Church Attendance and Christian Formation

Vicki+ left this comment below and it really is begging for its own post…:

So much of your commentary on this blog is about Christian formation. But one thing that has not been raised is the frequency of attendance at Sunday worship, and the role of that in formation. One of the measurements for congregational vitality is Average Sunday Attendance (ASA), reported on parochial reports and other analyses. (Yes, I know that CS Lewis once commented that Jesus said ‘Feed my sheep’, not ‘Count my sheep’; nevertheless….) But more and more the pattern of Sunday worship attendance among people who consider themselves faithful, committed Christians engaged fully in the life of their parish has changed. That standard used to be 3 out of 4 Sundays a month. Now it is more like once a month or even once every six weeks. This is not just my own observation, nor just about the Episcopal Church. I’m hearing it from many different quarters (of course there are always local exceptions).

So, the question becomes: how does Christian formation work in such a climate where the chance for repeated exposure becomes far less? At what point do we lose the corporate sense of the Body coming together to be fed and formed and sent out in mission? What as Christians is our duty and responsibility, not only to God and to ourselves, but also to each other as part of each others’ formation? The phrase from the BOS bidding prayer for Advent Lessons and Carols keeps ringing in my ears: “Let it be our duty and delight…”

Anyway, do you have any thoughts about this?

Oh, do I…

Especially after a meeting I attended this weekend. We were planning for next year and we had some suggestions that education classes not be held every Sunday because, can we really expect people to get to church that much? And then to stay for a whole two hours (for mass and Christian Ed)?

[ol’ codger tone] When I was growing up  going to church every Sunday is what was both expected and done. We did it, the families on our street did it, the families at our church did it. The only times we weren’t in church was on campouts for Scouts. Otherwise if you weren’t there, people assumed you were sick/indisposed. M said it was the same way for them. And we’re not talking the ’50’s here, these were the ’80’s. [/ol’ codger tone]

Also back then, there were very few sporting events and such held on Sunday morning (I can think of a few soccer leagues in our area that had games then—but not many). One of the reasons is because they simply could not get the kids because parents wouldn’t let them skip church to play on Sundays.

That’s definitely no longer the case, especially in M’s parish’s geographical region. All sorts of community and school athletic events are on Sundays/Sunday mornings and often parents choose those over church.

Somehow church is being viewed in greater numbers and across age-spans as an optional activity.

I’ll just open this topic up at this point… Do these anecdotal trends match with your observations? What do we do with this?

49 thoughts on “Church Attendance and Christian Formation

  1. Caelius Spinator

    I remember when I stopped playing youth soccer. My league suddenly had games and practices on Sunday mornings. I couldn’t understand it. Sure, my coach was Muslim, but the rest of the league was mostly Roman Catholic.

    I don’t know what’s going on where I live now, since my church friends seem to come from backgrounds in which going to church for just an hour per Sunday is considered a sign of being unregenerate.

  2. Joe Rawls

    This might be another sign that to survive as Christian communities with any real integrity, we’ll have to design our programs on the assumption that people will show up most Sundays instead of once every 2 months, even if that comes off as seeming “non-inclusive” (a word I’m coming to really despise through its fetishization by the TEC powers that be). I mean, if you’re really serious about eating, do you think 2 or 3 times a day is excessive or burdensome?

    By the way, I believe the word is “codger”, not “cogger”. I just turned 60, so I should know, by cracky!

  3. Bill Carroll

    When I do catechesis, I insist that the baptismal vows mean participating in the Eucharist on all Sundays and other major feasts. Continue in the apostles teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers, etc.

    The reality is becoming close to what you describe. But I see contrary tendencies among some of the folks at our parish, especially among folks in their twenties…I would really like to participate daily myself.

  4. Annie

    our current parish is pretty good about regular attendance, including decent sunday school attendance. there is very little in the way of non-sunday attendance, on the other hand. who ever heard of a holy day of obligation?? Everything mid-week gets transferred to sunday.

  5. Grant

    In the greater Boston area most youth coaches and youth are RCs (b/c well over 50 percent of the population is RC) and go to church for the Saturday vigil, so Sunday a.m. events do not conflict. Are we then to offer Saturday post-5 p.m. Eucharists if we want our youth sports-entangled youth and their families to attend?

  6. Caelius Spinator


    I suspected something of this sort might have been happening. My parish already has such a Eucharist for families with young children but not necessarily those of the right age for sports.

  7. Christopher

    [ol’ curmudgeon tone] When I was a boy we were in church on Sundays and Wednesdays at the least. I know of those in the Pentecostal traditions in which I grew up where these are all day and attendance is expected. Sometimes more days were required. [/ol’ curmudgeon tone]

    As a university student, I was a daily Mass-er. I loved it and miss it.

    [ol’ curmudgeon tone] Holy Days of obligation were precisely that on pain of sin when I was RC and perhaps some requirement isn’t a bad thing? [/ol’ curmudgeon tone]

    On the other hand, I came to more clearly understand the Reformation as consequence because making Mass mandatory in that way, is as the Orthodox would say, a poor showing–the body is present but the heart is not. Legalism is no substitute for instilling devotion and regular attendance.

    My daily prayer these days is the Office, but I miss a more overtly public gathering before and in God.

    I think Fr. Bill is correct in his catechetical training. I also think Joe is correct that some choices have to be made precisely as Christians. It may be that Christians have to make a decision about what is important, their faith and faith community or their activities. If I had children, and I would probably be considered a mean parent, but I would not allow them to participate in activities scheduled on Sundays. Sundays are for Church and family.

    On the other hand…C’s extended family goes to Gottesdienst maybe once a month along with Christmas and Good Friday (the latter two being Lord’s Supper days). They’re considered quite faithful, but faithfulness means something different when the entire village is the Church and vice versa.

