What Counts as Regular Attendance?

Last year I attended a day-long workshop led by Reginald Bibby, the preeminent sociologist of religion and adolescents in Canada. At one point in the day, he asked all those present (most of whom were Lutheran clergy, as the day was hosted by Waterloo Lutheran Seminary) to raise their hands if a “committed” family at their churches is one that attends services about twice a month.

Most hands in the room went up.

This is something I’ve been thinking about lately. I don’t think it’s something to mourn. The world and the church are changing, so lower rates of attendance—even for committed folks—no longer equals lower rates of growth, formation, or commitment to following Jesus. Just ask Willow Creek. They discovered that their most committed members were the ones that were stagnant in their relationships with Jesus.

So things are changing. The ways we minster with children, youth, and adults need to change. We need to stop assuming that folks are going to show up for church services very week, so we need to quit being so focused on the numbers game.

This hit home for me this weekend. My wife serves as a pastor of Christian education and she planned a special Sunday school class for the kids who are about 8-10 years old (called “middlers”). For the past few weeks, she’s been working with the small youth class (3-4 people) to have them prepare and lead yesterday’s middler Sunday school class. But, to her surprise, none of the youth that had worked to prepare the lesson showed up at church on the day they were supposed to lead the class. And 2 youth that never show up walked through the doors. So the plan had to be changed. She was able to roll with the punches and pull off a good morning, but this story demonstrates the change that Reg Bibby was highlighting.

So what are we to do? In short, we’ve got to change our models of faith formation. We’ve got to stop relying so heavily on Sunday programming for children, youth, and adults, particularly programming that runs in month-long, quarter-long, or year-long series. After all, even the most committed families may only attend 50-75% of the time.

I don’t think there are any quick fixes or easy solutions to this problem. I don’t think we can just identify what needs to be done, then do it, and then sit back and let things run smoothly again. I think this is one of the many changes happening with (institutional) church that we can to embrace and use to rethink how we do faith formation. And maybe we can use this change as an opportunity to not only ask the how question, but also the what, when, who, and why questions.

2 thoughts on “What Counts as Regular Attendance?”

  1. Fascinating and something the church I attend is wrestling with. Things seem to be going well (really well)…so why doesn’t it translate into Sunday morning attendance? I really appreciate your thoughts and for passing this along, Dave.

  2. This is one of the biggest mind-benders for people who are hearing about Messy Church for the first time. It seems unimaginable that once a month could be a sustainable practice. Of course it isn’t (well not as a means of creating genuine community) – and what is healthy about the once a month rhythm of larger gatherings of Messy Church, is that it re-focusses attention on the micro and informal, serendipitous ways in which we express life in Christ together in complex matrices of human community, in the incarnational everyday of our families and households and neighbourhoods.

    The weekly ‘dose of sermon’ habit as a mainstay of faith I think is one of the practices that has done the most damage to discipleship and mission in the church in the last 400 years, creating a dependency on someone else’s theological reflections – instead of our own communal wrestle, creating a hierarchy of spirituality, when we should be watching and listening to our children, and the prophets amongst us, who are most likely the manic depressive, the homeless and the person washing the dishes. We have created a false sense of ‘we need to grow spiritually’ – guilting us into attendance – except that when we realise that even if we attend 100% or 200% (going twice a week!) we actually don’t ‘grow’ any more, we get disillusioned, and so attend less. Attendance – surely – is about expressing our commitment to the other, not about ‘topping ourselves up’ (which seems anti-kenotic and greedy, really). While-ever church seems to be about ‘what happens at the front’ and not about disciples discipling each other, and sharing the stories of God in our lives and doing the work of praying for the world God loves, attendance will remain frequently uncompelling.

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