Changing patterns of church attendance puzzle me

In my submission for my recent appraisal I wrote:

Strangely, although we continue to grow as a church, our Sunday morning attendances do not reflect this growth – in spite of all the effort I give to preparation, and in spite of all the encouragement I give to people to make Sunday worship a weekly priority. Although I cannot prove the case, I tend to think that we are seeing a further sociological shift, in which people are re-defining regularity in church attendance. Many people come to church on a regular basis every other week, every third week, even every fourth week. I find it significant that our Sunday morning ‘Light Factory’ leaders will not begin to chase up children until they have been absent for four Sundays!

I confess that I am puzzled. More and more people are attending church, less and less!

When I was young, Sunday was a day set aside for worship, and worship was what you did. So much so that when I was a student at Cambridge, I often went to a morning service, an early evening service at 6.30 pm, and a late evening student service at 8.30 pm – and this was on top of attending an afternoon student tea meeting at which I would have listened to a talk on some aspect of Christian faith and practice!

When I was young minister ‘twicers’ were people who came to church twice a Sunday – and twice was the expected thing if you were committed. Throughout the thirteen years of my ministry at Altrincham all of my deacons were present at both the Sunday morning and Sunday evening services. Today ‘twicers’ are people who come to church twice a month. Then there are the regulars who come every third Sunday, or even every fourth. And what surprises me that a good proportion of these non-weekly regulars are members of the church.

Frankly, I am not just surprised, I am puzzled. For me worship is of the essence of the Christian life. I cannot imagine life without worship. In the words of Karl Barth, worship is “the most momentous, the most urgent, the most glorious action that can take place in life”. Why? For in worship we become truly alive. It is the moment when we men and women, made in the image of God, begin to fulfil the very purpose of our existence. It is the moment when we are caught up into heaven itself and join with the multitude around the throne, singing the praises of God and the Lamb.

True, I have experienced times when worship is a struggle, when worship is a bore, when worship is froth with no substance, when worship is so unreal that it is nauseous. But when worship is led aright, when worship is focused on God and not on feelings, then it can become an amazing experience of grace.

For me a Sunday without worship is like a damp squib. I cannot understand Christians who do not make worship a weekly priority. For me it is beyond comprehension how people who love the Lord can put decorating their home, entertaining friends, or finishing off homework before Sunday worship. In the first place I don’t go to church because I am paid to do so; I go because I am passionate to be in the presence of God. So when I retire, every Sunday I will be found in the house of the Lord – because there is nothing more I desire than to worship God.

What’s more, although it is possible to worship God on one’s own, it is so much better to be with others. For worship is a form of celebration in which we celebrate the might acts of God in Christ. And celebration is by definition a corporate activity. In some ways worship is like drinking champagne – no one in their right mind drinks it alone – we drink it with others to celebrate a happy event. Worship is what we do together. In the words of the ancient Sursum Corda:

Therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, we proclaim your great and glorious name, forever praising you and saying: “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest!”

On many an occasion I have shared with my church m dream of a worshipping church, “where God is at the centre of our life together, where Sunday is a day not to be missed”, and yet somehow a good number of my people have failed to understand. I am puzzled.

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