When I’m teaching church members, I like to emphasize service in one’s choice of a church congregation. The best congregation for you is the one where you can best fulfill your call to minister to others. I believe everyone has such a call. That’s a generalization that often doesn’t answer that many questions, but it often does help.
Thus I don’t like to talk much in terms of whether a church “fulfills my needs” or “feeds me” or whether I enjoy the worship services, and whether the services are up to standards. That seems like selling church as a commodity, and whether you’re looking for child care or entertainment, it’s likely that your church isn’t going to compete well according to secular standards in any case.
That’s not to say that all these things are not important. The servant who is not fed, clothed, and housed is unlikely to be able to serve well. That principle applies spiritually as well as physically. So the search for a church in which I can best carry out my call to ministry may well come back to the question of where I will be fed, all other things being generally equal.
I must confess that I’ve been having trouble with “church” for some time. I’ve struggled with everything from attendance to writing the tithe check. It’s not because I don’t like to get up that early in the morning. I have normally had hours with the books before I ever get to church. It’s not the financial scare of writing the tithe check either. I’ve been in much more difficult financial circumstances. The temptation is to right the tithe check to some other organization to accomplish some task that I choose, rather than to my local church, which is where I’m convicted it should go.
It’s that conviction that keeps me going and keeps me doing these things. But what if one is a church leader who needs to work with the folks who are a bit less convicted? I belong to a United Methodist congregation, and 50% attendance on a given Sunday is considered very good. Some churches run more like 30%. Part of that is a paperwork problem, in that it is very difficult to remove members from the church rolls when they disappear, and people are not that keen on membership paperwork these days. It’s one way in which the United Methodist Church is perhaps a bit out of touch–a bureaucratic church in an age when people want to escape that style, at least on Sunday morning.
But that’s not the whole story. Somewhere in that 50-70% who are missing on Sunday morning there are a lot of people who simply aren’t convicted enough or motivated enough to show up at church. So my message to church leaders (including myself), is that we do have to be concerned with feeding the people and motivating them. It’s all well and good to say they ought to attend church services, and they ought to be looking for a place to serve. When I’m teaching them, I’ll tell them that. But we as leaders need to help make them welcome.
Making people welcome, involving phrases like “seeker sensitive” and even “user friendly” have gotten a bad reputation in some circles, and I think that in many ways they should have. They can easily lend themselves to marketing a service or advertising entertainment, which is always going to be a losing proposition, unless our churches also fulfill spiritual needs, and fulfilling spiritual needs always leads to both the motivation for, and practice of, action and service.
I discovered a blog through the Christian Carnival this week, Boston Bible Geeks. They have a post titled The Necessity of the Church for a Persevering Faith, in which they say:
But God has not left us alone to fight against sin and temptation. He has given us each other. He tells us to assemble together, not to meet a requirement or get a star on our Sunday School attendance chart. He tells us to meet together so we can build each other up and keep each other from sinning. We are given the responsibility to restore each other when we do sin (Gal 6:1, I deal with that verse here).
Now you need to go read the entire post to get the context of that, but the point here is that the congregation–not just the pastor or the Sunday School teacher–is charged to encourage one another in their Christian walk, and the major purpose, according to Hebrews, is to keep us from falling into sin, and to help restore us if we do.
That reminded me of something that has happened each time I signed onto my web hosting account this week. There’s a message that appears right after I sign on that says, “If you are having trouble accessing your account, read this.” It has made me laugh each time. I even went to check whether it can be accessed without logging in. It can, but it doesn’t appear conveniently on the login page. The encouragement, you see, comes only after you’re “in.”
That’s the problem with church, and even with small groups. What reaches out and encourages our Bible study each week? I’ve been disturbed by the number of times I’ve taught a series of Sunday School lessons, and entire Sunday School classes will confess that they didn’t read or study anything that I provided on a topic during the week. That means that they absorb (too often) or even reject what I say without giving it more thought than occurs in a Sunday School hour.
It’s as though we have a sign on the inside of our church sanctuary and on the inside of our Sunday School classrooms that says, “If you are having trouble accessing God, read this.” The church needs to create connections that go beyond the church setting, beyond the Sunday morning hour, and provide a “spurring to good works” (Hebrews 10:24) that lasts through the week.
There are many means of doing this. My home church’s new ICON service even has a Facebook page and Twitter account, so that they can send out messages. But these are only part of the means, not the content. I’m not a good person to go into all the means of reaching people socially. I do know it needs to be done in order to build a complete Christian life. Whether the means are high tech or low tech the question is whether the Christian activity of “spurring” continues all week.
It’s that spurring, that building of a complete Christian life that will make church worthwhile, and if it’s really worth it, people will be there.