Sunday Services and Church Vitality

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.”

Still pondering…

31 thoughts on “Sunday Services and Church Vitality

  1. Barbara

    Well, Sunday is a weekly celebration of the Resurrection – so to me it’s part of the scheme of the Great Church Year. It’s another cycle-within-a-cycle, as time moves forward and the year turns.

    And there’s another aspect of it, too, which I’ll point out by analogizing with A.A.: when you’re getting sober, it’s extremely important to go to meetings. Those of us who need A.A. know we can’t do it by ourselves – and we’d end up isolating and staying inside our own heads if we tried. And as we say: that’s a really bad neighborhood. Even if you only go to one meeting a week, it’s important to go, so you can make contact with others – who will keep you honest in many different ways.

    So I’d say it’s quite important to go at least one day a week; it doesn’t have to be Sunday, necessarily, but it might as well be. Sure, you can pray on your own, and sometimes we all do that. But there’s something important about the effort of going, just by itself, I think.

    I find I really have to go, because I’m very likely to go off private prayer eventually and then go off my spiritual center completely. Personally, I can’t afford to go too long without getting back inside, in a seat, where I can listen to the things that keep me sane (instead of to my own insane brain, or to the insane world). It’s just too easy to wander off, mentally and emotionally, so Sunday acts as an anchor in that way. I think that’s probably at the heart of things, actually.

    One thing that impressed me about the Episcopal Church early on was that people enjoyed going to services; there was no “obligation,” but people came anyway. They liked it.

  2. Barbara

    (Maybe another thing is: I think faith over time is supposed to soften us and make us less brittle and defensive, and more able to be open to others. And when that happens, we become more vulnerable – so it becomes doubly important to maintain our spiritual condition by regular communal prayer and by the hearing of the story…..)

  3. Joseph Farnes

    One of the other challenges it that Sunday morning not only faces competition from other activities, but also competition from work! When I worked retail just a few years ago, I did not consistently get mornings off because the store was open on Sundays. When the focus of the church week is Sunday morning, we often forget that some people can’t make it. And Sunday evening services or weekday services that don’t get enough attendees get the cut as part of a way of refocusing energy, leaving those who are unable to attend Sunday morning no outlet.

    We in the Episcopal tradition have the blessing of the Daily Office that does not require a priest. We are also blessed often with great kitchens and parish halls to come together to eat and share meals together. And we can have great opportunities for Christian education that really gets deep into the wisdom of our tradition that I think many people would benefit from, even if they did not attend church with us. I’m amazed that one congregation I’m spending time with is fine with people from the Assemblies of God or Native American Church coming in for Bible study, knowing that they are not going to come on Sunday mornings or convert. Isn’t that wonderful hospitality?

    So in short, I hope that we look to expand outside of Sunday mornings. Expand the circle of fellowship wide and acknowledge that Sunday mornings may not be accessible for all people.

  4. gaudetetheology

    The Roman Catholic church has supported Saturday evening masses as a means of fulfilling the Sunday obligation since Vatican 2. Most parishes offer them, and they are typically reasonably well attended. Liturgically, they are nearly always identical to the Sunday morning service.

    More recently, in response to the pressures on Sundays from employment for adults and sports for youth, some parishes have started experimenting with a Sunday evening mass, at 5pm or so. Again, they’re liturgically identical to the Sunday morning.

    I think these schedule accommodations are a reasonable response to the world we live in. People tend to have a mass they usually go to, but will float around depending on schedule constraints on a particular weekend.

    Hm, now that I think about it, it’s interesting that neither of the two most solemn celebrations of the church year (Easter vigil, and Christimas midnight mass) happen on Sunday morning!

  5. Brian M

    Eric Liddell weeps in heaven. I am a runner as well, and I do not miss my Sunday obligation–it is a precept of the Church and has been for centuries. If your friend “[doesn’t] think [he’d] spend [his] Sunday mornings in church” if not supplying, then we can be thankful that he has not found paid employment in a parish. Honestly, this is beneath contempt. Let the dead run and bike with the dead.

  6. Derek Olsen

    I agree that there’s something about the discipline of gathering with other people on a regular basis. And yes, Sundays are the proper day for that from a kalendar perspective. But with cut-backs, most parishes only offer something once—maybe twice—a week.

  7. Derek Olsen

    I’m quite familiar with these, and when I was an intern at a very large Lutheran parish we to offered Saturday and Sunday evening parishes. But few Episcopal parishes have made this move and I think it’s a shame! A lot of the fear around it in my congregation is that if we subdivided the few attenders between multiple services it would dissipate what little energy remains. I don;t agree, personally….

