Many churches are finding as they begin meeting together again a reluctance on the part of members to attend. The danger is as a pastor or as elders feeling that somehow this reflects on our poor leadership and past shepherding. Many pastors are feeling guilty and not a little crushed, even personally wounded. Has my ministry really meant so little? Have people really been so poorly formed by what I’ve taught that they prefer consumer church online in their pyjamas? We need to think carefully about how we respond. We need to recognise some trends and face some truths.
Sheep will be sheep. I grew up on a farm. And one of the things that you learn from a young age is the constant need to tend to animals. Sheep in particular have a habit of eating the wrong thing, getting lost, getting tangled up in stuff they shouldn’t, and generally needing help because they’re trouble magnets. There’s a reason that the Bible refers to people as sheep, we exhibit so many of their worst features. As pastors we would do well to read accounts of shepherds and farmers rather than accounts of CEO’s and leadership guru’s. Part of our problem is that we have a vending machine theology of church – if I put this in I’ll get this out, that I think is in part drawn from the business world. Instead we need to realise the church is the farm, the people are the sheep, we are the shepherds (We’re also at times stupid sheep – just in a leadership position).
Our message is only one of many. People today hear hundreds if not thousands of messages every day. Especially as regards Covid. It is always above the centrefold in the newspaper or the top item on every news feed, or the first part of any news bulletin. That influences the way people think about the world and church. We are constantly being told to watch out, work from home, wear face masks, keep our distance, and so on. Now you may disagree with me, but I think those messages are well intentioned, in terms of saving lives, and I don’t want to usher anyone into a lost eternity. But, it has created a culture of fear and that fear influences our sheep. It’s no wonder many who could return are reluctant to do so with swirling stories of rising R rates, infection increases, local lockdowns and discussions of circuit breakers.
Those messages will make many reluctant. We mustn’t berate or harass the reluctant sheep. We need to reassure them. We’ve worked hard to let people know what to expect. We’ve written a code of conduct that everyone has been sent so they know how others will show love to them as they meet. We also had an open Q & A so people could address any questions. And as we’ve been meeting and others have shared how safe things are more people have come back.
The trends in attendance we’re seeing aren’t new, Covid has just sped up the trajectory. Many pastors are worried about things like consumer church etc in a way they weren’t in February. Wondering if somehow going online has created this monster we now face. Consumerism is not a new thing. Consumer church is not a new trend. Nor is the desire for church that fits around me, that makes me comfortable. It has always been there. But probably Covid has sped up the trajectory we were already on. We’ve fast forwarded 5-10 years in 3-6 months.
People who attended once a month probably won’t come back straight away, if it all, especially if they can do it in the comfort of their own living room at a time that suits them. We need to get the balance right here; we are to pursue those wandering sheep, but what if they’ve just ended up where they were always going to be, just quicker? What if that starkness of what they’re now saying provides an opportunity to confront them in love a gradual erosion of attendance and attitude wouldn’t have?
We are reaping what we’ve sown. However, having said all of that I wonder if we are reaping a little of what we’ve sown. In the rush to move online and encourage people to join us we were quick to praise online gathering. And in coming back together many people are aware of not being able to sing, talk to one another, share meals etc… So that physical gathering seems less than. And there is some truth to that.
At Grace we’ve always done so much of what we do around meals, eating together every week before bible study. Sharing Sunday lunch once a month. Having refreshments both before and after the service. That has all gone and we feel it’s loss and the discipleship conversations it facilitated.
We’ve missed the singing. I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed it until last week. We’ve missed so many things. And yes, we will keep missing those things. Yes, church feels in some ways less than. I wonder if those preaching feel that more than anyone as they preach to a sea of bemasked faces. But have we emphasised what we gain by meeting together, encouragement begins with presence.
Are we reaping what we’ve sown over recent years? In drifting into making church event or programme based rather than people and discipleship based? Are we reaping what we’ve sown in providing good programs for youth which mean parents are disengaged and ill-equipped to disciple their own children? Are we reaping what we’ve sown in professionalising pastoral care and one anothering so that without the capacity to meet with lots of people at once pastors are overwhelmed?
We need to ask these questions. We need to take them to God and sit before him with them. Even as we lay out how we feel about our church return however it has gone, as we pray for our sheep.