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Sunday Morning Worship: Who's not there and why not?

As churches work toward full, conscious and active participation in liturgy, some are noticing patterns of worship attendance. They're reaching out to those absent from Sunday morning worship. A feature story focused on Sunday worship attendance.

Has this happened in your church? You begin to focus on renewing worship, so that your congregation shifts its focus from watching the minister and musicians to joining in on full, conscious, and active participation in worship.

Gradually it dawns on you how many members are missing…and new questions emerge.

That’s what happened to Patricia Farris, senior minister at First United Methodist Church in Santa Monica, California. She says that after her congregation began exploring worship renewal, she noticed that fall attendance was fluctuating a lot during Sunday morning worship.

“I was trying to understand it, so I went home and made lists of who wasn’t there,” Farris says.

A similar dynamic happened at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Kennebunk, Maine.

Your church can learn from these two congregations’ experiences of noticing who’s absent, promoting guilt-free dialogue, and expanding worship opportunities. The process may bring you all to a deeper understanding of what it means (to quote a 1970s folk hymn) that “we are the church together.”

Notice who’s absent from worship

The Santa Monica congregation was averaging 250 to 300 people at Sunday worship—which meant up to 60 people were not there on a given morning.

When Farris made her lists, she saw a pattern. Those most often absent from worship were shut-ins, families whose kids travel for sports, or empty nesters who travel for “pleasure, enlightenment, or to visit children and grandchildren.”

The church already had a strong ministry with elderly and ill members. But it hadn’t spent much time reflecting on or with other groups missing from worship.

“Soccer and softball take middle and high school youth and families away from church. Because of our wonderful weather, club sports run year-round. Club teams are more advanced than school teams. The phenomenon is very competitive and demanding, but families of middle and senior high students hope it will be an avenue to a college scholarship.

“We realized that members and families absent from worship due to travel or conflicting schedule demands had become ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind,’ ” Farris says.

In Kennebunk, Maine, it’s Pee Wee football and community soccer that keep grade school and middle school families from Sunday morning worship.

“The high schools control Friday night and Saturday games, so the beginner programs are left with Sunday morning schedules. The problem spills over into winter with Pee Wee hockey, and, now that we have an indoor arena, with indoor soccer.

“Our community is heavily French-Catholic, and most of the community has the option of a Saturday night mass,” says Ann Scott, Holy Cross Lutheran council president.

Invite guilt-free dialogue

First UMC offered three sessions to discuss club sports and worship, one for parents only and two including children. The youth minister scheduled discussions with young athletes. The church also held meetings for empty nesters who travel a lot.

Farris says these talks yielded “flabbergasting” insights.

“Until we got parents together to talk, we had no idea how stressful club sport participation is on family life. It’s expensive and grueling. Parents want to ‘do the right thing’ and support their children’s sports involvement. Yet they feel deep conflict about taking children out of worship to participate with their teams.

“Parents told us they were grateful to be called together to experience acceptance and love, rather than stress, guilt, and regret,” she says. Club sport families thought the church valued only members who could be regularly present in worship and church life. So, until the dialogues, they hadn’t felt free to say they felt like forgotten exiles. Kids said they have friends from school, scouts, and sports but feel closest to (and so miss) their friends at church.

Meanwhile, Farris and her colleagues discovered that frequently-absent empty nesters saw no connection between worship and their travels. “When they’re in town, they’re in church. When they’re traveling, they’re traveling. Church is something to which they return, not something that forms their identity as travelers while they’re on the road.”

Offer other worship opportunities

On the other side of the U.S., Holy Cross Lutheran began in 2006 to help the whole congregation more actively participate in worship. They added experiential elements, visual arts, drama, and new music to involve more people and “engage the whole person.”

Working towards more active worship participation led the Kennebunk, Maine congregation to add a Saturday evening contemporary worship service. They thought it would draw people who can’t attend Sunday morning worship.

“We started the Saturday service in February 2008 in hopes of meeting the needs of parents in our congregation, and in the wider Protestant community, who must decide between going to church or supporting their children in the learning stages of competitive sports,” Ann Scott says.

The 5:30 p.m. Saturday service has a simple format with no printed order of service or hymnal. “Everything is projected on the screen. Everyone wears street clothes—no vestments or robes. The music is more praise-style and we plan to try jazz,” Scott explains.