    I have to admit I am a backslider these days. I make it to Mass twice a month at most because of what little time I have to write at the moment–my parish is a good 30 minutes away. That’s not an excuse, mind you. There’s a parish two miles from where I live. Were I still Roman Catholic, I would probably seek confession.

  8. Christopher


    My parish at university, in addition to daily mass, had a 7pm Saturday Mass, a 11am Sunday Mass, and a 7pm Sunday Mass. It made space for busy lives.

  9. Pingback: Where is Christianity 201? « The Gifts of God

  10. Vicki McGrath

    Certainly all of the comments so far reflect various aspects of the situation in Northern New Jersey (and certainly the tri-state area). In an area where a large percentage of the population is RC, Sat. evening Mass is standard (and increasingly Sunday evening youth Mass that whole families attend). Christian clergy in various towns have tried to get agreements about Sunday morning sports (this, BTW, is not usually school sports but leagues for kids age 6-14). Even if the league agrees to nothing starting before noon, the coaches still expect kids at the field 30 mins. ahead of time and there is travel to the site (anywhere from 15 to 45 mins away). Then if a family has more than one child and on different teams that takes the whole family in two different directions. And the culture of these youth sports is that the whole family shows up to cheer and support the child. Soccer and ice hockey are the worst offenders. When my son was playing youth soccer (all through the ’90s) he would wear his uniform to church under his choir vestments, and lunch and his cleats would be in the car.

    But since 2001 I’m hearing something different (at least in NY/NJ/CT). It is that Sunday is FAMILY time,which includes lots of getting together with extended family (working around the youth sports). I think this is a result of 9/11, after which a lot of people really hunkered down at home and re-evaluated family connections. Six people in my town died on 9/11, and in the town next door to the church 17 people died. I think that reaching out to family has far less conscious connection to 9/11 than it did in the first year or two after the attacks, but it has continued, nevertheless. And FAMILY time is separate and distinct from Church (in most cases). That is what is so different from even 10-15 years ago.

    Other FAMILY events that take people away from Sunday worship (especially in May and early June) are: First Communions (and once you’ve been to Church on a Saturday you don’t go again on a Sunday); Confirmations (ditto); college graduations; opening-up-our-house-at-the-Shore; needing to take Grandma out for brunch on Mother’s Day; etc…..I actually find that families who “can’t make it” on Sundays are often able to bring their children to mid-week events, particularly if they are time-limited (eg. Eucharist Instruction class for several weeks at 4 pm). I also get a reasonable turn-out for mid-week holy days, so Adult and Junior Choirs are both singing for Ascension Day Eucharist at 7:30 pm.

    Of course parents have to make choices about kids’ activities and how their family will spend their time (although not all are capable of doing this well). What is different is that they see sports and other kid activities as part of being a “good family”, even when they understand the conflict with Sunday worship, and they feel that part of their Christian vocation is to be good parents, which includes providing their children with many different experiences. The stress level of most suburban parents with school age children is through the roof.

    The option for a late afternoon service on Sunday is potentially attractive. My sponsoring parish has a 6 pm “Last Chance Mass” – said service, no music. But it is a large parish, next door to a college and with no provision for anything for children (not that there has to be). In a smaller parish with one priest that presents different challenges (and this is not meant to be clergy whining). My husband works a M-F week. I often have Saturday Church commitments, and sometimes Sunday afternoon as well, and it becomes difficult for us to see our kids (both now out of college) and our extended families – all without adding another service!

    So, OK I guess I’ve crossed the line into clergy whining, and if Derek gets to be an old codger (momentarily)then I can confess to how tired I get at this time of year. But describing the situation still doesn’t get at the formation question, it just highlights the fact that the cultural barriers are becoming greater, at least among a certain segment of the population.


  11. Vicki McGrath

    Oops, in that next to last paragraph, I meant the Last Chance Mass had no provision for children. The primary Sunday Eucharist at that parish (Grace, Madison, NJ)is 9 am with Children’s Chapel, Sunday School, Adult Forum and four different youth/children’s choirs and adult choir. They also have a 7:30 am and 11:15 am; hymns and organ at 7:30, music with adult choir at 11:15 AND 2 full-time priests, Director of Music, Assistant Organist and two part-time choir assistants (one for Cherub Choir and one for Gargoyles, the high school boys group). Lots of resources!

  12. Derek the Ænglican

    There’s quite a lot of good stuff here for reflection. In general I’d have to say:

    I like evening services. They work for folks with events early on and they’re often good for the older set as well. For the average parish, though, I’d think *either* a Saturday or Sunday Evening service would work unless there were several clergy resident on the grounds.

    I definitely agree that the baptismal vow enjoins us to maintain a daily Office discipline and to gather together as a community for every day for which there is an appointed collect and lessons in the Prayer Book. Looking at the Kalendar in the front, that means everything in sections 1 through 3. (No, I don’t currently meet this myself but I feel guilty about not doing so which is the first step… :-D) Part of the issue, too, is that most parish don’t offer masses on Holy Days that don’t fall on Sundays. I liked StMV’s 6:30 time-slot for those.

    If evening services catch on and catch on well for families, what explicitly educational opportunities are offered around them? Sunday School is generally a Sunday Morning affair. Should we offer an inter-generational education program either before or after the service or let it slide completely? Or, as at a Lutheran church I served, bring back a big Wednesday evening time where you start with dinner together, then break into age-based education groups (That’s when we taught confirmation classes)?

  13. bls

    One thing the Eucharist-focussed churches have going for us is that you can’t get Communion except by coming to church. So there ought to be much more emphasis on that, I think – without all the political/culture-wars/liturgical-wars baggage that has accrued on top of it. A simple emphasis on the Sacrament, that’s all.

