Sunday, March 20, 2011

Members Go to Church on Sunday

When I first came to this parish, now well more than 18 years ago, I was asked if I had a "vision" for the congregation.  I thought for a few moments and then said "Every member in Church every Sunday, and in Sunday school/Bible study..."  Immediately there was laughter.  It was not that this was a comic goal or vision.  It was no one expected such to take place -- it was a pie in the sky kind of goal or vision.  It might be nice... but it might also be nice if I won the lottery.

I am struck by how low our expectations have fallen when it comes to church attendance?  I am not sure why or when it became customary to expect that 30-40% of the average membership of a Lutheran parish might be in church on any given Sunday morning.  It has become not only an average but a typical understanding both of membership and participation on Sunday morning.  In other words, we do not look for more than this average number and we feel lucky when we fall within the average.

The first job of members is to go to Church.  Barring death or illness unto death, members are in Church on Sunday morning.  Barring work during the worship hour or another obligation which we cannot avoid, we are there each Sunday morning.  We do not wake up on Sunday morning and see how we feel.  We do not ask our kids if they want to go to Church.  We do not wait for a Sunday when we feel right, when we feel good, when the weather is halfway decent (but not too good to distract us by other things)...  We do not let perceived or real slights from other members or a problem with the Pastor or somebody else on staff to keep us from the place where Christ is -- in His Word and Sacrament.  We do not look to see what else we might be doing if we did not go to Church nor do we plan things for Sunday morning.

If it is Sunday morning, everyone who knows us and knows that we are Lutheran Christians should know where we will be.  We should not get cell phone calls on Sunday morning because everyone calling us would know that we were in the Lord's House on the Lord's Day and whatever they need to speak about must await our first and foremost appointed duty as the people of God -- WORSHIP.

If the first three commandments God gave to us have to do with worship (having no other gods, using the Lord's name rightly in praise and prayer instead of wrongly, and keeping Sabbath, then that should tell us something about the priorities that belong to those who call themselves God's people.  If we get past the first two uses of the Law that curb in our sinful, rebellious desire and show us our sin, then the third use as a guide should show us what ought to be the delight of our hearts and the good habit of God's people.

As the Psalmist says:  "I was glad when they said unto me, 'Let us go unto the House of the Lord...'"  But where is our gladness?  If there is anything basic and common to any understanding of "membership," it ought to be together in the Lord's House on the Lord's Day.  If we have not yet found our way to this gladness, we should consider the warning of Hebrews who solemnly exhorts us "not to neglect the meeting together (worship) in the Lord's House as some have done..."  for there are consequences to the distractions, disordered priorities, and disputes that keep us from being where we belong.

Imagine what would happen to the life and identity of our congregations if nearly every member were in Church every Sunday morning?  We would truly be a church body not of some 900,000 but of the 2.4M and we would appear so very differently to ourselves and to those around us.  Imagine what visitors and new Christians might see if every Sunday they saw the crowded pews of every member in Church every week.  Instead of being shocked by the apathy of those who claim to have known the riches of the grace of God in Christ, they would be inspired by the faithfulness of those whom God has delighted to call His own by  baptism and faith.

Nobody in Seminary taught me this.  I learned this from my parents.  (And my parents are not "professional church workers" - whatever that category means).  They were faithful people who knew that come hell or high water, death or dismemberment, disaster or disability, Christians went to Church on Sunday morning and Lutheran Christians even more so.  I well remember one icy Sunday morning when we found out that about the only two families that ventured out in our town were the Peters family heading to Golgotha Lutheran and the Kirby family heading to the Roman Catholic Church (both out of town).  My brother and I mocked our dad for making us go but he found nothing funny or ridiculous about it.  Though we did not have the full measure of the "obligation of the mass" to push us, we Lutheran Christians knew where God expected us to be and where we needed to be on Sunday morning.

So if you are listening, go to Church.  Get up and go.  Sunday morning cannot be replaced by two minutes of prayer and a quick trip to the convenience store to pick up the Sunday paper.  Come on.  You know that Christians ought to be in Church on Sunday morning.  Period.  This is not for me or for your Pastor, but for the Lord.  This is not a human rule but the privilege of belonging.  This is no extra law placed upon us but the very practice that flows from our baptismal identity and our confession of faith.  And, in case you missed it, "as often as you eat of this bread and drink of this cup you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes..."  -- that means witness -- the witness of attendance that speaks to the houses you pass by on your way to Church and the witness to those who are new to the faith and the witness to those for whom coming to Church requires more effort or driving distance than your trip does.  If you do not believe you need to go for yourself (and there is so much wrong with that conclusion that we must address it separately), go for the sake of the other people you pass on the way or who sit in the pews with you.

