Most of the reasons why we may not see people at church are not based on rejection or a desire to stay away. When asked why people do not attend church as much as they may like, there is often an appeal to busyness. There are other tasks that demand attention. There are the soccer games, the baseball practices, the weekends away, the school trips, the camping trips, the birthday parties, and the assignments due. The list seems endless because it actually is – there is an increasing roster of activities, projects, or games or that are planned for Sunday mornings. Given this, we can see how church attendance is hard to maintain.
Sometimes we respond to this trend by holding up the golden era of time when the church was the only thing open on Sundays. We hail the times when there were 80 children in Sunday school and when future husbands and wives met and fell in love in church pews. Of course, it’s easy for these things to happen in a culture that shuts down on the weekend. There simply was nothing else to do! Plus, given the fact that those 80 plus children who were in Sunday school in years past have not necessarily passed that trend on to their children, we can’t be too quick to argue for a return back to this dynamic.
So, we try to respond by another way. This is usually by attempting to combat that attractiveness of other events by increasing the entertainment side of our church services. Fresh Expressions is the current incarnation of this. Now this post is not about denouncing Fresh Expressions. There are a lot of good challenges to be heard. I just think sometimes we take it too far. For example, sometimes the thinking goes like this: If people are already playing soccer on Sunday mornings, well then let’s meet together on a soccer field! As long as we say a prayer mentioning God as the goal keeper of our lives, and give it a cheeky name like “Soccer Church” – well then people will naturally come en mass!
By this rationale, every parish should capitalize on the popularity of kitten videos on YouTube and begin ‘Kitten Club – church for you and your cat!!’ Or better yet, if we combine both elements and advertise a service surrounded by kittens playing soccer, we can have double the effectiveness! Surely people will then come streaming into our halls, right?
Despite our best efforts and our most sincere plans, the change of location, the change of attire, the playful gimmicks, and the stripping away of all ‘churchy’ elements does not always produce a return to faith in those we aim to reach.
Perhaps this is because we are only looking on the surface level. We are attempting to deal with the sense of declining faith by addressing the issue of where people go on Sunday. We mistakenly believe that if we can force people to attend a church activity during the week, then we are doing our job! Yet this never addresses the internal and spiritual issue which at play. In his book A Testament of Devotion, Thomas Kelly writes ‘Complexity of our program cannot be blamed on complexity of our environment, much as we would like to think so. Nor will simplification of life follow simplification of environment . . . . The outer distractions of our interests reflect an inner lack of integration of our own lives. We are trying to be several selves at once, without all our selves being organized by a single, mastering Life within us.’
Kelly speaks to a lack of internal and spiritual integration experienced in people’s lives. It is as if there are multiple selves, all vying for attention amidst a finite number of hours. Our spirituality, says Kelly, is understood as simply one of these selves, and it exists in isolation from everything other area of our lives. When conflict amongst selves occur, one has to be pushed aside to allow the other to take precedence. Thus ‘in guilty regret we must postpone till next week that deeper life of unshaken composure in the holy Presence, where we sincerely know our true home is, for this week is much too full.’
We see this time and time again. One states that they cannot be in attendance for Sunday morning worship due to another demand occurring half-way through the morning. Fair enough, the Sunday morning time slot is in quite hot demand. Yet does it have to be either/or? What about the early morning service? If you cannot be at the 10:00 service, could you not go to the 8:00 service? What about mid-week offerings? Of course, this idea is usually met with cries of the time being ‘too early’, or the service not being in the form we would prefer.
Again, the problem isn’t our busyness, it is that our lives are fragmented and restless. Life is seen through the view point of ‘either this or that’. There is a lack the spiritual integration which unites all areas of life under the call to live with God. Thus, instead of integrating our spiritual lives into the other demands we face, we push it back and only get to it when ‘we have time.’ In the book The Pilgrim’s Way (originally written in 1880) the Pilgrim states “The fact is that we are alienated from ourselves; we run in order to avoid meeting ourselves and we exchange truth for trinkets while we say ‘I would like to have time for prayer and the spiritual life but the cares and difficulties of this life demand all my time and energies.” This lack of spiritual integration leads to a lack of identity. We simply do not know who we are, or who we are called to be, and because of that we do not know how to faithfully navigate all the complexities that fill our days.
Is the problem the time that we hold our services? Is it the form of worship we engage in? Is the issue the lack of kitten references in contemporary sermons? Or is the issue facing the church today, more than anything else, a lack of spiritual integration in our lives?
The blessed invitation of Jesus is “Come to me all who are weak and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.” The way of Jesus is not a way of mere attendance and role keeping. We do not receive the rest that Jesus invites us into by begrudgingly attending church when we would more happily be on the soccer field. The life lived with Jesus is one where our spiritual life is not simple seen as ‘more important’ than other things, but is that in which we find our full, abundant, and unified self. It is a life lived with Jesus; where we engage the demands of life in his presence and with his power; a life where spending intentional and worship-filled time with the community of faith is not something that takes us away from other things, but is something that aids our deep immersion in the Holy Spirit. Perhaps all Jesus’ words about ‘My peace I leave you’, and ‘I have come that you might have life abundantly,’ and “Follow me’ are actually about this more than anything else.
How can the church begin to address the issue of a lack of spiritual integration in people’s lives today?