  8. Heath H

    The homily “Of the Place and Time of Prayer” in the second book of homilies suggests that Sunday services are needful to keep us from being overrun by the Turk.

  9. Derek Olsen

    Brian M, carrying the flag for Sabbatarian Calvinism! But—as gaudete says above—you have non-Sunday morning opportunities for fulfilling the obligation too. It is a precept of the Church. As I said above, I firmly believe in its importance as a liturgical and spiritual discipline. I understand the Roman impetus behind the notion of not observing the obligation as grave sin,, but I also find this application of it to be a mechanism of social control unworthy of the Church founded on the one who reminded us that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

  10. John-Julian, OJN

    During a sabbatical some years ago, I attended a different parish church every Sunday—some 12 in all—and there was not a single one of them I would ever want to join as a parish member!

    Inexcusably infantile theology, sentimental spirituality, terrible preaching style, all kinds of fuss with non BCP “additions” and “local liturgical oddities”, utterly inadequate lay lectors, slovenly acolytes, in one place SEVEN hymns in one Eucharist (the organist ruled the parish!), etc.

    I think other-than-Sunday-morning arrangements are truly splendid—Saturday or Sunday evenings and daily Masses—regardless of how many attend [by the way, a great parish ministry for the retired is to attend weekday Masses and Offices to make them “possible”].

    But ultimately I think the problem falls to the ineptitude of the clergy—dull, unchallenging, uninspiring, tedious clergy make or break the parish. And this is not hyper-clericalism, because even for the laity to be at their best they need virtuoso leadership,and that is just too rare. We should be so enthusiastic that our enthusiasm and conviction alone would overweigh Sunday soccer (or whatever).

    I believe it was Evelyn Underhill who defined a mystic as “one who lived as though God existed”—the definition of a good and attractive priest/Christian: one who lived as though God actually existed.

  11. Derek Olsen

    And you’re getting back to the point I was originally working towards. A near-exclusive focus on Sunday morning means that we lay people have become overly reliant/complacent on the clergy as the source of our spiritual vitality.

  12. Brian M

    I’ll take a Sabbatarian Calvinist like Liddell over this type any day, Derek. Either we take the faith seriously enough to make the sacrifices enjoined on us by the Church, or, frankly, we ought to just be honest enough to sleep in or go biking/running every Sunday and be done with it.

    My running team could tell you that I avail myself of a Saturday or Sunday evening Mass maybe 4 or 5 times in a year. I don’t run with them on Sunday mornings and don’t race terribly much on Sundays either. I want my kids to see that some few members of my generation take their Christian obligations seriously, and even do it in the old, “inconvenient” way.

    That said, I am all for providing opportunities for folks to have community in the Church on days other than (but not instead of) Sundays, and I look forward to seeing younger priests in TEC revive their own traditional obligation of publicly reciting Mattins and Evensong on a daily basis.

  13. Brian M

    Incidentally, would the idea that low church Anglicans do not hold to the same firmness on Sunday obligation have any historical basis? Surely the Anglican Evangelicals of the 19th century would have disputed this, as would 20C evos like Packer, Stott, et al.

  14. Brian M

    Title III, Canon 1: Of the Due Celebration of Sundays. All persons within this Church shall celebrate and keep the Lord’s Day, commonly called Sunday, by regular participation in the public worship of the Church, by hearing the Word of God read and taught, and by other acts of devotion and works of charity, using all godly and sober conversation.

  15. Paul Goings

    Like CWOB, I think it’s important what the rules say first. So:

    Title III, Canon 1: Of the Due Celebration of Sundays. All persons within this Church shall celebrate and keep the Lord’s Day, commonly called Sunday, by regular participation in the public worship of the Church, by hearing the Word of God read and taught, and by other acts of devotion and works of charity, using all godly and sober conversation.

    If we truly need to alter this in order to meet the pastoral needs of today’s Episcopalians, then let’s talk about that. But to say that an obligation to worship on Sunday is a mere Roman Catholic legalism is sloppy.

    Trust me, I’ve never been as tempted as during the last two years to forsake worshiping on Sundays, but it’s a serious duty, not to be taken lightly. For those who really must work, the duties of their state in life take precedence. That’s, I submit, what Our Lord had in mind when discussing the Sabbath, rather than a 5k.