    And, why not have a parish discussion board online where education can be offered throughout the week? One topic, perhaps, per week, that people could talk about as the week progresses. Not as good as in-person, I guess, but it would be at least something.

    Apparently this works well for EFM online – although the people who “attend” that are not in general in the same parish; they are scattered across thousands of miles sometimes.

    If the discussions were interesting, I think this might be at least as attractive as the blogging thing is for us. You never know how many people are reading and not commenting, too.

  14. Vicki McGrath

    When I was in high school (and my sister was in middle school) the worship/Christian ed/youth program was a Thursday evening. We started at 5 pm (or 5:30?) with Evening Prayer, had dinner together (pot-luck)and then had whatever program or class we were going to do until 7:30. It worked well, and had the added benefit of involving kids in liturgical leadership (being readers for the lessons, sometimes leading EP, etc.).

    The catch in communities where parents commute quite a distance for work (train, bus, car) is that getting home before 7 or 7:30 pm can be difficult, so that making such a program the focus for whole families has its own challenges.

    But that then raises the whole parochial report question of ASA, which is perhaps becoming increasingly outmoded in terms of measuring congregational vitality.


  15. The young fogey

    [ol’ codger tone]

    [ol’ curmudgeon tone]

    You stole my bit!


    ‘The Catholic Church: here comes everybody.’

    There are lots of levels of involvement, from occasionally popping in for family occasions to lighting a candle at your lucky saint’s shrine (as the non-catechised imagine this sort of thing) to good mediæval-C19 non-communing faithful attendance (which I sometimes fall into as a Catholic everyman: I don’t receive without preparation) to being a daily communicant. Of course there are lots of Bad Catholics: sporadically to never going to Mass, only going at Christmas and Easter, hatch-match-despatch (throw in First Communions), anti-clerical folk who do devotions at home and the just plain lazy. (I know and love some Bad Catholics who are good people.)

    (Much of which also applies to Protestants.)

    That said, Joe’s right. That doesn’t mean the church ought to throw in the towel and not assume weekly attendance is the norm for a practising member.

    Most of my circle of friends are churchgoers of various brands so I haven’t got that much anecdotal evidence but from these stories it seems the US is catching up with Europe on this. But I understand Americans are still more Godward even if it’s in lame ‘spiritual not religious’ form, not the cold indifference of Northern Europe nor the heated anti-clericalism one finds in the south.

    P.S. Bad Catholics aren’t like Modernists: they don’t necessarily ‘believe in all that crap’ and don’t live up to the demands but at the same time, just like the devout, see the church as unchangeable, don’t try to change it and in any event aren’t particularly interested in that sort of thing.

  16. Matt Gunter

    When announcing liturgies for Feast Days that do not fall on Sunday, I usually say something like, “In the Episcopal Church we do not have ‘Holy Days of Obligation’, but we do have ‘Holy Days of Expectation’. And this is one of them”.

  17. Derek the Ænglican

    “Holy Days of Expectation”—that’s a great line!

    Yes, YF, all parishes are a mix. I still think there are ways to expose more folks to better stuff, though, and hence the importance of fiddling with the mix…

  18. Grant

    Re: evening weekend services, follow up. Alban Institute folks say that for an evening service to take root and thrive several things need to be in place: 1. a core group already committed to ‘seed’ the liturgy, 2. some sort of music–chance to be not tied to organ/piano, in the nave, 3. some education component (again, can be alternative, such as intergenerational), 4. food (secular that is…chance for fellowship before/after the service). So a whole lot of commitment time and energy and planning before the first service even launches. I’ve tried Sunday evenings, without all those components–largely because I’m the only priest around to do any service, and I’ve been reluctant to give up ALL Saturday late afternoons/evening. Suppose that once a community is well rooted then the service could be lay lead from time to time…begs the question of being Eucharistically centered then of course. Sure wish ‘deacons’ masses’ were allowed.

  19. Derek the Ænglican


    I’ve been thinking and talking with the folks in our age/situation at the parish about Christian Ed pod-casts. That has sparked some interest, but we haven’t gone beyond that at this point…

  20. Derek the Ænglican


    How about a Sunday Evening Evensong?

    They can be lay-led if the trained core is in place and, when the priest is available, you can utilize the Franken-mass option.

  21. John-Julian, OJN

    Makes me shake my celibate head!

    The reason priests exist is to celebrate Mass — any time, anywhere, any way, anyhow. And if “family time” means a priest is not free to celebrate Mass (evenings, Saturday, or whenever), then s/he better look twice at that priestly vocation! Good heavens, celebrating low Mass takes less than half an hour — maybe 35 minutes with a homily. And if one’s “family time” can’t manage a half-hour respite, then I think that family must be a real mess.

    Here’s what you say to the people from the pulpit: If you do NOT come to Mass every Sunday of your entire life, then forget about trying to live the Christian life. Forget about trying to be good, or keeping the commandments, or saying your bedtime prayers. If you are not at Mass every Sunday, there is no point to any of the “rest” of Christian life. You cannot do it! You cannot live without it! Without Mass on Sunday you have no hope of grace to do anything else. So, either be at Mass every Sunday or just forget about the whole so-called “Christian” thing! I will be at the altar, but I cannot do it alone — I have to depend on YOU in order to celebrate Mass.

    Martin Thornton said it very plainly to clergy (in “Pastoral Theology: A Reorientation” — now titled “Christian Proficiency”): stop paying all your attention to the uncommitted fringe people. Exert every pastoral muscle on behalf of those (sometimes few) who are there at every Mass. They ARE your parish They ARE the Body of Christ in your home town. THEY are the missionaries; THEY are the maintainers; THEY should be the center of your pastoral efforts. And it is THEY, not you, who serve as the conduit for God’s grace to “outsiders”.

