As I write this it’s almost Father’s Day, a day traditionally distinguished by being one of the least attended Sundays in the pastoral calendar. We need to diagnose a new condition for churches—Seasonal Attendance Disorder (SAD). It seems to me that two things contribute to this annual congregational malaise often exemplified by Father’s Day. First, there are more women than men in most churches most of the time. Sometimes the ratio is 2 to 1. In many households Mom is the one walking with God and Dad is the one who likes to read the paper and golf on his “only day off.”
The result is that on Mother’s Day, the church is bulging and on Father’s day everybody does what Dad wants… Hmmm. Then too, the season itself is tough on attendance. The long days, the vacation schedules, the kids out of school, and the general ethos of relaxation all combine to reduce our spiritual grip like suntan lotion on warm hands. If the pastor isn’t aware of these things, he may think the church is really sick, which it isn’t. It’s just SAD. Here are a few suggestions for pastors who have their own disorders to deal with when attendance wanes.
Focus on the people who are there, not on the ones who aren’t. The hungry ones are with you this morning and you owe it to them not to worry about the absentees. Give your full attention to the people the Lord has brought to you on this day. You teach about providence, about God arranging the details of our lives, right? Time to listen to one of your own messages. God wants to speak to every one of the people who have shown up for worship today. You are His voice and they need to hear it.
Be open-handed with people. Some pastors get proprietary and frustrated with their congregations and it shows in their preaching. Instead, do unto others what you would have them do unto you if you were in a vacation mood and—lighten up. Tim Keller once commented that people were much more likely to come to his church if he didn’t make them feel like they “had to.”
Change up your program. When we were at three Sunday services and noticed the seasonal slump, we combined our gatherings and met outside for the summer. It changed our expectation level for attendance and invigorated the entire group. You may not have the outside option, but you could consider changing your meetings in some other way, even suspending some gatherings or combining others for the vacation season. Leaving the land fallow every few years was a law in the Old Testament.
Let less be more. In sizable churches one of the main problems is getting people into smaller groups for real connection. If you have smaller Sunday gatherings during the summer, consider using these as opportunities for more flexibility. One thing we do is have people get coffee and stay after church for a Q&A with me as the lead teacher. I let them ask anything they want about any aspect of the teaching or discipleship. This can only be done in a relatively small group. A friend of mine who pastors a small, rural church has changed his entire Sunday format to an open (but guided) discussion, led by him, on the passage of scripture they are studying. Again, this can only be done in small settings, so when the setting gets small, use it to the body’s advantage.
Look through the turn. In motorcycle safety courses they teach riders to “look through the turn” as they apply counter-steering and lean. It means to keep your eye on where you’re going to come out of this corner even as you enter it. If you focus too closely on just what’s in front of you and don’t look at your long-term exit strategy, you will either be too tight or too wide in the corner. Summer gatherings may fluctuate for various reasons but fall is almost here. Costco orders turkeys for Thanksgiving … in March. They order toys for Christmas in April. Now that’s looking through the turn! The body of Christ will not succumb this summer. You will have more to do in this next season. Pray and plan for it.
So, take the SAD truth in stride and stay at the task, Pastor.
Just a Thought,