Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Does Church Attendance Mean Anything (Part 5)

I recently learned a wonderful word, aporia: 1) Rhetoric: The expression of a simulated or real doubt, as about where to begin or what to do or say; 2) Logic, Philosophy: A difficulty encountered in establishing the theoretical truth of a proposition, created by the presence of evidence both for and against it” (definition from dictionary.com).

I am coming closer and closer to concluding that attendance is a kind of aporia. In these past five bulletin articles on attendance, I find myself struggling over where to begin and often what to say conclusively. Additionally, there seems to be both positive and negative evidence concerning the meaning of attendance. I find myself almost saying attendance means everything and attendance means nothing. For instance, at minimum attendance means everything in that it ought to be a reflection of our love, commitment, and support for one another and the church as a whole. On the other hand, the mere act of attendance does not necessarily mean you actually are committed, loving, and supporting one another and the church as a whole.

Part of the struggle in defining the meaning of attendance may be rooted in the fact that attendance is more a reflection (or result) than a cause. In other words, attendance does not necessarily cause one to grow in faithfulness, but rather is more a reflection of your faith. In brief, attendance is a reflection of your faith in terms of choice, time, and value. We often make the choice of what to attend or not attend based on how we want to spend our time according to what we value. In short, an implicit question being answered by our attendance or lack of it, is what we think is worthwhile to spend our time upon. For example, do you think there is value in making the choice to spend your time attending Bible class, worship, and fellowships? Your answer will greatly depend on the value you see and reap from these kinds of participation.

Over the years as a minister, I have heard people say, “I do not attend Sunday morning Bible class because it is boring.” I know, you are thinking, “No way would anyone say that about one of Terry’s classes” J. Now whether we find this claim of boredom sad, but true, many often do not find personal value when it comes to attending a Bible class, or even a worship service, and therefore do not see the value in making the choice to spend their time in attendance.

Let us be honest. Some classes and indeed some worship services are indeed boring. Classes and worship may be boring because teachers, preachers, and worship leaders are boring. They may be boring because perhaps they do not prepare or study well enough to give well enough. On the other hand, some attendees are themselves boring. They are boring perhaps because they do not care to truly listen, seek understanding, or choose to participate in discussion. The truth for all is, you often get out what you put in.

In conclusion, the questions I would like you to ponder are the following: What does your choice of attendance or lack of attendance say about what you value to spend your time upon? How did you arrive at this value and is it truly what the Lord would have you value? You just may discover in your own thinking how much attendance truly is an aporia.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Does Church Attendance Mean Anything? (Part4)

In some of the sociological and economic research conducted on church attendance, there is reference made to the “U” shape model of church attendance. In brief, the U-shape reflects data on church attendance over the average churchgoer’s lifetime. Typically, attendance starts high in a person’s younger years, and then as careers and/or families are formed (marriage, children, etc.) attendance tends to dip, and then usually around age fifty, attendance typically rises back up, with a slight dip in an individual’s latter years due to failing health. While there are always exceptions and qualifications to the norm, I would say personally, the U-shape pattern of church attendance generally holds true.

What is at least one potential implication that we might draw about the U-shape pattern of church attendance? One implication is that we need to be mindful and aware of the forces that might interfere with our faith development that church attendance may reflect. For instance, what do we do as a congregation to help young people concerning their career choices, and the potential impact those choices may have on their faith? Are we having the right discussions and asking the right questions about the kind of impact the type of work and work schedules they choose can have on their faith?

It seems to me many local congregations fall short in being creative in the opportunities they provide growing families. Often throughout the years, I have heard families with young toddlers speak of how difficult it is for them to attend, say a Wednesday night Bible study or Sunday night study, because of the effect such late evening events have on their young children. Now I recognize that we sometimes can just make excuses, or not seek to be disciplined, but the issue of when and what time we schedule church-related events is not without value. In other words, if we can provide better and more conducive times for various members to study and/or fellowship given their circumstances, then should we not seek to provide them as a congregation?

Let me share one personal account to illustrate some of the struggles today facing young people about church attendance. I have a dear friend of mine who recently shared with me his current struggle with church attendance. He is a young man, faithful, godly, and well versed in Scripture. He is also married with a young child. Recently, my friend finished college, and was blessed with a wonderful career opportunity. However, like many newly hired individuals, he was given the least desirable work schedule. He is working over sixty hours a week and primarily in the evenings. He shared with me how the only time he has to spend with his family is Sunday evening. My friend would prefer not to attend Sunday evening service, as he would like to rest before having to start his grueling workweek, and spend quality time with his wife and child. The problem is the congregation where he attends has hinted, and not so hinted, that not to attend Sunday evening is questionable. The result is he ends up feeling guilty if he does not attend, and guilty for not spending the kind of time he thinks is more beneficial for his growing family. In short, my friend is at the bottom of the U-shape pattern. What is he to do?

