Dear friends in Christ,
You might not keep track of this, but I do. By October, it will have been 17 weeks since we last changed the colour of the church season. We have been in the “long green season” called the Time After Pentecost or Ordinary Time for a good chunk of the year. We won’t actually finish it until the end of November, but along the way there will be a number of feast days that gives us a little break from the long green season before Advent.
The church calendar in fall is kind of its own thing with a collection of “one-off Sundays” beginning with Thanksgiving (which is still green, and not really a church festival), Reformation Sunday, All Saints and Christ the King.
I find it interesting each year that, regardless of the church, Thanksgiving to Christmas is often the busiest most active time in the life of most congregations. It probably has to do with the beginning of school and the lingering fall weather that keep us looking for opportunities to get out of the house.
But I often also wonder if it says something about the changing nature of commitment of active church goers. In decades past, active church members were defined as those who attend every Sunday or nearly every Sunday. I have seen the old buttons and pins and stickers of the 60’s and 70’s for people to collect from the churches they attended while on vacation. These were for those going for perfect Sunday school attendance records, and probably to ward off nosy pastors inquiring as to why you missed a Sunday.
In the last decade or so, active church membership is counted by those who attend once a month or more. There simply aren’t a statistically relevant number of people who show up every Sunday. This change fits my experience. There are still some who can be counted on to be in their pew every week, but often the active members of congregation are around 1 to 2 times a month.
There are lots of factors to this of course, and no, it is not Sunday shopping and sports. I think it has more to do with most households shifting from 1 income earner to 2. Longer work weeks – 50 or 60 hours – being demanded of many. The snow bird schedules of many who finally have the chance to travel in retirement. And our changing tolerance as a society for long term obligations and duties. We simply have less time and energy because we work more and earn less – to our personal/family/recreation time comes at a premium.
So when the church has a bunch of one off Sundays like Thanksgiving, Confirmation Sunday, Reformation, All Saints, Christ the King, the Christmas Pageant in Advent and the most one off Church events of them all – Christmas Eve – people start showing up.
As I have been announcing for a while, we will be gathering for a visioning event on Nov 3rd after worship. And as we talk together about where we have been, where we are and where we are going, this changing nature of social commitment will be the background of a lot of our conversation.
This change is the reason why Sunday Schools struggle to keep going, church councils and leadership teams struggle to find bodies, committees, choirs, men’s and women’s groups, bible studies are falling out of commonplace in the life of congregations. It isn’t that people don’t want to do these things, it is that there isn’t time and energy for many weekly or even monthly obligations anymore – there is barely time to go to church at all more than one or two times a month.
Because of this, I have stopped asking how we can get people to commit again. It is just isn’t going to happen, we haven’t turned the clock back before and we won’t figure out how to do it now.
Instead, my question is about, how can the church shift from being a social obligation to a place to practice our faith in community. And more importantly, to shift our own understanding of what this means.
It isn’t actually bad thing for churches to differentiate ourselves from the local cultural club, or community centre or YMCA or arts community or PTA or soup kitchen. We might have aspects of those things, but those things are not core to our identity as congregations.
Churches are primarily places to practice our faith – to gather with other believers and hear again the good news of Christ given for us.
Churches are places to follow Jesus, to experience God’s commitment to us, rather than be burdened by our commitment to God.
Churches are places where we are a community of people brought together by Jesus, by a common faith that we want to share with others. Not a group of friends who also sometimes pray.
And so as we prepare to vision together, I encourage you to think about what this means for us, and how understanding these changes will help us to grow into God’s future laid out before us.
Yours in Christ,