions. Whether you are a church leader concerned about the infrequent attendance of a parishioner or a congregant making the decision of whether or not to go to church on a given Sunday, our first priority ought to be the development of relationships. Church doesn’t just happen on Sunday morning for an hour. Church happens in small group gatherings and meals, in softball leagues and service. Those relationships, however, are cultivated and flourished in the gathering of believers. Therefore…
- Celebrate the diversity of relationships a church offers. In our increasingly polarized world, being a part of a church helps connect me to people who are different from me. My daughter has so many adopted grandparents who dote on her and love her. Our small group had a delightful discussion on immigration reform because of our diversity of opinions and experiences. In light of that…
- Keep the focus on Christ. Erik Parker compares many churches today to soccer teams that have stopped playing soccer but just gather to eat donuts and drink juice and then wonder why no one wants to be a part of their soccer team. The raison d’être of the church is to tell the story of Jesus. The reason my small group could have such a wonderful discussion on immigration is because it started from the shared foundation of the grace of Jesus. And so…
- Be willing to do critical self-evaluation. Again, no one is off the hook on this one. Am I, as a pastor, more interested in someone’s commitment to the institutional church or to Jesus? Are we giving ourselves an easy excuse to avoid going to church? The reality is that the first three suggestions are not always easy – sometimes I don’t want to deal with someone with whom I disagree and so it’s easier to avoid them than to figure out how to love them. Sometimes focusing on Jesus will mean making radical changes to the way that I live and I just don’t really want to give that up. Maybe we do need to push ourselves to stay committed.
Not every reason for not worshipping regularly with church is a good one. Yet I want to communicate the grace and love of Jesus Christ first and foremost. As we enter into relationship with one another and focus that relationship on our shared passion for Jesus and our shared experience of the grace of Jesus, I trust that each of us will strengthen and encourage one another in that journey of faith. When we begin from that foundation, we find the church to be an indispensable part of our relationship with God.