I guess one thing I am trying to get at in this article centers on how the contemporary church can help its maturing members get past the bottom of the U-shape attendance pattern. Speaking critically, but lovingly, we cannot afford to just let brothers and sisters “tough it out” by themselves, or offer no assistance to encourage their faith development. We should all be mindful of where we are in our attendance at church. Yet the better question might be, “Where is the local congregation itself when brothers and sisters are sloping down the U-shape of attendance?”


Saturday, October 16, 2010

Disunity in the Church

I read this week what is perhaps the best article I have ever read on disunity in the church. The title of the paper is Disunity in the Church and the Credibility of the Gospel, by Bruce D. Marshall. You can access the article in its entirety with the following link: http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/apr1993/v50-1-article8.htm.

Marshall centers his comments primarily around John 17:16-21. You will recall, this Scriptural passage is where Jesus prays that we would all be one as Jesus and the Father are one, so that the world would come to believe in Jesus Christ. What I found particularly helpful and insightful in the article was the emphasis on VISIBLE unity being a necessary component of church life. For example, take at look at this one short quote from Disunity: "The world, so this passage suggests, can see the unity of the church; since it is the church's unity that leads the otherwise unbelieving world to believe in Jesus's saving mission from the Father-that is, to believe the gospel-the church's unity cannot itself be accessible only to believers (as, for example, the invisible and perhaps not yet extant object of their faith and hope) but must lie open to the apprehension of all, outside the church as well as within." 

The previous quote is as encouraging to me as it is discouraging. I am encouraged to think about the power and influence that unity in the church can exert for good in this world. I am discouraged when I think about and witness so much disunity in the church today. To be honest, when the world thinks of the church today the word, unity, is not the first word that comes to their minds. To be blunt, unity is not the first word that comes to mind for most Christians when thinking about the church.

Over the years, I have taught several classes on unity in the church. One question I typically ask is, "What do you think is more miraculous, that the church could be one or that Jesus rose from the dead?" Usually, without being at all facetious, brothers and sisters in Christ will say being one is more miraculous than Jesus rising from the dead. Why would so many in the church today think unity is more miraculous than resurrection? Perhaps one answer is that we have seen church unity less than we have seen people raised from the dead? We believe Jesus was seen risen from the dead, but who has ever seen the church remain unified? So we may think, "Well, one man rose from the dead at least once in human history, but when has the church of Jesus Christ ever been completely unified?"

Brothers and sisters in Christ who have especially been members of the church for most of their lives, or a good portion of their lives, have typically witnessed much disunity. I personally have had my fair share of witnessing the ugliness of disunity in countless "men's business meetings," and "congregational meetings." The sad reality is that most members who have a long duration in fellowship with the church will experience a church split, or at least a hurtful disunity in the church. I think it would be a fascinating research study to tally the percent of Christians just within the Church of Christ who have experienced division and disunity. I imagine, if you have never experienced a church split, or a destructive and disruptive disunity in the church, then you are the exception rather than the rule.

What has happened to our passion for unity and our hatred for disunity (John 17:20-21; Prov 6:16-19)? It seems to me we have a growing tolerance of disunity that borders on apathy. As a result, we often settle for shallow notions of the "universal church" being one, and abandon notions of the local body of Christ being one. In other words, unity is more of a mystical concept than a concrete reality. I may have oneness in my heart with brothers and sisters across time and space, but disunity with the brother or sister sitting in the pew across from me. However, unity that is not local, visible, and concrete is a fantasy and not a reality. The cost of unseen universal unity is virtually nothing, but unity with the brother and sister I see will cost me time, effort, energy, and sacrifice. Yet, Jesus died and rose from the dead, so that we may be one with God and one another, so how can we expect anything less in our pursuit of unity?

