Pastor’s note: On November 20, 2016, I took some time in the Sunday morning sermon to talk about our visioning process at Richmond’s First Baptist Church. I hope this excerpt from that sermon will explain some things, and add to your excitement about this adventure.
Not long ago someone asked me why we were going through this whole visioning process and I had to stop and think. You know how it is: you can get so wrapped up in a project you forget why you were doing it in the first place. But then I remembered a meeting of the Deacon Advisory Council back in May of 2015. That council is made up of the five most recent chairs and vice-chairs of the Deacons, and, as its name suggests, it can be called together at any time by the pastor or the Deacon Chair for advice, usually advice on difficult, or delicate, or complicated issues. I can’t remember who called the meeting, but one of the things we were seeking advice on was what to do about worship attendance. Here’s the strange thing: our membership has been slowly but steadily going up, but Sunday morning worship attendance is going the other way. We wanted to know why, and what we could do about it. Someone on that council suggested that doing some visioning might be a good way to approach the problem, and we all agreed.
So, we contacted the Center for Healthy Churches and were lucky enough to get Bill Wilson, President of the Center, as our consultant. Bill began by reassuring us that these are challenging times for all churches, not only ours, but he also said that churches that are clear about their identity and mission can thrive, even in times like these. “But what’s going on with worship attendance?” we asked. “How do you explain that?” And Bill had an explanation. He said he had worked with a large church in another city recently, and they were having similar concerns. He met with their deacons and asked, “In the last thirteen weeks, how many Sundays were you in worship? Write down your best guess.” And they all guessed high. Ten times? Twelve times? “Now,” he said, “get our your Day Timer or your phone or wherever you keep your schedule and see how many Sundays you were actually here.” And they were shocked. They were coming up with numbers more like six or seven. These were the lay leaders of the church; the ones you would expect to be most actively involved. And yet many of them had been in worship only about half the time.
“Now,” Bill said, “write down where you were when you weren’t here.” And he used their answers to start a list of the top ten reasons people don’t come to church. Here they are in alphabetical order:[i]
- Athletic events. College and professional athletic events evoke intense loyalty. For those who travel to Saturday night games, showing up on Sunday mornings is a stretch. Many professional athletic events take place on Sundays and force a choice between attending church or being at the game or tailgate event.
- Commitment. Many have told us that the depth of their commitment to weekly attendance is eroding. There are multiple reasons, but at the heart of the matter is a sense that what is offered on Sunday mornings is not meaningful or valuable enough to make the effort to attend.
- Exhaustion. On several occasions we have heard younger families say that they find themselves exhausted by a six-day workweek, overactive social life, over-engaged children and a host of other stresses. Several have mentioned that Sundays are now their only day to be together as a family. Occasionally, they choose to spend the morning together.
- Holidays. The number of Sundays that are now part of holiday weekends has risen dramatically. One church counted and discovered that 26 Sundays in the previous year were impacted by a holiday or vacation week. Long weekends and breaks invite travel and time away from home.
- Illness. Several senior adults have shared with us that they are living with chronic illness that inhibits their ability to attend weekly worship. In previous years, they would not have survived such a serious illness. Now they find their ability to get out and participate severely restricted.
- Children. The array of activities for children offered only on weekends is overwhelming. Athletic travel teams, academic conferences, chess tournaments, cheering competitions, parties and trips have proliferated in the last 30 years. Many parents tag along and find themselves far from home on Sunday mornings.
- Parents. Related to No. 5 above, several median-age adults recounted that they miss Sundays because they are caring for aging and ill parents. We frequently heard about rotation systems among siblings to care for an invalid parent. Taking your turn for a weekend each month keeps you out of your church.
- Travel. The proliferation of travel as a high-value activity for Americans impacts weekend activities. The ease of travel in our day is a huge shift from 50 years ago.
- Vacations, timeshares, second homes. Many admitted they spend multiple weekends a year on vacation or taking advantage of second homes or timeshares.
- Work. Nearly every gathering evoked stories of people who work, or travel for work, on Sundays. The official estimate is that 1 in 3 Americans regularly works on Sundays.
One of the things Bill didn’t mention, but something I have realized since we started this discussion, is that the first of the Baby Boomers reached retirement age five years ago, just about the time we began to notice this decline in Sunday morning worship attendance. So, as you can see, there are a number of things working against regular attendance these days, and when the frequency of attendance is impacted, it impacts our experience of worship. Think of it this way: If you had a thousand members who came to church every Sunday, you would have a thousand people in worship. But if those same members began to miss just one Sunday a month, you would have 750 people in worship. If they missed two Sundays a month, you would be down to 500. And although none of those people would say they were leaving the church, and all of them would still think of themselves as faithful members, the impact on Sunday morning worship would be huge. The singing would suffer. Morale would erode. People would start looking around and wondering, “What’s happening to our church? Where is everybody?”
And that’s the perfect time to do some visioning.
So, we have. We have spent some time as a congregation looking back at what brought us to First Baptist in the first place, looking at what we are currently doing well, and looking ahead to what we could do even better. One of the things we have realized in this process is that the health of a church is not all about how many people show up for worship on Sunday morning, that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of ways people can be involved throughout the week. The twelve implementation teams we’ve come up with are evidence of that. We’re talking about starting a community garden in the East End of the city, reaching out to our neighbors in Scott’s Addition and the Fan, developing partnerships with neighborhood schools, “going global” through social media, developing a blueprint for discipling our children and youth, starting a worship service at a time other than Sunday morning, building community through shared interests like kayaking or antiquing, increasing adult spiritual literacy, building strong marriages, creating new gathering spaces, and the one I’m especially interested in: starting 100 small groups across RVA.
Let me tell you where that came from.
Charles Tilley, a member of the Vision Team, was gathering some information about our region—not only Richmond City but the counties of Henrico, Hanover, and Chesterfield. One of the things he brought to us was a map of the region showing a 20-mile radius around the church with a little red square for each of our member’s homes. It looked as if someone had taken a big handful of seeds and scattered it across the region. And that’s when this vision began to form. We realized that church wasn’t only a matter of getting up on Sunday morning, getting dressed, and coming to this building; we realized that when we left this building, when we went back to our homes, we took church with us—that we were the church, scattered across this entire region. The members of our writing team put it like this: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son. His Son scattered the seeds of love around the world and across our city. We are those seeds. God’s love is in us. And love is bound to grow.”
I couldn’t stop thinking about that.
I hope you won’t stop thinking about it either.
[i] Bill Wilson, “Top Ten Reasons People Cite for Not Attending Church Services,” Baptist News Global, Opinion, April 9, 2015.