The Sabbath was required and imposed upon us.  Worship in Christ is a gift and a privilege.  What is wrong with us that we packed more folks in to worship under the demand of the Law than we can muster with the freedom of the Gospel?  BTW, that freedom of the Gospel does not mean the freedom NOT to worship but the freedom to worship without the demand of the Law and the constraint of your own righteousness as the focus -- the focus being upon Jesus Christ and the gifts and graces won for us by His death and resurrection.

In case you missed my point?  Go to Church!


Peter Reilly said...

Pretty clever of you to post this in your blog that pops up on Sunday than to preach about it on Sunday morning to the people who don't need to hear it.

Anonymous said...

Our motivation to worship every
Sunday is Gospel-centered. We go
because we love the Lord. We love
Him because He first loved us. We
go to worship because we want to,
not because we have to. We got to
worship to receive God's means of
grace, Word and Sacrament.

Anonymous said...

My aunt took Saturday Evening Post
magazine covers of Norman Rockwell
and made it into wallpaper in her
family room over 40 years ago.

The cover you chose for your blog
is one of them she used. It is
interesting that the father is
portrayed as the devil with hair
shaped as horns and a red robe as
he reads the Sunday newspaper.

I always felt this picture showed
the mother's spiritual grit as she
led the children to church and
set an example for the father and
husband who seems embarrassed by
the Sunday parade to church. Her
example is still relevant today.

Anonymous said...


I disagree. You don't bring people into the church with the Gospel, because if they are not in the church, they are de facto unrepentant sinners. They NEED the law to be preached to them so that in repentance they can be turned to God's promises from font and table in the Gospel. If you bring people into the church with the Gospel, there is no repentance, no fundamental change. If you start with the Gospel, then the only way that you can move in is the law, and THAT is a truly fundamental error. It is law and then Gospel.

Pastor Peters said...

Well, Peter, I did not preach on this and because of exactly what you said, I try not to preach this too the folks who are here...

Anonymous said...

When I got married 20+ years ago, I joined my husband's ELCA church. I really tried to go and participate, but often I just couldn't make myself go. After things got bad enough, he decided to move to the LCMS. Things have been much better. I truly look forward to going and feel like we are walking together far more than I ever did before.

Anonymous said...

When I was growing up, the only absence from church was if you were sick. We even went to church on vacations, in whatever town we were in. It bothers me now that so many other things are scheduled on Sundays. I've lost out on jobs because I refuse to agree to Sunday work. The times, they are a changin'.
And not for the better.

Steve said...

Fr. Peters,
All I can say is thank you. I know you must be aware that this caused somewhat of a frackas over on FB but what you say is very true. Going to church on Sunday morning is simply what Christians need to do and whether through law or gospel will do.

We went this morning and Jesus was there in Word and Sacrament. Why we went is unimportant, that we went and received the blessings Jesus has for us is important.

All aside, it seems to me that going to church is just being obedient to the first commandment and John 15.

A blessed layman (and family),

Mark Daniels said...

This is outstanding! I intend to link to it on Facebook and on my blog. Thanks! God bless!

Anonymous said...

I used to love going to church, but it is so much harder now. The sermon has become a pep talk, we don't use a lectionary, and we haven't sung a liturgy or hymns from the hymnal in years, just praise songs. There isn't a good alternative to my church within driving distance, and even if there were, I probably wouldn't go because this is my parish, and I belong here. Someday it might improve, but meanwhile I just go every week aching for even crumbs from the Word. I'm glad I no longer have small children, because I wouldn't want to raise them with this.

Anonymous said...

The alligator/heathen parishioner says: "You're the Pastor, we pay you to be here on Sundays" as they come three times a year (Christmas, Easter, and a Lenten supper.)

I don't think this will hold up on the Last Day.

Rev. Kevin Jennings said...

As I tell the confirmands, and anybody else who will listen, the reason you go to church:

God is everywhere, but you aren't. You're bound by time and space. You go to hear Christ in His Word and receive Him in His Supper because that's when and where He breaks into time and space and comes to you.

Dan Biles said...

30-40%? I would covet that. Our church, sad to say, is not even 20%. Hasn't been, even since before I arrived.