In closing, if we settle for a tolerance of disunity and an apathy for unity, then what are we to make of Jesus prayer that we would all be one as He and the Father are one? Where has all the love for unity gone? Has the prayer of Jesus fallen of deaf ears in the church? How many congregational splits could have been and be avoided if we would but have a conscious and sensitive awareness for the unity Jesus desires for us? Have you been scarred by the evil spirit of disunity? I have. Disunity is a darkness I care not to see again in my life. What are your feelings about unity? How has disunity affected you? Who is listening to Jesus pray for unity?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Does Church Attendance Mean Anything? (Part 3)

Is there any meaning just in the mere act of attendance? Do we “get any points” for just showing up? I have often heard the expression, “Half the battle is in just showing up.” I assume the previous expression means that even to think of achieving or experiencing something, you at least need to be present to begin achieving and experiencing. A similar expression that might highlight the meaning of attendance is, “Better to have tried and failed, then to have never tried at all.” In other words, there will be no potential benefit to attendance unless we at least attend. So in light of our discussion so far, what might be the benefits of attending church-related activities?

People attend church for a variety of motives and perceived benefits. For instance, broadly speaking, some attend church-related activities for the perceived benefit of enjoying eternal life. I often hear Christians say, “We want to attend church services, because we want to go to heaven.” For some, there is a perceived correspondence between attending church services and entering heaven—better attendance at church equals more assured access to heaven. While it is true that faithful people attend, it is false that attendance itself can make people faithful, or assure better access into heaven (sorry, no points for just showing up). We do not earn eternal salvation with the down payments of church attendance, but with the life, Jesus Christ laid down for our sins and took up for our justification (Rom 4:25).

Others attend church-related activities for the benefits that accompany fellowship: friendships, social interaction, fun, emotional/psychological / moral and spiritual supports are just some of these benefits. Therefore, the fellowship benefit tends to focus often on the perceived rewards of personal consumption. In other words, “What do I (or my family, children, etc.) get out of attending church?” While such a consumption motive may come across as potentially selfish, there is benefit in personally enjoying the blessings of more brothers and sisters interacting with one another. Jesus himself assures us that, "no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields-- and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life (Mark 10:29-30). Space constraints here demand we simply move on and leave untouched the Christian paradox that in giving, we receive, and in serving, we are served.

Ultimately, we attend church-related activities because Jesus draws us together to glorify God. Jesus declares, But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" (John 12:32). Why is Jesus pulling us all together through his sacrifice upon the cross? The Apostle Paul answers, Then the end will come, when [Jesus] hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power” (1 Cor 15:24). Once Jesus draws us together in Christian unity, he will hand us over to God the Father, and we will sing together with all God’s chosen ones: 

“Because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth . . . . In a loud voice [we will sing]: "Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise! . . . To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” (Rev 5:8-13).

Regardless of why people may choose to attend church-related activities, if they are not attending because they have been drawn to do so by the sacrifice of God the Son, to the glory of God the Father, through the work of God the Holy Spirit, then they are not attending the Church of Jesus Christ, but are just going to church. So, does Church attendance mean anything?” One answer depends on what draws you to church in the first place. What is drawing you, dear brother and sister?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Does Church Attendance Mean Anything? (Part One)

First in a series of bulletin articles on the meaning of Church attendance (for all those not actually reading the bulletin sent to them in the mail. :))

An often-heard question from the lips of children is, “Do I have to go to church?” The proto-typical parental response is, “No, you get the privilege of going to church.” What about your view of church attendance, do you get to go to church or do you have to go to church? Is church attendance a privilege or just an obligatory duty?

The ultra-conservative congregation where I first became a Christian gave me some of my own initial impressions of church attendance. Sunday morning attendance was obvious, and Wednesday night and Sunday night attendance were expected. A verse I frequently heard was Hebrews 10:25, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” In addition, an unwritten rule for being a deacon or an elder was faithful attendance. If a brother’s name were not considered for the deaconship or eldership, a common reason stated would be, “He is a good man, but he does not come on Wednesday night.” Even if this brother’s work schedule prohibited Wednesday night attendance, the implication was that he should be striving to change his schedule or perhaps there was some kind of hidden unfaithfulness. In other words, if he is a good man, then why has God not blessed him with the time off to attend?

What does church attendance mean? Is attendance really a proper biblical gauge or measure of faithfulness or faithlessness? What exactly do we mean by church attendance? Does church attendance mean any and every activity of the church, or are we talking primarily about Sunday morning worship? My conservative upbringing taught me that if the elders designate times to meet, such as Wednesday night and Sunday night, then the members ought to honor the authority of the elders by attending those set times. If you “forsook” (a favorite word of my conservative congregation) meeting with the saints, then you are disrespecting the elders and working against their spiritual obligation to tend to your soul. Now, who would want to be guilty of working against the soul-care of the elders?

