Writings by Cole Huffman

What I'd Really Like to Say About Church Attendance

I have a pastor-friend who speaks of letting things “perk” in you.  He doesn’t mean “perk” as in perkiness (thank God, as I am anything but perky), but “perk” as in percolator—meditating on something until you are ready to share it.  The perking doesn’t have to mean your words pour out piping hot.  When that happens one usually scalds people.  There’s a difference between scalding and scolding (a good biblical example of the difference is Psalm 39).  I’ve found God’s people can usually receive scolding if it is occasional, specific, substantive, and communicated without rancor, cynicism, or sarcasm.
With a holiday weekend just past, I have before me the opportunity to address church attendance.  In my 42 years—all of it spent in that last cultural bastion of “churchedness,” the South—presence at church has been, if not devalued, at least deemphasized.  Pastors of churches like mine used to stress attendance, not because they were number mongers, but from a core value that worshippers’ most visible expression of their commitment to the church was their attendance.  Families were expected to adjust their vacation or weekend travels to not miss church on Sunday or, if they could not, to attend church wherever they were on Sunday mornings.  This is how it used to be not that long ago.
But this core value is no longer taken for granted.  Yes, people should want to come to church; there is something pathetic in cajoling anyone to it; and some church aficionados will postulate that sporadic attendance is just another indication of church plateau.  Not always.  I’ve found that sporadic attendance can mean congregants believe their church is in such good shape that they aren’t missed.
It is not uncommon now for pastors to theologize church attendance by pointing out that the church is not a place but a people, not a Sunday event in a building but an experience of being the people of God in the world.  (Is it coincidental we began working this angle the more hyperextended and overstuffed our people’s lifestyles got?  We should be wary of theology adjusting for lifestyle.)  These contrasts between the church as place or people, however, true as they are, were never meant to be so starkly either/or, nor to convey that the assembling of ourselves together is optional.  And I’m referring here to what pastors who love and make their living in the institutional church have said and taught, not what the home-church or family integrated church movements say and teach, which are critical (I’d say overly so) of the institutional church.
The consequence for telling our people, both directly and indirectly, that their presence on Sunday morning is not as important as the worship of their lives throughout the week is that a lot of our people now believe their presence on Sunday morning is not as important as the worship of their lives throughout the week.  The law of unintended consequence is at work here, for in trying to trim the fat from evangelical ecclesiology—which was once too much about church attendance—we’ve cut into the muscle.
I say “we” because I share complicity in this.  When I was tapped to be Senior Pastor of First Evan, our Sunday evening service was on the backside of decline and our Wednesday Prayer Meeting, once an attendance staple at First Evan, is now a small group.  As a candidate, I conveyed to our search committee and Session that I had no interest in reclamation projects of either venue.  I still don’t.  But some in our church blame me for the attendance decline of these gatherings, believing I should steer them and commandeer the needed bodies to them.  I understand their frustration and agree with their argument that when a church gives away her Sunday nights and Wednesday nights to people’s otherwise interests, it is only a matter of time before the people are also less vigilant about Sunday morning.
But blaming me for Sunday nights and Wednesday nights not being like they used to be is like blaming the judge for reading the jury’s verdict.  Most of our church, well-before I got to Memphis, had foregone Sunday night worship and Wednesday night prayer, and acquitted themselves of any guilt that in so doing they were not committed to worship or prayer.  I was received into a church that said to me, essentially: Sunday morning is life, the rest is just details.
Years ago, a church in Arizona expressed an interest in me.  A friend put me in touch with a friend of his who had moved there to plant a church.  I was seeking some cultural perspective from someone who made the same cultural adjustment I would have to make.  During our conversation by phone, I still remember his critique of pastoring in the West: “People are really into themselves out here.” 
He explained what he meant by that.  A free-spirited, non-churched culture in a temperate climate with abundant recreational opportunities meant most people used their weekends for themselves.  Sunday was play-day before trudging back to work on Monday.  At the time, I was thankful that our traditional-spirited, churched culture in a humid-in-the-summer-cold-in-the-winter climate meant that our people, namely Christians, aren’t as “into themselves” here as there.
I was wrong about that.  It is true: in giving up Sunday nights and Wednesday nights to “family time,” families are taking liberties with Sunday mornings, too.  And so I post these thoughts for this main reason: I want to ask our families to reconsider their values and priorities when it comes to Sunday mornings, to consider whether they’ve gotten a bit too “into themselves.” 
I commend you highly for taking the time to have a family devotion at the lake house on Sunday morning.  But it is not the same thing as church.  And travel clubs for your budding star athletes?  You are teaching your children that their sport is more vital than their church; that the individual hope of a college scholarship is more valuable than the communal hope we gather together on Sunday mornings to praise God for.  So you didn’t bag your limit of ducks on Saturday and will stay over at the lodge for more hunting Sunday?  Practice the discipline of limits and come home Saturday to gather with your brothers and sisters on Sunday morning.  I don’t want to hear any more about “the sanctuary of a duck blind” as justification for missing church on Sunday.  You can have that sanctuary any other day of the week.
Sad, isn’t it, that we’re so oversensitive to legalism some will misconstrue this post as me engaging in it?  Ah, well, maybe I am.  Our motives are always multiple and frequently mixed.  I’m not saying one can never miss church services.  I am saying our misses are too frequent, too casual, and too costly in the end if we pass on—unintentionally but nevertheless—an ecclesial apathy to our kids. 
Again, the church has at times overemphasized attendance as the be-all, end-all of Christian experience and that is shoddy ecclesiology, for the church is more than a place and event.  But we’ve overcompensated the steering coming out of that skid and now underemphasize our assembling.  It is my place to call us to reflect upon our values and repent accordingly.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 7:24 PM
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