In what follows, I’m essentially banging the same “The Great Opt Out” drum as I did a couple weeks ago, though at a slightly different tempo.
I think we should immediately discard any version of the question, “what do we do to get folks back to church?” and spend A LOT more time and energy on questions like, “what’s the Holy Spirit doing in people’s lives and in our community, and how do we come alongside that?
Is this messy? Yes. Will it be more difficult to measure? Yes. Does it risk increasing institutional instability and uncertainty? Yes.
But the more handwringing I see and nervous whispering I hear around “will they come back?” or “what do we need to do to get folks back to church (or to youth group, or to small groups, or to _______ program)?”, the more concerned I am that we’re just making a massive category error that is theologically nonsensical and disastrous for ministry sustainability. We’re frequently operating under an assumption that Sunday morning (as vitally important as it is) and its accompanying programs is the indispensable starting point for everything else, that it is the precursor, the foundation, the basis from which God builds everything else, including mission, discipleship, faith formation, evangelism, or youth pizza night. And so when we say, “how do we get people to come back?”, this is the default context we have in mind.
We may find it discomforting that scripture and the best of so many of our faith traditions seems to turn this set of assumptions about Sunday morning primacy on its head. The gathered assembly for worship and all the programmatic accompaniment of a Sunday morning is not what makes possible the many things the Holy Spirit does with us outside of that time and place. In fact, it’s what the Holy Spirit does with us outside of that time and place that makes that corporate worship pleasing to God. (I love the way my brother Joe Scrivner puts it: “Injustice invalidates invocation”) This sort of principle runs throughout scripture. I commend Isaiah 1, Amos 5, Hos 6, Micah 6, and Matt 5 as just a few quick examples. Put differently, we might say that discipleship is the basis for our corporate worship.
Sunday worship is a recurring festival to give thanks for the resurrected Lord’s work in our lives and in our world, to hear a word from the Lord, to feast, to sing, to offer witness and testimony, and to repent of sin and hear God’s word of unconditional forgiveness in Christ. Worship is commemoration more than it is commencement.
So really, the question is not, “will they come back,” or (directed toward your congregation), “are you coming back?” Rather, we might ask, “in what ways have you seen and experienced the power of Christ in your life and in your community, and how can we gather to celebrate, commemorate, songs of thanksgiving, and be inspired to go back out and keep following the Spirit together?”
This then becomes the basis of our gathered worship together, as we give thanks and praise to God for the amazing things God is doing and will continue to do in our communities and beyond.