Like Sunday worship, the Saturday service always includes Bible readings, prayer, and communion. The sermon is a shorter version of what the pastor preaches the next morning.

“For communion, the pastor says the words of institution, but in a conversational manner, instead of using the more formal language associated with a liturgical service. He invites those who wish to come forward as they are ready, and anyone who does not commune may come forward for a blessing. Other than the Lord's Prayer, there are no responses required of the congregation,” Scott says.

The planning team first thought they needed a full worship band lined up before they could begin offering Saturday worship. Scott says that Betty Grit, grants manager for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, encouraged them to start with what they had—a pianist and bass guitarist.

“We took her good advice and are growing our musical leadership as we go,” Scott says. Sixty people attended the first Saturday worship service at Holy Cross, and 40 to 50 have come each Saturday since. Scott expects attendance will grow as the area’s tourists learn about it.

We Are the Church Together

Many of us may agree in theory with the words of a 1972 folk hymn by Richard Avery and Donald Marsh, “We Are the Church Together.” The song explains that a church is not a building, steeple, or resting place—it’s a people.

Yet, it’s still common, even if we hear the word church and picture people, to think of church as our congregation, rather than as the one holy catholic apostolic church that transcends time and geography.

As worship renewal led them to notice who was missing from Sunday worship, two congregations on opposite sides of the U.S. have begun experimenting with how to be the church together…even when not all members are present in worship.

Expect surprises

Both First United Methodist Church (UMC) in Santa Monica, California, and Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Kennebunk, Maine, have been surprised during their outreach to people absent from Sunday morning worship.

“Initially, we had brilliant ideas for developing worship CDs or DVDs that families involved in club sports could listen to in the car or at the hotel. But they said that felt like just one more thing they had to do. They told us they wanted actual worship as a family with other families,” says Patricia Farris, First UMC senior minister.

She and her colleagues proposed developing a Sunday evening service that families could attend after the game, on the way back home. They figured they’d have to design something entirely different from Sunday morning services.

“We found out people like traditional worship. We have lots of kids involved as acolytes and crucifers, and they like to sing hymns. They don’t want something watered down or overly casual,” Farris says. The sports families also asked for worship that included quiet time and monthly communion.

It turned out that empty nester travelers were the ones that wanted online resources. First UMC members who travel for business or grandparenting said they use the church website to stay in touch.

Holy Cross Lutheran began its Saturday evening service expecting to attract sports families, Protestant students from nearby universities, and people who work on Sunday.

“We noticed that some members come to both Saturday night and Sunday morning services, taking the opportunity to worship more than once a week. Divorced parents who share custody on the weekends can now take their children to church, regardless of whether they have Saturday or Sunday with the children.

“We were surprised, and a little ashamed, when we realized that a member who needs daily dialysis (and cannot attend on Sunday morning) showed up at our first Saturday service,” says Ann Scott, council president.

Be honest in the cloud of witnesses

Farris says that reflecting with members about how life patterns—whether work, sports, or travel—affect worship has turned congregational thinking and planning inside out.

“We are developing a deep sense that the ‘we’ of our congregation is very large, far beyond what the eye can see or the walls contain. The cloud of witnesses is becoming more than those who have gone before us and have now departed this life to include those worshiping in their hearts with the gathered community each week. There is much more to be explored here,” she says.

Calling groups together in compassion freed people to tell about being pulled in different directions. That openness helps church members discuss trade-offs, such as how certain choices shape spiritual formation.

First UMC people who are often away confessed how alone they feel when separated from worship. Those who regularly attend confessed to resenting people who aren’t available to serve or worship weekly.

And church staff, Farris says, realized they’d “given up on the dynamics of our culture. We’d thought we had to acquiesce to Sunday absence from worship. Some parents felt abandoned that we just accepted their absence. They asked why we weren’t helping them to take back Sundays. After all, we’re Methodists. John Wesley was clear that private and public worship are necessary. The early Methodists extended the Eucharist to people who were ill, in jail, or in commerce.”

