I have a clergy friend who will remain nameless. He’s had difficulty finding employment in the church of late. Like M and myself, he’s a pretty active guy and is into running and biking. Now—a lot of running races occur on Sunday mornings, as do many more informal join-ups to run or bike. When we chatted last he said, “You know, on nice Sundays I’ll often just go running or riding if I’m not supplying. To be perfectly honest, if I weren’t a priest, I don’t think I’d spend my Sunday mornings in church…”
I was reminded of this conversation after seeing this post on the decline of the Sunday morning church moment.
I don’t question my friend’s commitment or faith. I know him better than that. And that’s one of the reasons why I’m taking these kinds of statements more seriously.
Attendance at church on Sunday mornings is seen as the primary index of faith by a lot of folks—like governing bodies, for instance. After all, one of our primary metrics is ASA: average Sunday attendance. As many people have said in various ways over the past several years, this number both is and isn’t important. On one level, it is not a measure of vitality; on the other, it is a starting place to get into questions of trends of growth or decline that may well be driven by vitality, energy, or lack thereof.
But you and I know that attendance on Sunday doesn’t cut to the heart of the matter. Some people still go to church out of a sense of guilt or obligation. Others don’t attend who are far more faithful than I. At the end of the day, this is the heart of the matter: are we living in such a way to be ever more deeply immersed in God? Are we “hid with Christ in God” and contributing to such an experience in others as well?
I won’t say that Sunday morning has nothing to do with this. As a sacramental Christian, Baptism into and lived out within an embodied community is an essential part of the faith. As I read the Scriptures and the Fathers, you can’t be a Christian by yourself! Too, we are together most fully who we are in the Eucharist. In the sacramental assembly we participate within the interior dialogue of the Trinity at Christ’s own invitation and the Spirit’s enabling.
We cannot dispense with the sacramental assembly. But is that the same as Sunday morning?
In my study of the Daily Office; of the liturgical, theological, and spiritual application of Scripture; of patterns of lay devotion in the medieval Church, I do wonder if we have not somehow become fixated on Sunday morning to the impoverishing of other aspects of Christian life and practice.
As one deeply committed to the importance of and convinced of the fundamental utility of a liturgical spirituality, I believe that there are answers within our tradition that will help us address the the situation we find ourselves in. But I don’t think we’ve even fully defined that situation yet!
The Church is called to be counter-cultural. We are expected to live and behave in ways that reflect our adherence to a different norm. However, insisting on the primacy of Sunday morning all too often feels less counter-cultural than an insistence on retaining the norms of the previous generations. Too often it feels less “revolutionary” and more “sour grapes.”