We ought to honor the times set by the elders for the care, development, and growth of our spirituality and faith. However, such honor given to elders assumes the elders have taken the time to know what the schedules, obligations, obstacles, and challenges each member faces. Elders cannot simply throw out times to meet, or blindly depend on traditional meeting times to meet the needs of an ever-growing and ever-changing congregation. For instance, in today’s culture, businesses operate 24/7, and young people especially are prone to have to work nights and weekends. For many today, even Sunday morning worship is becoming a luxury to attend. Elders today have an awesome responsibility to schedule congregational times of faith development and soul-care amidst a sea of changing times, work schedules, and other obligations. I am uncertain that any congregation in our present culture and society could schedule meeting times to accommodate all members at all times.

Nevertheless, elders must try and they must be creative in the times and opportunities they structurally offer members of the congregation. A hint of one creative response comes from church history. Pliny the Younger (61-112 AD) was a Roman magistrate who wrote a letter to the Emperor Trajan on how to judicially deal with the growing number of Christians under his jurisdiction. After torturing two Christian slave girls for information on what Christians were doing, Pliny reported this interesting little nugget to Trajan: “They had been accustomed on a fixed day to meet before dawn and sing antiphonally a hymn to Christ as a god.” Why were these Christians meeting before dawn? The answer is that these slave girls, like the majority of slaves that were Christians, could not meet any other time due to the nature of their work. For Christians in the first century, church attendance at least meant you loved and cared for one another to the point that the Body of Christ was willing to rise before dawn in order to be together. How many elders and congregations today would be willing to rise before dawn to meet the needs of its members? Just what does church attendance mean to you, dear brother and sister? In the following weekly bulletin articles, we will explore this question more in-depth. Until the next time, I pray you do not “give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.”


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Does Church Attendance Mean Anything? (Part2)

The following article is part two in a series of bullietin articles on church attendance. The scope of the article is limited due to the limited space of a bulletin. However, I would like to see and interact with the thoughts of others on this topic of church attendance, especially when it comes to structured congregation times like Wednesdays and Sundays. Be sure to see part one.

Does Church Attendance Mean Anything? (Part 2)

Our English word attendance comes to us from the 14th century French, atendance, meaning "attention, wait, hope, expectation," from atendant, of atendre, meaning "action of waiting on someone." The notion of attending in the sense of presenting oneself with the intent of taking a part developed in the 1560’s. The idea of attendee, “someone “who attends something” comes to us from the 1960’s (source: dictionary.com).

The above dictionary definitions of attendance are helpful in our continuing look at church attendance. Additionally helpful, is a key verse noted in the last bulletin article which says, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another-- and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb 10:25). Together, the combination of our English understanding of attendance and the Hebrew passage influence what many of us think about church attendance.

For starters, some simply participate in church as someone “who attends something” in the sense that they merely show up. Pejoratively, we might call such an individual a “pew-warmer” or “pew-packer.” An “attendee” often is just checking off the “box of attendance.” Sadly, many attend church and sit in the pews like flowers in a vase waiting to be attended to rather than attending to others. Hebrews tells us to “encourage one another” when we gather. Even those physically confined can encourage us with their presence and prayers. 

The “action of waiting on someone” corresponds well with the previous verse in Hebrews, which says, And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:23). Furthermore, we all have gifts by the Lord by which He expects and holds us accountable to use for His glory to the benefit of all (Eph 4; 1 Cor 12). We cannot spur what we do not see and cannot touch, and therefore we must not “give up meeting together.” The Greek word for  “give up” used in Hebrews has the idea of “normally referring to a small part of a larger whole - 'to cause to remain, to leave to exist, to leave’” (source: Louw-Nida Lexicon). What a potent image is, “to leave to exist.” A sobering and sad thought is how many in the local congregation are willing to leave the “smaller part” of those who attend church to exist on their own. All have gifts, all are necessary, and all must attend to others.

Thirdly, attendance as “wait, hope,” and “expectation” is clearly seen in the Hebrew writers admonition to attend to one another as we “see the Day approaching” (Heb 10:25). The Day we see approaching is the Day of the Lord, the second coming of Christ. Therefore, one gauge of a congregation’s and an individual’s belief, hope, and expectation in seeing Christ’s return is church attendance to church-related activities.

So in conclusion (to part 2), to answer the question, “Does church attendance mean anything?”; we might be better off asking the question, “Does Jesus coming again mean anything to you?”