Thinking Beyond Sunday Church
Two generations ago, the deal was clear: church members went to Sunday worship.
Sunday “blue laws” paved the way by banning commerce on Sunday. Work schedules didn't intrude. Neither did activities for children.
Members went to church other times, as well, such as midweek suppers, daytime women's groups, and choir rehearsals. But a church's identity was shaped by the Sunday morning worship experience. The bodies that counted were those in the pews on Sunday.
That Sunday consensus began to fade in the mid-1950s, as people began to move to suburbs and away from the convenient neighborhood church. Many new suburbanites still came back to familiar pews for Sunday worship, but increasingly they weren't worshiping with neighbors and school friends, but with people they only saw for one hour on Sunday. Their commitment faded.
Meanwhile, lifestyles changed. The divorce rate began to spike in the 1950s. Many newly divorced persons felt unwelcome on Sunday.
As the 1960s went on, blue laws were set aside, as malls proliferated and stores couldn't justify closing one day a week. More women entered the job market, as singles or as the second earner in a family. Weekends became prime family time.
In the 1970s, youth athletics took advantage of available coaches and kids and began scheduling games on Sunday morning.
Each decade brought additional factors that discouraged people from attending Sunday worship. Battles over liturgy and ordination practices made church seem too fractious. Starting twenty years ago, young adults turned to livelier venues for religion or stayed away altogether.
Cultural values were changing, too. People began to value self-expression and to resent conformist venues. They wanted to learn for themselves, not be told. They wanted to participate, not sit passively. Heated battles about who would serve at the altar missed the emerging mood: who cares what they do up front?
None of these changes happened overnight, and some weren't seen. But they steadily eroded people's enthusiasm for Sunday worship. People weren't turning away from God or their faith yearnings. It just ceased to matter to them whether they sat in a pew on Sunday.
That traditional activity continued to matter intensely to some, of course, so intensely that even now they find it difficult to be objective about why Sunday worship is failing. Surely, they can find the formula to get people back – a different pastor, shorter (or longer) sermons, different music, less this and more that. But none of that has worked, because the issue is Sunday worship itself.
When I work with church leaders, I often feel as I am doing an intervention: forcing them to see what they resolutely don't want to see. How could something that is so important and life-enhancing to them not be the primary future of their church?
My message is twofold:
First, they don't need to stop doing Sunday worship. It still matters. Doing it well is important.
Second, if all they do is Sunday worship, their church will die. If the vast majority of their resources – human, financial, facilities – goes into Sunday worship, they are starving themselves of what they need to build viable churches.
That is a difficult message to hear. But with five decades of evidence in hand, denial gets harder and harder to sustain.