One recent Sunday morning, I looked out over the empty pews and I thought to myself, “what can be done to get people here?” Then I thought of all the “regulars” who weren’t here, and I thought to myself, “What can be done to get the ‘regulars’ to come back?”
Then I wondered why am I so worried about Sunday mornings?
I’d fallen into the Sunday morning trap again—the idea that “church” is the thing we do on Sunday mornings only, that “church” is the place we go for an hour on Sunday. We’ve known, from the beginning of our movement, as Paul talks about us in 1 Corinthians 12, that the church is the body of Christ. It’s like that old song we sang in Sunday School: “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people…” We all know this, and yet, we fall into the trap again and again and again.
When I looked beyond the empty pews, beyond Sunday, I remembered all the volunteers we had for the last two weekends for our annual Rummage Sale. I recalled all the neighbors who came out, who not only perused our “treasures” but also sat down over a hot dog and chatted with us about their lives. I remember the people who lined up for pies on Saturday morning. I also remembered the Women’s group that gathered earlier that month for lunch, the two Young Adult Pub Theology gatherings, and the bags of donations that appeared in the office for the local women’s shelter.
Why are we so caught up on Sunday morning? Why is Sunday morning still the litmus test as to whether or not a church is healthy or viable?
Sure, we receive money at our Rummage Sale or other events, but the main way we keep our lights on, pay the pastor (me) and fund the missions and ministries of the church is through the Sunday morning offering. And if people don’t come on Sunday, they are not necessarily going to give financially—mainly because we don’t ask.
We offered other ways for people to give to the church—online giving, card readers, QR-codes on the bulletin?
We encouraged giving at other times, at other opportunities, to share in the ministry and fellowship of the congregation?
We counted our blessings in the people we reach out to, the small groups, and the missions and ministries we offer instead of persons in pews?
And what if… dare I say it?
We changed everything.
What if we weren’t as concerned about being financially viable as we were about the ministries and missions we share in?
What if we sold our buildings, moved to partner with other congregations, or started meeting in public spaces such as schools, libraries, coffee shops, or other locations?
What if we all, when we pledge our finances to the church, also pledged our time, our gifts, our talents? What if we took a share in the work of the church, each of us?
This might mean that…
Pastors could no longer survive on a congregational salary alone. Let’s face it—a number of our pastors are already bi-vocational and many of us do not meet denominational standards for compensation. It would mean that seminaries would have to completely change because those going into ministry wouldn’t be able to afford the three-year master’s degree, knowing that they would be coming out with debt (five, but often six figures worth of debt). And this is already happening—seminaries are closing, or completely going online. Students take one or two classes at a time while working a full-time job. I’ll say it again: this is already happening.
We would have to all change—the church, the pastor, the body of Christ.
We would have to change everything. But we might be able to do something radical.
We might be able to follow Jesus differently.
I’ll raise my hand: I’m scared of this. I have loans to pay off. I have other debts. I need to provide for my family. But as it is, I serve two congregations part-time. I am surviving. I also love what I am doing. I have begun to change. But it’s time for the church to recognize this isn’t temporary.
This is the new normal.