What I Learned Skipping Church

What I Learned Skipping Church

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.

Related Posts:
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

  • Michael

    I appreciate your observations but am a bit concerned as I think about some of your conclusions (at the end). It seems as though the “answer” is to have better, more engaging worship services. I do think our worship services should be engaging and done well but I also want to be careful that we are not perpetuating the idea that a worship service is simply a commodity.

    I do believe people think the Sunday worship service is not “worth it” because they don’t get much out of it but I think that mindset is the problem. If we tout the worship service as a commodity for people to consume (and enjoy) we become nothing more than religious shopkeepers as Eugene Peterson noted – “The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns–how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.”

    We have to do more than create better worship experiences. We have to help our people recognize that they should arrive at our public gathering having worshipped throughout the week. They do not come looking to receive as much as they come looking to give. They enter with the mindset of a participator in worship and not merely a spectator.

    I think we often confuse consumer Christianity with an authentic relationship with Christ. I have worshipped in numerous venues (from a little church in Honduras to a house church in Turkey to churches with thousands of people) and the appeal for me in those environments is not the music or the applicability of the preaching (if fact in other countries I did not understand the language). The appeal for me is that I have the amazing privilege of gathering with other believers and worshipping the Lord. My wonder and amazement is derived from who God is and what he has done, not the impressiveness of the worship or preaching.

    • Hey Michael-

      Thanks for your comment. I agree with you 100%. I spent the better part of a Master’s degree studying and writing about worship and liturgical theology (and you can poke around on the site more to read about that).

      But here is the issue. The average person in the church isn’t where you (or I) am at. For them-it is an issue of consumption. What was promised hasn’t been delivered. We talk about the greatness of God and then expect an awkward and ill-prepared worship service to give witness to this reality. We think things have been done “right” so they are good. But the average person doesn’t see it this way. So they make a decision to spend time elsewhere.

      Expecting people to come to us because we are “worshiping right” is a pretty faulty evangelism strategy and is a little to close to having private priests saying private masses pre-reformation.

      We have to meet people where they are at. Culturally, where I am (the deep south), many people have no issues attending church every couple of months. They will usually call that regular attendance. Or if invited by a friend, they will attend. Those are huge steps of discipleship. But we have to ask ourselves the question why are they attending so mildly and take responsibility if we are the reason their attendance is infrequent. I believe the worship service is still one of the easiest and most approachable first steps of discipleship.

      That means we have to make people want to take the next step.

      • Michael

        Thanks for the response – I have enjoyed your blog and your sermon prep worksheet is very helpful!

        I agree that most people are not where we are on the issue. I am in the deep south as well and cultural Christianity is pretty commonplace here (south Georgia) too. I do believe there is a balancing act that must take place between attracting people and taking them further in discipleship. After all you cannot disciple people that are not there and our worship services cannot do what small groups are intended to do!!!

        I do believe “what we win people with we win them to” and this can be trap at for us at times. I wrestle through this as a pastor of a pretty contemporary church myself (crosspointdublin.com). We put a ton of energy and thought into our worship service and people come and lives are changed. But moving them from that environment to small groups is difficult and has grown more difficult over the last several years (at least in our context). In my experience, true life change happens in the context of community so this concerns me.

        As far as evangelism strategy I agree that the pious “we are doing it right” attitude is not going to work. But I’m also hesitant to approach it with a “we will give you what you want” mindset either. Both miss the mark. I think the better approach is “we will meet you where you are and help take you where you need to be.” It sounds like we are on the same page! We should never be the reason people do not come (as far as we can help it within the bounds of theological conviction and beliefs) but we should never be content to leave them where they come from.

        • Thanks Michael-

          I understand with those concerns. I think part of it is thinking about the worship service as the entry into discipleship and community. It’s hard to do this sometimes.

  • Pingback: Weekend Links | Worship Links()

  • Galen Fred Morrison

    Chad… man… your blog is such a breath of fresh air for me. This subject of skipping church kind of falls within something outside-of-the-box my wife and I are experimenting with. Being a longtime believer from a Methodist background married to a Baptist (with a liberal approach), we are experimenting with changing our weekly worship practices. We are members at a local Southern Baptist Church in a small town. Tuesdays I participate in a prayer lunch with two older Church of Christ gentlemen. Wednesdays I attend a mid-week Communion service at a large UMC in the city where my office is located. Wednesday nights while in town my wife and I attend a college-level Bible study at a mega-SBC church. We both work crazy schedules and have probably only attended regular Sunday church once per month over the past six months. We tithe at our home church, but I would guess few there understand or approve of what we are doing because they rarely see us at Sunday School or regular church. As I am maturing in my faith, unity of the church (not just my church but the Body of Christ) has me asking why we segregate ourselves by denomination so strictly. Our new ecuminical approach to being in God’s house is refreshing, increasing our fellowship friend base, but is vastly misunderstood by many of our friends. I think they view us as strange or misguided. We will see how this works, but for now we are enjoying it. Thanks for sharing your blog with me.