    Sorry for the narrowness of this, but it is faithfulness and quality that matters, not numbers or ASA or whatever. And it is the liturgical faithfulness OF THE PRIEST which is the essential underpinning. We must be there! We must be ready at that altar at any time of day or night — whether anyone else shows up or not.

    My last parish had never heard of daily Mass before I arrived. I insisted on it — and in eight full years, there were only SIX days without a congregation. And remember “No one comes to me unless the Father draws him.” and “…I will draw all people to myself.” So, just be there faithfully at the altar — and leave attendance up to God.

    (And, Matt, I love “Days of Expectation”!!!)

  22. Chris

    Generating commitment to church begins with education and meaning making. Are we teaching about the liturgy, the Gospel, and – more importantly – are we providing opportunities for our people to make meaning out of these traditions and truths? If it don’t mean jack to them they ain’t gonna make it a priority – no matter what time you offer the liturgies.

    So in your parish’s ministry of education/formation, and in your communications (print/electronic), and in the way you lead and support the liturgy (greeting people in narthex, bulletins with explanatory notes, sermons that actually preach Good News to the human condition, announcing page numbers, etc.), and in your fellowship activities, do you provide ways for people to make meaning out of the mysteries and truths of our faith?

    Another thought … I want to avoid creating or exacerbating a false “us vs. them” dichotomy. Yes, there is a choice for folks to make about how to use that Sunday 11:00am hour (or Wednesday 7:30pm or Saturday 5pm or whatever), but if we go too far into the church vs. world debate we will only hurt our cause, for our people spend much more time in the world than in the church, and we’ll lose that fight. If we demonize the world (sports, Starbucks, work, whatever) in which people find meaning and purpose, and where they spend most of their time, we’ll foster in them a sense that church is about withdrawing from the world rather than engaging it, that church is a place of “nos” and “can’ts” and “shouldn’ts.” And even if we don’t demonize but speak about “priorities,” we risk being perceived as putting our own institutional needs (offering plate?) ahead of their personal interests and passions (which are God-given, no?).

    Which all goes back to the process of meaning making. What can we do in the church to help our people make meaning of their lives in and through the Gospel so that if they choose to play soccer – perhaps, at times, on Sunday morning or at a far-flung weekend tournament – they understand their calling as God’s children and are placing that soccer game in the context of a life lived under the Gospel?

    We’re living in an increasingly post-Christendom world, folks. We need to depend less on society making room for church and more on our own ministries – led by the Spirit – making meaning in the lives of our people who will then choose to live and worship and act ways informed by the life-giving Gospel.

  23. bls

    Martin Thornton said it very plainly to clergy (in “Pastoral Theology: A Reorientation” — now titled “Christian Proficiency”): stop paying all your attention to the uncommitted fringe people.

    I would like to say a big, loud, hearty “Amen” to this. I am so tired of the endless focus on people who aren’t here at the expense of people who are. Yes, it’s important to think about the rest of the world – but first, the spiritual and religious life of the parish itself has got to be tended to. And if the spiritual and religious life of the congregation is good, others will want to join it. If not, not.

    And that is, as far as I can tell, pretty much the whole story.

    So: Amen, Amen to that.

  24. Chris

    [This is Indie Catholic Chris, not Lutheran Chris who just commented above. ;-)]

    Fr John-Julian, while I appreciate your perspective and sympathize with it to a certain extent, I really think you’ve gone much too far. What about blue collar folks working the midnight shift as nurses, factory workers, or firefighters? What about the Scout leader who misses the odd Sunday because of a campout or the businessperson who is traveling internationally as Mass is being said on Saturday evening/Sunday morning?

    There is clearly a continuum here, and it’s far from charitable to declare that all the above people, who miss Mass on Sundays now and again or even regularly, are worse disciples of Jesus Christ than you are because they’re committed to be elsewhere (by necessity or by occasional — not weekly — choice).

    As for priests and their time commitments, you know very well that there are parishes who eat clergy for breakfast, demanding their time 8-10 hours a day (and night) Monday through Friday, then Saturday afternoon and all of Sunday. The only way to ask this of a clergyperson with a family is to return to the bad old days of clergy spouses being required to stay at home and do all the housework and child care. On today’s clergy salaries in churches like TEC, you know very well that’s not possible. When a church calls people with families to the priesthood, that has consequences that must be dealt with charitably.

    There is a balance to be struck here. Not everyone is or should be a monastic — which means a parish with one priest cannot necessarily have Mass every day of the week plus thrice on Sunday, and it means occasionally lay people will have obligations that take them away from the parish on Sunday morning. I agree with others above (and you) that giving in and letting the secular world define what Sunday morning means is not the answer — but neither is libeling faithful Christians.

    In response to Grant and others above — I believe the Episcopal Church will learn that the solution to the shortage of clergy in small parishes without means will not be to redefine the apostolic priesthood such that non-priests can say Mass — it will be to understand, as many denominations already do, that an MDiv and tens of thousands of dollars in debt is not required to fulfill a priestly call. “Mutual ministry” paradigms and local formation should play a greater role — not stopgap measures like deacon’s masses or troubling innovations like lay or diaconal presidency.

  25. Vicki McGrath

    Thank you for all the comments, and to Indie-Catholic Chris for hepling to put clergy families into perspective. Certainly my own family has made many, many sacrifices in support of my priesthood, and FWIW we have two mid-week Eucharists that each draw different congregations in addition to the sunday services (8 and 10 HE with seasonal Evensongs). My main concern in outlining all of the cultural situation is not to give in, or let the culture set the terms, but rather to give the facts on the ground and ask the question about how those facts relate to formation, especially in the case of parishioners who are not at all fringe in terms of their level of commitment and leadership, yet attend Sunday worship less than they used to.


