Wednesday, February 1, 2023

The service times don't fit our plans. . .

I was standing in line at the grocery store for a last minute pick up of something overlooked when a couple of folks ahead of me were reviewing their holidays.  Apparently they went to the same church.  Neither of them went for Christmas.  One was out of town at their usual place with family and they did not like any of the churches near them.  The other complained that the service times just did not fit their holiday plans.  Having known which church they were talking about, I knew that this congregation had a late afternoon option and an evening option on Christmas Eve.  In any case, worship did not fit either of the schedules these families had.

For a very long time now, the church has been left to adjust its schedule to the times and preferences of the people.  It is certainly nothing new.  For congregations with multiple services on Sunday morning, the service time is the single biggest reason people choose a service -- far more than worship style or other preferences.  In fact, the congregation and pastor often take on a yeoman's duty of trying to figure out which times will fit into the schedules of people -- not only for worship but also for Bible study, catechism classes, special events, congregational meetings, etc...  If you choose wrongly, the people, even well meaning, will tend to vote with their lack of attendance.

It occurs to me that this is exactly backwards of the commandment, of Jesus' Word, and of the character of a piety rooted in that Word.  First the kingdom of God and then all things find their appropriate place -- at least that was Jesus' take on it.  It has been a long time since we considered anyone's schedule or convenience other than our own.  In fact, it was an early problem.  Why was Thomas not with the rest on Easter evening?  Did it fail to fit in his plans?  Was the place or time inconvenient to him?

One of the things I will miss least when the day of retirement comes is trying to figure out what works for worship planning, class schedules, etc...  In fact, I will be glad when the day comes when I do not spend hours of round robin emails trying to get folks to say what works for them.  Not to mention, the frustration of those who insist that Sundays are great meeting times since they are already at church and pastor has nothing on his schedule.  Yeah, right.

Why can't Christmas plans with the family work around the worship times set by the congregation?  In my place we have three Christmas Eve times and one on Christmas Day.  There is ample time to put together a family schedule which fits around these service times and still allows for the many holiday traditions people are wont to squeeze into an already stressful and busy season.  Why must the schedule of catechism work around every extracurricular activity of school instead of the other way around?  Why are the meetings (relatively few, actually) of the council, congregation, committees, and elders scheduled around everyone's convenience except the Pastor's?  The reality is that we could make the times fit but we do not want to -- we neither want to adjust our plans anymore than we want to sacrifice any of the things we have chosen to value over the ones whose value is duty.

This Christmas Day, falling on a Sunday, created the strange circumstance of churches cancelling their Sunday services on Christmas Day because they thought these services interfered with the family time that Christmas was really about.  Oh, yeah.  Christmas is the glorification of the family and not the manifestation of the glory of God revealed in the Word made flesh!  Here was one more circumstance in which churches betrayed their colors, showing that whatever the church was planning was automatically secondary to the schedule, needs, wants, and desires of the people.  Worship when it fits within your plans but don't inconvenience yourself for the sake of God.

So let me challenge you today to consider working around the Church instead of the Church working around you.  If we think seeking first the kingdom of God is good and salutary, let us try to apply that to the smallest of details -- the essential things of Christian life (worship and catechesis) and the meetings of the congregation wherein we do the Lord's bidding and care for the properties and resources He has well supplied us.  Typically a family or two will ask me around Confirmation Day that why their adult sons and daughters fell away from the faith.  While they want to believe the Pastor drove them away, the real reason was that we never really had them in the first place.  They learned at home that worship was not an important enough reason to change your schedule and so the children merely took their parents' example and ramped up the consequences a bit.

I write this in a general way to apply to all but we all know also that every congregation has its faithful folk who will read something like this and feel guilty.  I am not writing to you.  This is not about you but to a people who expect the Lord to work around them.  Surely part of the neglect mentioned in Hebrews is not simply a decision to absent yourself from the Lord's house and work but also the pattern of excuses in which it is clear that God and His house are merely symbolically first in our minds, hearts, mouths, and lives, and the real occupants who occupy the focus of our heart are ourselves and the not-so-hidden desire to be served and to let another take his or her life as a ransom for many.


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