Managing your expectations (of church members)

Let’s face it. When it comes to our church members, we must compete for their time and attention.  The kids’ extra-curricular activities, especially sports, often draw families away from church on the weekends. Many work insane hours, sometimes to make ends meet, sometimes to do the job well. Extracurriculars add up: working out, continuing ed, pursuing various hobbies, etc... Let’s be honest — we pastors are just as busy. This cultural “bug” has infected everybody and we’re not immune.  

Facing this reality, there’s a couple options. We can fight the culture or we can accept reality and adjust our expectations. Many of us opt to take the Biblical high ground, condemning activities that draw families away from the sacred rhythm of Sunday morning worship.  We can preach against the idolatry of “busyness” and encourage sabbath, rest, worship and healthy rhythms.  Others adjust their expectations radically. Personally, I consider 3 church services per week for any given individual to be “regular church attendance,” and I make an effort not to shame or guilt those who come only once or twice per month. Less than that and I would doubt the individual’s commitment to seeking God and embracing being a part of the body of Christ. I'll take it though, because, considering where this person in there life with church not being a priority, they are in need of discipleship, of encouragement to learn about the kind of life into which God is inviting them.  I’ve found that guilting those who come infrequently generally drives them away rather than in.

Is my approach capitulating to the culture?  Perhaps a little. I’m not denying that. In my heart, I wish that every church member was there at every meeting and every worship service, no exception. But am I willing to subject myself to the same standard? Aren’t there times when duty calls and I need to be away?  Aren’t there times when my family really does need a weekend away?  Isn’t it a huge gift to my wife when, instead of dragging a sick toddler to church, she can stay home and watch the kids while I do my job?  Isn’t there an annual Five Borough Bike Tour I’d love to ride, which although taking me away from church that Sunday, would give me 6 hours of time to interact with people from around the city?  

Scripture is insightful here. In Acts, the believers didn’t meet once a week. They met for prayer, worship, fellowship, breaking of bread, etc.. every day (Acts 2:46) Once-a-week worship is actually already an accommodation considering the impracticalities of emulating Acts-style fellowship.  But the ethic of regular connection, regular worship, regular prayer, is very much still relevant. Things that are important and life-giving should be done daily. Sunday attendance doesn’t have to be the only way the body of Christ can live into connectedness.  In our church, we encourage daily personal devotions and have life groups which meet weekly. In some cases, attendance at life groups can be more consistent than weekend worship.  A church member that attends life group, serves once or twice a month at church, and shows up to worship even half the time, is actually living into their membership commitments on a relatively high level. That is discipleship.  Family life is also where much of discipleship is supposed to be happening - not just church. Church programs and services alone are insufficient to foster maturity in the lives of Christians.

So here’s where I land on this: I think we can ease up on Sunday morning worship expectations and avoid causing unnecessary guilt or shame for those who can’t make it every week. At the same time, we can approach discipleship, family life, and fellowship in ways which go beyond Sunday morning. In fact, this is a necessity if people want to continue to be nurtured in the faith, connected to the body, and experience the risen Christ through his Spirit on a regular basis.  Let’s lower the bar (slightly) for what we call “regular church attendance” and raise the bar on discipleship.