  26. Marsha

    My frustration with the “faithfulness” piece is not just the fact that sports trumps worship, but that my core leadership think that birthday parties, wedding and baby showers, and other family celebrations are always more important than worship and church responsibilities.

    Birthday parties? Showers? I’m afraid I can’t reconcile this “family values” attitude with the one who loves family members more than me is not worthy of me.”

    So, I say nothing, but I’m always disappointed.

  27. Bill Carroll

    Let me add that I was a committed layperson for nearly ten years, after being baptized as an adult at the age of twenty-two. It would never have occurred to me to skip Sunday mass, unless I was dreadfully sick. I have at a couple of points stayed away for other reasons, but I view this as gravely sinful.

    The sole exception is last Sunday, when I was participating in an ecumenical Kairos team at the local prison. And it was painful to me not to be able to participate in our community’s mass. It did give my dear wife a chance to preside though.

    The weekly celebration of our Lord’s resurrection is no more optional than the annual one. Daily communion is better, but we need to renew our relationship with Jesus sacramentally by participating in the holy offering on the Lord’s Day.

  28. Grant

    Interesting tension emerges from some comments above. My parish is not a small one; bumps up against the upper limit of pastoral size, with all the attendant challenges in facing need to become program size in structure (e.g., multi-celled organism rather than uni-celled); also means then that those on the margins are either moving into further involvement or are tangential…waiting for opportunity to become more invested? Since arriving four years ago we’ve greatly raised up lay ministry, lay leadership–pastoral care, adult ed., children’s education programs, healing ministry. One priest is fine for growing congregation with committed lay leadership as described. Except for that Saturday night thing again–I am a faithful priest, providing the sacrament–and I am a person with spouse and child, who is in college. I am in a denomination which affirms married clergy. Brings strengths and challenges to pastoral ministry, not a black and white, right and wrong dynamic.

  29. Christopher

    I have to say that on the whole I agree with our Indie Fr. Chris.

    Parishes can eat clergy families alive. I would propose that a more proper balance WILL REQUIRE lay leaders to offer something like a Morning Prayer with ante-communion from reserved sacrament for purposes of daily reception of Holy Communion in your average parish, for example.

    The tone toward those not present every Sunday is taking a direction I cannot accept as representative of God’s constant love not only for those who show up every week but for those who show up on a regular basis, AND yes, those who show up only on Christmas and Easter (or Christmas and Good Friday) as the case were. A hostile tone and attitude toward anyone other than those present every Sunday is not representative of God’s care, may not reflect fairly on others’ discipleship, and may turn away the very persons the Body most needs because of pride on the part of the “devout”.

    The parish is more than only those who attend every Sunday, and if not, then we are a mere sect rather than Church.

  30. Bill Carroll

    Of course, God loves us anyway.

    What I’d like to see is some attention to where the standard lies. I’d also like to see some attention to the distinction between a necessary reason for not being in worship and something on the order of a kid’s birthday party. Some people for example have jobs that require them to work on Sunday and can’t get out of it. Meeting our basic needs and those of our families comes first. There has to come a point where obligations to God come first. What I’m saying here, in a theoretical discussion, is not necessarily what I would say to a parishioner. But when we catechize or offer instruction in the abstract, we should be clear about what the expectation is.

    I readily accept that sporadic attendance may be the sign of the first stirrings of the Spirit and that we should not stifle those stirrings by moralizing.

  31. Grant

    Yeah Christopher, I’ve been thinking along some of the same lines, esp in these weeks where the lectionary has us awash in Johanine love emphases. Can get aggravating at times though, with some folks having more of a consumerist attitude. For example, as menioned above, I’m in an RC dominated culture, and so we set aside 2nd grade Sunday School for a full year of study about Eucharist; this way those children, who have been receiving since they have had the inclination to stick out their hands at the family table for the bread, can get age appropriate education about the meaning and importance of communion, and those parents who have wanted their children to have a ‘first communion’ can also do so. Send out a letter at the start of the year explaining this to parents, and that coming to the class is important.

    And then we get the folks who show up a couple times in the fall, and then three weeks before the big day. The kids who have been coming all along, learning, don’t know what to make of these others. I’m not telling the sporadic attendees ‘no’ (attendance criteria I do have for confirmation of 9th graders though)…it’s their parents’ responsiblity after all, and what a terrible model of rejection and affront to grace it would be to tell the kids, ‘sorry, you haven’t earned it.’ Doesn’t stop me from gritting my teeth.

    And then move onto love again: those parents are wandering in a desert, seeking meaning in places that won’t satisfy. Guess the answer is to keep the doors open to all who are drawn, whenever they are drawn.

  32. Christopher

    Fr. Bill, I’m responding mostly to Fr. John-Julian’s comment, not yours.

    What I would like to see is some thought about how the parish might think about those who work, perhaps taking Eucharist to them…rather than get into “who is devout and who is not”. That form of thinking is itself sinful. And is far from reflective of the early Church where most did work on Sunday. Early gatherings at dawn or after work in evening were likely common. Mid-Sunday Mass in out context caters to particular classes in our society, and those classes do not necessarily include students or blue collar and retail workers in various positions. Where is the love of the parish on their part rather than assuming less devotion? 7-8am said Mass has all but disappeared, for example.

    The standard is regular Sunday participation. Many of us fall short of that for a variety of reasons.