Farris says travelers are starting to frame their travel as part of spiritual formation, including attending worship elsewhere. They say they’re:

  • “Opening our hearts and minds to diversity and learning to do unto others as you would have them do unto you”
  • “Renewing commitment to working not just among United Methodists but among our multiple faith communities to transform the world, starting locally”
  • “Seeing Christ in so many ways around the world”
  • “Noticing countries far ahead of us in caring for God’s creation”
  • “Wondering why some communities have no homeless people”
  • “Thinking of church as a launchpad and a home base”

Experiment and stay in touch

Learning that families valued the togetherness of club sport travel and didn’t like age-divided worship sparked changes at First UMC. It reprioritized staff to include a pastor of children and family ministries and a pastor of youth and intergenerational ministries. It’s begun experimenting with a family-oriented Sunday evening service that retains hymns, quiet time, and monthly communion but has a shorter sermon.

First UMC is hosting armchair travel events every other month so travelers can ask questions such as “What am I learning about God’s world and God’s people?”… “Where do I see God on this trip?” …. “How is this trip transforming me as a disciple of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?”

The pastor of church and family ministries plans a three-part series on grandparenting roles, faith resources, and child faith development. She’ll repeat the series for people who missed it the first or second time.

Farris invites members to sign up for a weekly Friday email with comments and thoughts on upcoming Sunday worship. She plans to post weekly devotionals based on the lectionary, since she preaches from the lectionary.

Sunday morning intercessory prayers now “lift up temporarily absent” members. And we want to move our baptismal font to the center of our chancel, so this visual symbol grounds us in our baptismal covenant, sending us forth and calling us home,” Farris says.

Holy Cross Lutheran has been blessed with excellent response to its Saturday evening worship. That means, however, that people who can only worship on Saturday miss out on Sunday school classes for all ages. Offering a mid-week LOGOS program for grades four through high school is a partial solution.

“LOGOS involves social activities, music, a meal, and worship or Sunday school-like activities. Our hope is that parents who bring their children on Saturday night will also participate in LOGOS. Time will tell if we need to do something else,” Scott says.

Learn More

• Read about worship renewal projects during 2006 and 2007 at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Kennebunk, Maine. Learn about worship renewal and extending worship beyond church walls at First United Methodist Church in Santa Monica, California.

• Is your congregation exploring any of these issues—worship attendance patterns, fluctuating participation in worship, creative responses to fluctuating patterns and participation? If so, Patricia Farris, senior minister at First United Methodist Church in Santa Monica, California, says she would love to compare notes with you.

• Read The Switching Hour: Kids of Divorce Say Goodbye Again to understand the dynamics of divorced families that share custody. Then invite parents and youth from divorced families to a discussion about how your congregation can better understand and support them.

• Read Revolution in the Bleachers: How Parents Can Take Back Family Life in a World Gone Crazy Over Youth Sports by Regan McMahon. Then invite parents and youth from families heavily involved in sports to discuss how sports and worship patterns support or conflict with family and faith life.

• Read Reformed Worship articles on church attendance, including adding another service and visiting other churches while traveling.

• If you often miss worship at your own church because of travel, consider visiting other churches while you’re away. You might even post a Mystery Worshiper review of the church you visit. Gather frequent travelers to watch this 12-minute video, Faithful Travel with Rick Steves, and discuss how or whether your travels are affecting your faith. Or read Sacred Travels: Recovering the Ancient Practice of Pilgrimage by Christian George.

• What do you think of this Gallup poll on why Americans attend church?

• Start a Sabbath-themed small group. Begin with Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting by Marva Dawn or Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight by Norman Wirzba.

• Browse related stories on faith formationintergenerational worship andworshiping as the people of God.

Start a Discussion

  • Which groups most often miss worship at your church? Are they absent because of work schedules, joint custody issues, sports, illness, vacation homes, military service, or some other reason?
  • In what ways does your church help frequently or temporarily absent members stay connected to congregational worship?
  • If you have members who travel often, what insights might they share that could enrich congregational life, outreach, or worship?
  • Does your church have worship absence issues that simmer in private conversations but never get directly addressed? If so, what first steps would you like to take to get things out in the open?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to begin connecting with people who are often absent from Sunday morning worship?

  • Have you used intercessory prayer, digital means, or any other way to include temporarily absent members in worship? Do you ask for and use their insights when they return? If so, what worked especially well…or not?
  • If you identified a group of people who often miss worship and you added a service at another time, how did that turn out?