On this holiday Monday, I’m thinking about Sunday.
I remember when I was a rector, there were times I’d run into a parishioner in the grocery store, or almost run into them. Sometimes they’d see me at the other end of the aisle and pull a 180. Other times, we might have the chance to converse and I would get awkward apologies about why they hadn’t been in church recently. I considered shopping in another town.
I tried to assure people I wasn’t taking attendance. Occasionally, I’d confess to myself that I hadn’t noticed their absence (my bad). I learned that I was not the only one who faced this dynamic. As one of my colleagues said, after he’d had a few of these encounters: “I’m not a truant officer.”
The news tells us that patterns of church attendance are shifting. Regular church attendance today would formerly have been considered sporadic. In previous generations, there was no competition for Sunday morning. Now soccer games, open malls and little if no cultural expectation compete with worship on Sunday. Summer is upon us, a season when church attendance drops, prompting one child to ask: Is God on vacation?
I can imagine any number of reasons why church attendance is in decline. Too often, worship can seem boring or irrelevant. Often clergy (at least this clergyman) and congregants appear to go through the motions, not quite on auto-pilot but closer than I’d like to admit. Often the failures of organized religion (or disorganized religion in the case of the Episcopal Church) drive people away. Often we are answering questions no one is asking. Often we fail to offer challenge, a way to put faith to work in the world. Often we promote our own tribal notions of what worship should be rather than proclaiming good news, telling the story of Jesus and his love. I could go on. The question surfaces: Why go to church?
I got to thinking about that question when I read a newspaper article last week. (Raleigh News and Observer, Health and Fitness section, 5.23.2016.) A new study released in a journal published by the American Medical Association indicates that church attendance is actually good for your health. People who go to church apparently live longer. I thought: There’s got to be some way I could use this information.
But I think we need to shift from focusing only on what we get out of worship, move away from thinking of worship as consumer product, as entertainment, as a presentation subject to our critique, dependent on our approval. Can we move towards a focus on what we bring to the experience, what we offer, how we can be of service, in anticipation of a transformative encounter with the Holy One?
The idea of a weekly gathering goes back to the first days of the church. Christians got together on the first day of the week, for remembrance of resurrection, to be reminded of new life, for eucharist (thanksgiving) recalling grace experienced in the Jesus movement. They gathered for strength to carry on the journey, mindful that one can’t be a Christian alone. They needed to be together in a hostile culture. They gathered so the world could witness a new kind of community marked by compassion. The Book of Acts tells us that outsiders looked at the early church and said “See how they love one another”, with the implication that they soon would join.
With cultural pressure to show up on Sunday dissipating, it’s an opportunity to discover a new call to worship. Communal worship (a.k.a, Common Prayer) alone will not be the key to our spiritual growth, but it is an indispensable element. So ask these questions: What is my spiritual community? What is the commitment, for me and my household, as regards to gathering for worship? Where do I go to find strength for the journey? How can I support others in that journey? What do I bring to the table? What can I offer? How will the community be diminished by my absence? How will it grow with my presence?
And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them.-Acts 20:7And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.-Hebrews 10:24,25Worship is like a drama:The clergy, ministers and musicians are the prompters;the people are the actors;and God is the audience.-Søren Kierkegaard
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
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