    Again, this presumption of who is and who is not “in” or who is and who is not a good disciple is a terrible presumption and may not reflect Christ’s outlook on persons. Some of the most “devout” persons I’ve known have been the stingiest of heart and so full of their holiness that they repelled all others.

  33. Lyngine

    I’m from a tiny Indie Catholic parish and my experience has been that for someone to make the transition from occasional churchgoer to committed Christian disciple (which is the real point of all this, yes) has less to do with something that is taught rather than something that is “caught”. My experience resonates with Fr. John-Julian’s comment “…but it is faithfulness and quality that matters, not numbers or ASA or whatever. And it is the liturgical faithfulness OF THE PRIEST which is the essential underpinning. We must be there! We must be ready at that altar at any time of day or night — whether anyone else shows up or not.”

    At one of the first Masses my wife and I attended, there were only the two priests–no one else. After Mass, we asked them what they would have done if we hadn’t showed up—-and they answered that they would have held Mass just the same–and that they would be having Mass at that same time and place every weekend no matter what. THAT sent a message more powerful and lasting about living, passionate Christianity than any educational program ever could.

    I would add that the example from above doesn’t exclude the committed laity playing a similar role to those still trying to figure out how Christianity/church falls in their lives—it just isn’t limited to the liturgical faithfulness.

    An underlying assumption in the current discussion is that Christian formation=Christian Education=Programs on Sunday. I’m not saying that Christian education is unnecessary or unimportant—-but formation as a Christian is also powerfully learned from the lived example of other Christians—in daily life as well as on Sundays.

  34. Erika

    The Orthodox seem to have a model that addresses some of these issues. ONE divine liturgy on Sunday and EVERYONE is expected to be there. So the clergy can order their lives around that service, and the whole community gathers together at this one time. The idea that the Eucharist should have several showtimes like a movie to fit around everyone’s (more important) scheduling conflicts isn’t even entertained. This is the ascent into God’s heaven. What else could possibly be more important if we are who we say we are?

  35. PS(anafter-thought)

    I applaud the RCs and other groups that have alternative worship times. In my background, many churches don’t provide any alternatives. Besides sports, there are many reasons people aren’t in church on a Sunday morning. They work, for example. Sometimes the only work teens can get is on weekends. Yes it is a choice, but sometimes necessary for the family. Sometimes only for indulgences of whims.

    From the other side of the coin, if you expect people to be in church on a Sunday morning, then DON’T shop, buy gas, go to a restaurant, big box store, etc. on Sunday. Even Sunday afternoon events, such as Major League Baseball, require workers to be at the stadium in the morning on Sunday.

    Because Christian people do shop, attend things, etc. on Sunday, I think it is imperative to provide alternative worship times.

  36. Erika

    I think some of this has to do with what we think the Eucharist is/is for. Is it for each individual worshipper to meet an obligation/feed their spiritual life, or is it for the entire parish to gather as the Body and enter God’s heavenly courts?

    I do see the benefit (and have enjoyed the benefit!) of different mass times; however, I think we miss something as a parish when we segment into different congregations and learn that worship should fit around the rest of our lives instead of being the focus and vocation of our lives.

    A lot of comments talk about people’s work obligations interfering with church, but is work more important than worship? Many–not all, but many–people who do cite work as a reason could be making other choices–they’re not having to clean the stadium to feed their families, if you know what I mean. But perhaps in communities where that is the reality, the Eucharist could take place Sunday afternoon or Saturday evening? That would be finding the time to worship when the largest amount of the Body could gather (as opposed to setting up a series of show times for convenience).

    This debate seems to really highlight the tension we feel between the heavenly call and the worldly call, and I do think–although it’s not comfortable or popular to point out–there is an either/or dynamic that’s unavoidable. The baptismal service begins with a renunciation of one thing in order to embrace another. The disciples “left everything and followed him,” the didn’t limp along behind Jesus dragging their nets of fish. The radical demands of the Gospel are really scary and hard, and I, for one, am far from living up to them. But that doesn’t mean the Church should stop proclaiming them because they ask us to change our lives in very real, daily, difficult ways. I’ll never be able to convert my life without a Body of faithful who love me enough to expect me to change thoroughly, utterly into the person God created me to be.

  37. Derek the Ænglican

    As usual, lots and lots of good stuff. Let me tease out a few lines…

    Fr. John-Julian: Yes and no. I completely agree that the fundamental role of the clergy is to provide the sacraments for the people of God. As a result, clergy who so believe need to fore-ground this reality to their vestries and congregations. upfront and throughout their ministries. Christopher has a good post on this topic here. However, many Episcopal clergy have families. Clergy divorce rates are damn high—and that’s good neither for the clergy nor the communities they serve. What this means is that clergy and clergy families must be clear: sacramental times are work times period; non-sacramental work times require care and flexibility so that the spouse doesn’t get dumped with everything and that parents and children can spend together the time they need. In practice this means, “No, Mr. Vestry-person, I’ll not be at your evening committee meeting because I need to be at home with my wife & kids”—and that needs to be understood by Mr. Vestry-person.

    “If you do NOT come to Mass every Sunday of your entire life, then forget about trying to live the Christian life.” This is hyperbolic rhetoric. Yes, we need to set clear expectations. We expect Christians to be present at masses on Sundays and Holy Days. (Naturally, that’ll require churches to offer masses n Holy Days; only one of the 8 churches in my county has a mass tomorrow—and that one’s an ordinary weekly service…) At the same time I think this kind of confrontative hyperbole can have the opposite effect. So—yes to the intention, no to the rhetoric. We want the Spirit that gives live rather than the life-killing Letter.

