One of the touchiest subjects between a pastor and parishioner is worship attendance. It seems that however a pastor tries to approach the subject, it always goes wrong. The parishioner ends up feeling the pastor is mean spirited, legalistic, harsh, uncaring, etc. On the other side, if the pastor says nothing at all about it, some parishioners do tend to lag in attendance. A year ago, I sent out an email to members who, according to our records, had not met our very minimal requirements of worship attendance. I thought the email was very clear that the reason for writing the message was we care about them and I tried to be very gentle in how I approached the subject. Nevertheless, I did remind them of the minimal requirements. Oopps. Big mistake. This statement, understandably, came across as threatening. A few recipients thankfully directly shared their upset with me which was very good, healthy, and productive but I’m pretty sure a number of others were just offended and angry having now another reason to stay away. Given most pastors don’t enjoy upsetting people, (this is certainly true of me) perhaps a pastor should do nothing, although legally nothing is not an option (see * below). Yet, I believe doing nothing would be shirking part of my Call. If a coach has a player who isn’t doing what is needed for the team, would the coach be a good coach if she didn’t give the player instruction and correction? So what is a pastor to do? That old idiom comes to mind: “darned if you do and darned if you don’t.”
The first thing I would ask of everyone, is please know that I, and I’m confident I speak for most pastors, care very little about rules and regulations when it comes to worship attendance. As a pastor for almost 30 years, let me assure you that I care a hundred times more about people than regulations. Indeed, as pastors, we care about your spiritual well-being, your faith formation, and your relationship with Christ believing that frequent encounter with Word and Sacrament is essential to your faith. Even more importantly, we believe that God desires our worship and God wants to come to us via the Word, Baptism, and Holy Communion. In fact, we believe the reason God created the church is to connect you to Christ! So when we push you to be in worship often, or even more challenging, more often than you currently do, it is for no other reason than we want the best for you. Lutherans, so grounded in grace as we are, know that we don’t have to attend worship every Sunday. Pastors, in our view, don’t get to, like in many other religions and denominations, threaten you with your salvation if you slack off or if you don’t give your all when it comes to worship attendance, giving, commitment, etc. The problem though, given this freedom and grace, is that Lutherans often do lag in their commitment. Martin Luther, after freeing his dear Germans from the tyranny of the law, often was frustrated with the lack of response and commitment of his people. At SLC, I know that some parishioners actually see the summer as a “break from church” and I’m very confident that our yearly dramatic summer drop in worship attendance is not because that number of people are all actually away on vacation or camping.
So what is a pastor to do? At SLC we will continue to offer the pure Gospel freely without compulsion or manipulation. We will try to so inspire you with the Gospel message that you look at Sunday worship not as a “have to” but as a “get to” and “want to,” seeing it as the essential nourishment of your faith that it is. We will also proclaim that missing worship injures your life as well as the rest of the church because our song and worship is lesser when you are not there. In other words, we will not shy away from telling you that you have a need to worship regardless of whether or not you think so. Finally, at times, with a good amount of fear and trepidation and as gently as possible, we will remind some of our members that our minimal requirements of worship are not being met (at SLC it is 4 times a year which is more than in most Lutheran churches). This correction or reminder may be upsetting but it is done out of love for each person and for the health of the Body of Christ. Please do read the following acknowledgements and clarifications before you finish. I pray this outpouring of my struggle regarding Sunday worship is helpful and not another attempt at addressing this subject that has gone wrong.
Acknowledgements & Clarifications:
- There are no requirements to attend worship at SLC and the expectation for Holy Communion is the same as it has been in the church for 2000 years, that a person be baptized and believe Christ’s words, “given and shed for you.” All are welcome to worship and participate in our ministry whether you are a member or not. Being a “member” has nothing to do with whether or not you are welcome to worship and participate at SLC. Being a member means you have made the commitment to further the mission of SLC and that you have a vote and say in that mission.
- I do not believe it is wrong to occasionally miss worship because you are away on vacation, skiing, camping, hiking, tired, etc. God wants us all to nurture our family relationships and enjoy life. Never feel guilty for getting away. But what about doing devotions as a family when away? Listen to the sermon online and then discuss it? Visit another congregation?
- I know many can’t worship often or at all because of illness and health issues, physical limitations, travel distances, job requirements, etc. Moreover, I also know families with children and youth face very difficult decisions regarding the conflict between sports and Sunday morning worship – I sympathize with you and understand the struggle. My girls played soccer too. I continue to ponder how we can provide additional worship opportunities outside of Sunday mornings. We did make one effort which didn’t succeed but that doesn’t mean we won’t try again. I’m speaking in this blog primarily to those who can but don’t worship as often as they could.
- I know that some people are married to a spouse who is in a different place than they are when it comes to worship and church. I pray for them in this struggle and I know a difference in beliefs can have an impact on your worship life.
- I know that some are very involved at SLC in other ways than Sunday worship and this needs to be taken into consideration when we look at a person’s situation.
- I know that some fall into inactivity because of hurts in their life that are unheard or because of an interpersonal hurt with someone at church. When you are in a church the size of SLC and do not have significant relationships here or are not in some kind of smaller service or community group, you are more vulnerable to feeling unsupported by your church and “falling through the cracks.” As pastors we do our best to respond to the needs of SLC members when we are aware of them but with 900 members, we can’t do it all. We are all are called to bear one another’s burdens. SLC has lots of room for improvement in this area even while the care and compassion we give each other is one of our many strengths.
- I know that for some, worship is not the engaging and empowering event I’d like it to be. We continue to try and improve worship but I also know from years of experience that if one’s primary motivation for worship is one’s own need and fulfillment, it is ultimately a dead end street. Focus on pouring out your love to God and blessing others on Sunday, and your needs will be met.
- I believe Sunday worship is only part of our worship life and not an end in itself. How we live every day is also worship. Indeed, I see Sunday worship as a blessing from God that empowers us to bless others each day and this blessing of others with the Gospel in word and deed is the purpose of our congregation.
*The dynamic of worship attendance expectations is further impacted by the fact that most Christian churches are “member owned” non-profits that require some level of commitment in order to be a member. Most parishioners don’t know that there are two kinds of nonprofits, Member owned and Board owned. Lutheran churches are member owned 501c3s, and thus each member has a vote regarding the church but that membership has to have certain expectations. Other churches don’t have members but rather a Board that has decision making power and to which the pastor is accountable and thus there are no required expectations of most worshippers. There are requirements for those on the Board but not for the average worshipper. However, churches like ours actually are legally bound to keep track of and adhere to our requirements of members—primary to those expectations is regular worship attendance.