Part of the season of church planting is having flexibility with Sunday mornings. I have spent most of them helping out other churches, leading music or preaching supply. We have had a couple of Sundays where we go visit other services and see how they do things.
This weekend I decided to do something different.
I skipped church on purpose. And it was glorious. The whole day was amazing.
I did an experiment Sunday morning and spent several hours at my favorite coffee and breakfast spot. It is a higher end gas station serving the exact demographic we are planting Foundry in. Folks can easily come in and spend $5-7 on a great cup of coffee and a breakfast sandwich or pastry.
I was there for around four hours observing who else was skipping church.
I grew up in church. I was there easily 5 days a week. I’m a preachers kid! I remember thinking about folks who skipped church when I was younger. I don’t know if it was subliminal or someone actually told me, but I viewed skipping church as a fast track to a stretch in the penitentiary. The folks who skipped church were the true dregs of society, sleeping off what was most certainly a debaucherous night worthy of Hugh Hefner and company.
Then I went to college and started skipping church.
Recently Carey Niewhof has spent considerable time on his blog looking at the phenomenon of declining church attendance (here, here and here). He, like others, gives weight to the theory that many of our churches aren’t declining through significant departure, but instead declining frequency of attendance.
My time over the last few years in ministry has shown the same thing. We rarely had a family leave my previous church-but when we crunched the numbers of average attendance vs. who was there at least once a month we found either more frequent attendance (in growing services) or declining (in shrinking services).
So with these facts in mind I decided to skip church and observe folks skipping church (I guess that sociological research degree is paying off).
Observations from Skipping Church
1. Folks are spending their time with family
Earlier in the morning (around 8-9am) I saw plenty of families together. Some of them came to get a family breakfast before church. Others were heading out to a day at the lake or the camp. Some families came in and spent 30-45 minutes with each other and other families rushed in and out.
I did see 3 different groups of Dads and kids together. I assumed (due to the lack of wedding rings and one conversation with one) this breakfast was the last big event before Dad ended his weekend with the kids and brought them back to Mom.
2. Hanging out with friends
I saw several younger couples of groups of friends come in early to grab breakfast and hang out. They stayed at least for an hour catching up and sharing stories. One of them even talked about a Bible study they were in! The common thread in their conversations was life change and transition.
3. Growing themselves or taking care of other responsibilities
I saw a people come in, sit down by themselves and pull out an iPad or book and read during a cup of coffee. I saw people journaling. Others came in to grab a quick bite before running errands or driving to see family.
4. Different people at different times.
Earlier in the morning I saw more families come in. Around 9:30 younger people came in and people swung in to grab stuff to go. Around 10/10:30 I started to see college kids come in or folks that probably had a hard Saturday night and were just getting going. At 11am or so it swung back to families with kids coming in to sit down.
So what did I learn?
People are skipping church for good reasons.* Like I said earlier, I had a magnificent day. Meredith and I spent great time to ourselves and part of me thinks the relaxing morning I had reading and reflecting was something to do with that. I wasn’t stressed out on Sunday morning
People were spending time with important people. Whether it was their kids, spouses, significant others or friends-they filled Sunday morning with relationships.
Folks used Sunday to do what mattered to them. Saturday is quickly getting filed up with responsibilities. I recently read over 30% of the workforce works on the weekend. With sports and other obligations, Saturday is now a work day with more comfortable shoes on! Sunday is the new Saturday, a time to relax and refuel yourself.
So think about that. These people aren’t skipping church for malicious reasons. In fact, they are skipping worship for the very reason worship is important! Worship should be relaxing (not stressful or awkward), it should be about relationships and connecting with the body of Christ. Finally, worship should be a time to press reset and reorient life. This isn’t about creating a consumer driven service,** but we have to realize God never meant worship to not matter!
I don’t offer any thing besides this. I have my own theories, but they are contextual.
What I am doing at Foundry is thinking about what our weekly services will look like and asking questions along these lines. Church shouldn’t be a drag. I promised our launch team I would do everything for worship to not suck or be embarrassing.
Church leaders need to get really honest with themselves and be willing to ask the hard questions. I think many people quit going to church not because they no longer believe, but they slowly stopped thinking Sunday morning in church was worth it. That worship mattered. And we as Christian leaders need to own up to this and do what we can to fix it.
*Let’s think about what would subliminally drive someone to not attend church. We can sugar coat it as much as we want, it can be disagreements, lack of opportunities, janky worship services or many other things. For many people it is simple being too busy. What it boils down to is the experience of corporate worship isn’t as important as other things-it doesn’t carry the beneficial weight. This isn’t saying worship isn’t important, but we have to be honest with ourselves about what we are presenting as worship to people.
** I honestly think many people experience God in worship. I have rarely met a mature disciple of Jesus who hasn’t been positively affected in and by worship numerous times. Worship is an important and heavy thing. Because of that conviction I think worship needs to be excellent. It needs to engage context, senses and sensibility. Expecting people to experience God in a worship service completely out of touch to them isn’t a holy excuse. If we want worship to be a priority we need to give it all we’ve got.
How To Get People To Sing In Worship (why repetition matters)
Sermon | Playing House (Building the Worship of God)
The Most Important Word in Worship Design…
Learning About Worship From Iron Maiden