    Chris (Lutheran): Yes, we live in a post-Constantinian world and must adjust accordingly. Ideally, I’d like us to present a workable alternate to modern society—on centered in the Gospel of Christ rather than consumerism and self-gratification. The trick, of course, is the “workable” part… And that’s why I’m for offering a range of week-end possibilities.

    bls: (Following up on Fr. J-J) Absolutely. I agree with this entirely. Most of the thoughtful work I’ve seen on growth suggests that it comes through social networks. I.e., keep the regular, engaged people engaged, and they will help engage even more.

    Indie Chris: Balance. That’s the key. Easy to say, hard to do, worth going for nevertheless… And this means balance for clergy and families, and in our expectations.

    Lyngine: “An underlying assumption in the current discussion is that Christian formation=Christian Education=Programs on Sunday.” Not quite… I think most of us here are on the model that the primary and fundamental locus of Christian formation is in the liturgy, Sunday Mass and the Daily Office. Christian Ed on Sundays or other days help us understand and unpack what goes on in the liturgies and out encounters with God there.

    General Rambling…: I do notice a bit of a theological difference between myself and some of the things that Bill Carroll is saying both here and in a post on his new blog (which you should check out & add to your feed readers if you haven’t already). Bill takes an explicitly Franciscan stance on the issue of the sacraments and especially the Sunday Eucharist. I’m fully committed to the Eucharist. I’m a great and hearty believer in the importance of the means of grace in the Eucahrist. Issues surrounding the Eucharist and the place given it was one of the reasons I left the Lutheran Church. But I find myself in a more Benedictine place than a Franciscan one. That is, yes, reception of the sacrament is a blessing, a direct encounter with grace, but is not our only channel for it. A daily mass spirituality often (not necessarily, but often) leads to a side-lining of the Daily Offices. Repetition of the Psalter and the praying through Scripture is also a means of grace especially when liberally sprinkled with the Sacrament. I like daily mass and loved the option of communing daily at StMV when we lived/worked in New York, but there in particular it never came at the expense of the Office—and that’s what I insist upon for myself.

  38. PS(anafter-thought)

    Unless a person is in a position where the only work that person can get is on Sunday morning, (or weekends)such as is the case in touristy communities, we really can’t judge the person’s need to take a certain job.

    What about being welcoming? Do we say we want people to come to church, but we only unlock the doors for an hour each Sunday morning? Isn’t that another way to look at it when we insist on not splitting up the worship times?

    I have a relative who likes me to visit, but she locks her door at a certain time each evening, about 6:30 pm. Mornings are private time for her. She is out during the day often. She likes her meals at certain times, so that isn’t a good time to visit. Result: she doesn’t come across as being welcoming.

    When I was growing up, my RC friends were “required” to attend Mass on Sunday, but their church also had masses every day. At least they did, in effect, have alternatives, even if they didn’t think of it in that way in those days.

    A number of Protestant churches currently have infrequent communion, so if you happen to miss the certain Sunday, you might miss out on the Lord’s Supper for months.

    Well, do we attend for what we are fed or do we attend so we can worship? And what part of each of these reasons can be done without corporate worship?

  39. Christopher

    Liturgy is the heart of formation, and ideally is Mass-and-Office from a Benedictine perspective. That same perspective also organizes our Prayer Book: Office and Mass.

    So that is one of the reasons I propose an ante-communion for Morning and/or Evening Prayer on weekdays. And it prevents the Office being swallowed up by the Mass while recognizing that Holy Communion tends to be a draw. This way, folks are fed the Sacrament and they are fed by the richness of the Office (which is it’s own meeting of the Word, Jesus Christ). It’s a twofer. And if reserved Sacrament were used, it would allow trained laity to lead, which invites a stronger networking community and takes some pressure off of clergy.

    One of the reasons I was a daily-masser is because of the community, the other was it was offered at 5pm so I could make it after classes and work. Nearly all parishes in my area have typical 10 or 11am service of Holy Communion on Sunday–this is in an area rife with universities and colleges! The RC’s are better at providing Sat. or Sun. evening services. As a full-time employee and student, this can be difficult. When I miss Sunday, I miss my community as much as I miss Holy Communion. When I miss, I receive Holy Communion on Wednesdays because the seminary offers chapel that day. Is it ideal. No.

    Parishes need to be intentional about emphasis on sacramental, pastoral, and educational duties from the start. These are the reasons the Church sets aside presbyters–not to be branch managers as Fr. Bill put it so well (and I think an attitude that some lay persons have toward priests in a production-oriented society and culture). And parishes as well as priests need to be clear from the start about down and family time as part of overall vocational life. The last thing we need are more clergy burnouts or divorces. These hurt parishes, priests, and families. One of the gifts, I hope, that I’ve brought to the Vestry, is some understanding of the pressures on clergy and their families. And we don’t even have children. That ups the ante considerably.

    We all have gifts to bring to building up the Body, and I think framing all of this in these generous terms rather than trichotomies of devout/lax/lapsed is more likely to have good results as well as encourage a sense of our mutual need and enjoyment of one another in Christ. One of those gifts is recognizing that we all are multi-vocational, and these vocations can involve complicated decisions. Some are monastics and priests, some are householders and priests and parents, some are householders and students and parents, etc. In such richness of persons, recognizing flexibility and generosity toward one another will bear more fruit than determining that one’s own way must be for all.

    This kind of flexibility recognizes that if a person gets in an Office with only one psalm and one reading, it may not be ideal for the monastic, but for many householders such is to be commended.

    Hold the line that the joyous expectation is Sunday Mass and Daily Office. Do all we can to provide these. And greet as Christ all who show when they show. Who knows what part of Christ’s work they’ve been about that week or month…?

