My mother tongue is not church. However, I have been intimately involved in the church since my mid-twenties. So not only am I fluent in church, but I can speak several different dialects.
Perhaps my 20-year deprivation is why I still find it baffling that many Christians regularly choose other activities over Sunday worship together with the congregation where their membership is.
I learned while in theological school in the late 1990s that the remnants of Western-style Christianity no longer exist. I have often heard something like this: “The days of opening the door of the meeting house and saying, ‘Come all,’ are over. And so it was. And that’s how.
These days I hear a similar message regarding the post-pandemic church. Everything has changed, once again. We can’t “do church” like we used to. This is a disturbing message because, as far as I know, no one had yet solved the mystery of “how to do church” in the post-Christian era.
In the 1990s, both as a student in theological school and as a pastor, I was optimistic about the church in the post-Christian era. I understand now that I was naïve, perhaps, because of my secular mother tongue. I thought at the time it would be fine. In fact, I was wondering why all the fuss.
Indeed, society at large no longer cooperates with the church calendar. Yes, there are now a plethora of activities offered on Sundays in addition to gathered worship. I hear you – any day of the week and any time of the day are now games for sporting, amateur and professional events. Shopping centers no longer close on Sundays. And I could go on nausea.
My role then, as a pastor, is to encourage Christians to take a stand and center their lives in the activity of the local church even now that church life isn’t as convenient as it used to be. I expected some frustration with the now essential task of leading a congregation to keep the church at the center while American culture pushes church life to the periphery. However, I was optimistic. I thought it could be done.
“My role…is to challenge Christians to take a stand and center their lives in local church activity, even now that church life is not as practical as it used to be. was once.”
I am now a 50 year old man. I serve First Baptist Church in Ahoskie, North Carolina, as a pastor, the fourth congregation I have served as a full-time pastor. And I haven’t buried the naïveté of this 25-year-old pastor from the theology school yet. In fact, listen to this: During the early days of my ministry with First Baptist Ahoskie, I officiated a memorial service for a faithful lifelong member of the church. As I was new to the church, I had only met Alvin once in person, and we shared a long phone conversation. So, during the memorial service itself, I got to know Alvin better as others spoke of the long life of this dedicated churchman. When her daughter spoke, she made a seemingly unprovocative statement that provoked me. She said, “Every year we would go on vacation after worship. I had a moment right there in my choir chair. I wondered then, as I do now, why this practice is no longer common among church members. Why don’t we clergy ask our flock, if possible, to go on a journey after Sunday worship and return from their journey in time for Sunday worship?
So, as old-fashioned as it sounded and as basic as it sounded, I asked the flock that I serve as pastor to do just that. I called it the “Twelve Sunday Challenge”. I asked members of First Baptist Ahoskie to keep track of how many Sundays they missed in a year. The objective: not to miss more than 12 Sundays in a year, one Sunday per month on average. The result: A steady increase, even in a declining community, in worship attendance – from 160 worshipers in 2017 to 175 worshipers in 2018 to 181 worshipers in 2019. Then, of course, with 2020 is came COVID. Although we are making progress, our numbers have not yet returned to pre-COVID levels.
Maybe I look like an early 1970s Southern Baptist with all that numbers talk. I’m not. Remember that the first 20 years of my life were spent outside of the church. Until my dying day, I will be, as in Paul’s understanding of the Gentiles in Romans 11, grafted into a cultivated olive tree.
So what’s my business? Why do I look so old fashioned, behind the times and maybe even unwilling to change?
Young Life, an evangelistic outreach program for high school students, was instrumental in my Christian journey. In the summer of 1989, after hearing a talk about the meaning of Jesus’ death, I sat under a tree at Windy Gap – a Young Life camp in Weaverville, North Carolina. There I prayed to receive Jesus the Christ as my Lord and Saviour. Young Life’s week-long summer camp experience is founded on the philosophy that people’s lives are loud. The week-long retreat, surrounded by the Christian message, gives teens the opportunity to hear about the love of God, demonstrated through Jesus the Christ, that they might otherwise not receive.
Once every seven days, Sunday morning worship serves the same purpose for people of all ages. There is no other time like this during the week for most people. For about 60 minutes (according to my tradition), our eyes, ears, minds and souls are saturated with the Christian message. It’s not that we don’t or can’t hear God’s voice in the chaotic activities of the week. However, the truth remains that we are more likely to lose weight if we put ourselves in an environment that facilitates weight loss.
My concern is that as Christians become more and more secular in their way of life, as evidenced by the fact that many Christians I know are missing far more than 12 Sunday services per year, we are less likely hear the voice of God and feel the call of God. We are more likely to live lives characterized by insecurity and anxiety because we fail to regularly put ourselves in an environment in which we are reminded of God’s great act of love in Christ for us as well as an environment in which we express our great love for God to God. Corporate worship of God, I believe, is one of the healthiest activities we humans engage in together.
“The gathered worship of God, I believe, is one of the most wholesome activities in which we humans engage together.”
I have a college colleague who talks about raising his son in the Catholic Church. Like many teenagers, her son often expressed his dissatisfaction with “going to church”. When his son complained about being bored, my colleague replied, “Son, I don’t care if you’re bored. I want you to breathe the air of this sanctuary.
I think that’s absolutely correct. We need to breathe the air of gathered and in-person worship at least once a week. If we don’t, people run the risk of missing God’s call on their lives – the call to salvation, the call to vocation, the call to ministry, the call to love neighbor and the call to be assured that God knows the number of hairs on their head.
It is concerning that, at least in the circles I walk around, some clergymen seem to excuse, sometimes even approve, the absence of so much worship together. I recently heard a clergyman take a swipe at Chick-fil-A for Sunday closing. I heard another minister shyly acknowledge a 40% drop in Sunday morning worship attendance, over many years, because people now have beach houses they want to visit. I live in the same world as my fellow pastors. Yes, Christianity has disappeared. Although the pandemic has caused disruption, I am not convinced that the post-pandemic world will be as different from the pre-pandemic world as post-Christianity is different from pre-Christianity. Time will tell us.
Although the 50-year-old pastor has changed significantly from the 25-year-old pastor (living in another country for a long time will do that for a person), some of the naivety remains. I still find Hebrews 10:23-24 persuasive in our post-Christian and hopefully post-COVID world: “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope, for he who promised is faithful; and consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking gathering together, as is the custom of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more so as you see the day approaching.
I don’t yet know what readers think of my ideas presented in this article. However, I’m sure Alvin would agree.
Paul R. Gilliam III is pastor of First Baptist Church in Ahoskie, North Carolina, as well as director of the religion program at Chowan University.
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