Do you know there are some places in the country where if you ask how far it is they give distance in miles? It’s true. You say, “How far is it from your house to work?” They say, “About five miles.” It’s a little more complicated here in Atlanta, where the answer to that question is given not in miles but in minutes. And it’s usually not just one answer. Generally the answer to that question requires a volume roughly the size of the “QXYZ” volume of the World Book Encyclopedia (1000 points to anyone who messages me on Facebook that you have ever physically touched a World Book Encyclopedia, and 1000 more if you still own one. Hanna Scott, this is a dated reference). Anyway, the answer usually includes different estimates in minutes based on traffic, time of the day, and weather. Almost always the answer includes a horror story as well of “that time it took me 6 hours to go 3 miles because of the chicken feed spill on this or that major roadway.” The point is that statistics are only good if they represent meaningful data. Giving distance in Atlanta in miles is, most of the time, not useful. So we changed to minutes, which is, most of the time, useful.
Once upon a time if you wanted to know how big a church was, you asked what its membership is. It was pretty reliable. While it’s true that there was never 100% attendance, that gave you a pretty good idea of, well, the size of the church. People were good about transferring their letter when they left. If they were members they were more likely to be active. It made sense.
One of the trends of church-y-ism (call Webster) is that membership isn’t what it used to be. Many people participate in a church extensively without joining. And sometimes folks disappear quietly and without a trace—but they are still counted as a member because they never transferred their letter of membership (that one can disappear quietly and without a trace in a church is perhaps a topic for a future article). Anyway, membership. Meh.
So then we started tracking worship attendance. Because even if people weren’t becoming members, they were generally attending worship, or at least most of them were. That made good sense. For a while. Except now it doesn't either. A large number of people participate regularly in our church but rarely darken the door of the sanctuary. While that may seem a little odd to some, it makes sense if you remember that what people are seeking from church is different today from what it was only a few short years ago. Now we’re tracking “people served in mission” or attendance in small groups.
I guess that’s well and good in some ways because it gives you an idea of how many people the church engages in a week. Unfortunately it also hides the painful truth: worship attendance has been dropping for a while, and it continues to drop. Behind closed doors, laity, staff members, and church officials are feverishly considering how to reverse this trend, all the while searching for other statistics that will make us feel better about how many people...aren’t in worship anymore.
It’s true of our music ministry! We have about 250 people involved in music at Decatur First. Many of those strongly identify with our church. They feel loved and supported by the small group that is their choir. They come here to worship on the high holy days. They come here to worship when they’re on the schedule to ring or sing. But often Sunday in and Sunday out, they are absent. I have written before that this is an indictment on producers of worship, and I believe that. If our worship services don’t provide people with that thing they are searching for deep in their hearts, then they are unlikely to come back again simply because there are so many other ways to spend time out there.
That said, I would also ask this: what is it that they are seeking? Is it to be entertained? Is it to escape? Is it to make professional connections? Is it to feel better? Because all of these reasons people have had at one time or another to come to worship, and none of them are especially good reasons.
When I come to worship, I come to meet the Divine in heart and mind. I come to meet the Divine in the faces and voices and hearts of the people around me. I come to connect with people who are looking for something and can’t seem to find it anywhere else because I’m looking for it too. When we start waking people to these truths, when we start creating connection with the Divine on a weekly basis, worship attendance will mean something again.