On any given Sunday, we are missing about twenty percent of our congregation.
Someone asked me just the other day, “How large is your church?” I’m sure in a moment like that I’m not the only one is tempted to respond with a figure more representative: “Well, if everyone actually showed up at the same time, which they never do, we’d have X people.”
Do you find it harder to keep up with your people than it once was? I know I do! Sometimes it can be frustrating when you don’t see people for weeks. Additionally, you as a pastor can’t realistically “keep up” with more than 75 people on your own, which makes them hard to effectively shepherd. This reality also makes it much easier than in the past for individuals or even whole families to “fall off the radar” and “out of church.” And the reason is simple. We pastors experience it every day in our work. Life is chaos! We know it because we live it!
Our typical day involves early morning meetings, followed by staff meetings, followed by study, followed by a trip to the hospital, followed by a late lunch, followed by a counseling session, followed by a quick trip to your child’s soccer practice or martial arts session, followed by a trip back to church for yet another meeting, followed by an hour wading through multiple emails, followed by a cold dinner, followed by a few precious moments putting the kids to bed, followed by collapsing in bed yourself, only to start all over again tomorrow. And in the midst of all this, you sometimes feel like you aren’t getting anything done!
Does this sound familiar? Well, part of successfully growing disciples in the midst of our own chaos is to understand that our people live in the same chaos. Unless you shepherd people living in that shrinking population of agrarian pastures and steady, unchanging communities, you most likely now minister among people who make long commutes to work every day, fly out of state (or even out of the country) on a regular basis with their work, depend on two incomes so they can keep up with their mortgage while sending their kid to college, and occasionally find a rare weekend to get away and enjoy each other’s company as a family.
I’m sure this isn’t the only reason that sources tell us “faithful attendance” at church is now defined as being physically present 2.3 times per month, nor is it the only reason that nearly every Sunday, we now see far more people missing than we used to. The thing to remember in all of this is that Jesus never called us to fill a church building. He called us to make disciples. So the primary question given our “new reality” is simple: how do we make disciples in the midst of all the chaos of life? Let me suggest three “micro-shifts” to help pastors get started.
Twenty years ago during my first pastorate, the “pastoral visit” involved a mid-day conversation with a deacon while we tilled his garden together, or an hour-long sit-down with a retired couple in their home. Today, the pastoral visit sometimes involves me making the same commute as some of my people. Since most of those who commute just don’t have the calendar space for another class or “slot” at the church campus, we go to them!
For example, just a few weeks ago I set up lunch with one of my members who works long hours just outside of Washington D.C. I asked him to bring along two or three of his associates and the church would pick up the tab for lunch. Then I drove an hour to his workplace, took an hour for lunch and conversation, and drive back to the office. That three-hour commitment resulted in some great conversations with some new friends, the opportunity to share the Gospel, and a way to model for a member of my church how our faith intersects with the things we do every day. This is something I do at least every other week.
In many ways, this approach is much more like what transpired in the 1st century. And in our current environment, its more effective because its more viral.
Many of our people spend up to three hours a day either driving, or on a train going into the city, so even an early morning breakfast meeting can be a challenge. In this environment, the use of a podcast, YouTube, and other electronic media helps them stay connected to us, and us to them. Most of our small groups are “sermon based,” so its hard to participate if you haven’t heard the message the previous Sunday. So its up to us to ensure that our people have access to those messages when the chaos of life requires them to be absent. While we pastors can’t literally be in more than one place at a time, available technology means that, virtually, we can truly “be everywhere.” So for the sake of our people, let’s be everywhere we can be!
The chaos of life should be understood by pastors, and for our work to be effective, we simply must deal directly with these realities. At the same time, its important to remind God’s people that their connection to their church family is an essential part of their spiritual growth. So while we should never become legalists who indiscriminately judge people who can’t be with us every Sunday, those who listen to us from a distance during their commute or that occasional long weekend should hear us express our love for them in our challenge for them not to neglect the Lord’s Day, or the gathered people of God when they are actually able to attend. The danger of the chaos we live in is that our people are more prone to “slide away.” We should care enough about their souls to let them know they are missed, rejoice when they are able to come, and challenge them to consider that “staying connected” is a two-way street.
In the 1st century, God’s people rose very early every morning so they could worship together before the day started. Their lives were no less chaotic than our own, yet they turned the world upside down! We can do that again. The key is to roll with our own environment, and make the shifts necessary to make disciples within the chaos.