  16. Stephen Houghton

    I agree that Saturday and Sunday evening services are a good thing. But I think that they should be evensong. Otherwise what happens to the office?

    A better measure than ASA as to parish health is MMFSEE or dose the parish have Matins, Mass, Fellowship, Service, Education, and Evensong on Sunday.

  17. Stephen Houghton

    I agree about the public serving of Matins and Evensong. How a parish (as some do) can have multiple full time paid clergy and not have the office daily is beyond me.

  18. Stephen Houghton

    Derek, I agree that every family should either say the prayers and devotions for families at home lead by the mother or father, but for that to happen, the priests need to lead by example. That means at least Matins or Evensong daily in the church so that the widowed and singles have a church family to pray with.

  19. fibercut

    ASA is imperfect, but aside from congregations that deliberately fudge their ASA (it happens), the ASA numbers are more reliable than measures of membership. ASA does not tell the whole story, but it’s one measure.

    Sunday evening HE is more common than one might think, and it’s not either-or with respect to evensong. St Paul’s Cathedral in London, for example, has a well-attended Eucharist Sundays at 6 pm even though they have evensong at 3:15 pm.

    The interesting aspect of the question in my mind is how many congregations have reduced the number of mid-week HE — or have dropped them entirely. My impression from traveling around the country is that there is significantly less mid-week HE than 15 years ago.

    Another irony is that as TEC encounters increased financial pressure (i.e. higher costs and lower revenues) in small towns, many of those congregations will have to make do on Sunday mornings with weekly MP and monthly HE… despite the push after 1979 to have weekly HE.

  20. Barbara

    I guess I’m lucky. I go to a parish with at least one service every day (sometimes HE, sometimes the Office) and four services on Sunday, including the “last chance mass” at 6 p.m. And straight-ahead Prayer Book services, every one.

    P.S.: It’s the only parish around here that’s growing.

    I agree, though: an evening service, either Saturday or Sunday, for those who can’t make Sunday morning can be a good thing.

  21. gaudetetheology

    I agree that Saturday and Sunday evening services are a good thing. But I think that they should be evensong. Otherwise what happens to the office?

    It could be prayed after Mass. I was delighted to encounter the practice of praying Lauds before a morning mass and Vespers after an evening mass at some RC churches in Spain. I much preferred it to the fairly common US practice of praying the rosary before daily mass.

  22. Paul Goings

    The answer to this problem is local ordination, and on a far wider scale than it’s being practiced currently.

    The purpose of the church is not to function as an employment agency for a professional clerical caste, but to celebrate the sacraments of the New Covenant and to make faithful disciples. If we’re letting salaries and university and graduate educations interfere with this, then it’s time for sensible Christians to look elsewhere.

  23. fibercut

    Zero chance of that! Clergy who endured the inconvenience and cost of getting their MDiv’s are not about to embrace a significant number of local ordinations, nor for that matter Deacon’s masses. Essentially, they think of it as a mere variant of lay presidency.

  24. Brian M

    “Clergy who endured the inconvenience and cost of getting their MDiv’s” who then decide that they’d rather run or bike on a Sunday morning, mind you.

  25. George Waite

    Church is so boring; I’m glad I don’t waste time, trouble or money on something this pointless.

  26. davidbrainerd2

    Football is way more boring. And then futbol is like a billion times more boring. Of course, I don’t drink. I guess all the enjoyment of watching these asinine games comes from being drunk out of your head and incapable of seeing how puerile they are.

  27. George Waite

    And commented on your comment-the difference? I don’t have to pay to do this. Or get up early on Sundays to talk to someone invisible/inaudible while ignoring the hundreds of other groups that claim to have better methods of talking to Him/Her/Them.
    Middle-class, middle-aged and middle-brow, Mainline Protestantism is NPR at prayer. After more than 35 years of “Celebrating Diversity!” you’ve got fewer “people of color” than the Southern Baptist Convention and (despite claims to being the church of the future) you keep barely a third of your own young people, most of whom wander off into some sort of vapid agnosticism.
    As an atheist, it’s none of my business. But I can still dream of the day there will be enough of us to actually enforce the Constitution and get rid of state subsidies like tax breaks and clergy housing allowances.

  28. davidbrainerd2

    “I can still dream of the day there will be enough of us to actually enforce the Constitution and get rid of state subsidies like tax breaks and clergy housing allowances.”

    And I’ll be dreaming of a day when the Constitution is enforced and the government paying your whores for popping out your atheist babies stops so that you have to take responsibility for your sin on your own and they do too.

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