  40. Bill Carroll

    I’m very much in agreement with Christoper’s remarks. I’m not a huge fan of office with communion, though we did it last year on the Sundays in Advent in response to those who miss morning prayer and the canticles.

    With regard to Derek’s point (thanks very much for the link), I would see Daily Office as very much a part of the discipline that I would hold up. The Franciscan rule is explicit about this, though it prescribes the breviary (rather than the full monastic office) for the brothers who can read and a certain number of Our Father’s for those who can’t. In this spirit, which lines up with the attitude of the English Reformers, I’m not particular about what form the office takes. For some, a single office or the daily devotions for individuals and families might suffice. I tend to pray both Morning and Evening Prayer, offering Noonday prayer and Compline less frequently. I would like to see some kind of liturgical prayer, in a regular rhythm, out of the BCP each day. Frequent communion (3 or 4 times weekly, not daily) is all I can manage right now. I would continue to see weekly as minimum, unless one can’t get to a priest.

  41. Erika

    I’m not sure I’d say we should just “want people to come to church.” I think the goal is for the Church to be a people who, empowered by and as instruments of God’s grace, make each other into saints, and worship of God is central to that. (And I’d agree w/ Derek that the Office is a necessary part of that worship too!) If having different mass times is the best solution in an imperfect world to meet that goal, so be it. But I think that approach–especially when it stops being a less-than-ideal compromise and starts being a mindset–comes with the danger of teaching people that their Christian commitment should fill in around their other commitments, instead of their Christian commitment being primary.

    I also wouldn’t say that being “welcoming” should necessarily be a goal if we haven’t sorted out what we’re welcoming people to. If we discern that a life of following Jesus Christ is ordered a certain way–like, we pray the office each day, we celebrate Eucharist together on Sunday, we tithe, we serve the hungry/poor/imprisoned, etc–then we’re not welcoming people to the Christian life if we don’t draw them into this kind of life. We misrepresent the Gospel if we teach people that it asks anything other than that we die. We die to the world and live to God, and I agree with Fr. John-Julian that the Church fails the people who are trying to be most faithful when it ceases to be a community that demands and supports that kind of radical life and starts to make more and more concessions to the world.

  42. Chris


    I think it’s a bit cruel to confront people who work on Sundays with the question, “Is work more important than church?” The vast majority are hourly wage people who likely have very little choice about it.

    It also ignores the question of vocation — changing secular work is not a trivial question of swapping different means of earning a living. My father was and is called to the vocation of firefighter — so he worked many Sundays on midnights shifts or day shift. Likewise for nurses, doctors, police officers, and many others on shift work.

    Could those folks quit and take Monday-Friday jobs that would let them get to church? Perhaps. But we’d be without their talents to keep us safe and healthy, and they would not be fulfilling the call God gave them.

    I agree that the standard and the expectation should be attendance every Sunday. But we must also be models of God’s grace, not play legalistic and judgmental “older brothers” to those we think are prodigal sons simply because we don’t see them on a given Sunday.

  43. Grant

    What’s the purpose of communion, frequent or otherwise? As I’ve been following the conversation I’ve been feeling the tug toward one of the pieces of living the faith that hasn’t been raised (much?) yet. We’ve talked about people in the world and the challenges they face in getting to church…the demands or excuses, so we are definitely discussing the world outside of worship. That’s where we go after taking communion. That’s where we clergy ‘send’ lay people, communion equipping us all for ministry. Prayers of the People definitely make that clear. The Post-Communion Prayer contains, “And we humbly
    beseech thee, O heavenly Father, so to assist us with thy
    grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do
    all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in.” Seems an equal emphasis on continuing in that holy fellowship with doing the work of God in the rest of our lives. Then the dismissal–unambiguous scattering of the seed of the faithful out into a broken and hurting world. We can take communion daily, but if that doesn’t lead to growth and empowerment to proclaim by word and deed the grace and life-altering power of God, then the benefits of reception are severely truncated, to the sorrow of the Spirit I suspect.

  44. Chris

    I should add that — setting aside the issue of vocations where work is potentially 24/7 like nursing and the fire service — when we talk about the expectation that the Body should gather every Sunday conflicting with people’s need to work, there is a question of economic justice the Church currently fails on.

    We could have all those people who work at K-Mart and as janitors at the ball park and at the gas station coming to church every Sunday instead of working — but it would require more than just Christians abstaining from buying gas and going to Sunday ballgames. It would require a Church like the one in Acts, where we share all things in common and people who need money so badly that they have to take minimum wage work on Sundays could instead come to the Church with their needs.

    That is not the Church we live in. We have to be very careful about blaming individuals for problems that the Church is called to solve but does not currently succeed in solving. The conflict between secular work and gathering as the Body of Christ on Sundays is as much an indictment of the Church as it is of people who can’t make it to worship, if not more.

  45. Erika


    I’m sorry for coming across that way, and I realized after the fact that I wasn’t articulating what I meant very well. (Toddler running to and fro…) I didn’t mean to be glib or rhetorical in asking if work was more important than church. Truly. I meant to point toward the question that you explored much better using the language of vocation, or the question the Church has wrestled with for ages about what jobs Christians could hold and the weighing of real material needs with the structure and goals of a Christian life. (While I don’t think this line of inquiry is cruel, I do hope to learn to talk about it in a way that doesn’t seem so.)

    Lots of people have made very hard decisions about work life and religious life (ask an Orthodox Jew…or for that matter the fisherfolk who were Jesus’s first followers!), regardless of what socioeconomic class they are in. (In my experience, it was not the working class members of the parish who cited work as the reason for being away from church, so it’s a question for all Christians, clearly!)

    Rather than being legalistic, I was hoping to point toward flexibility in offering the idea that parishes where a lot of people worked on, say, Sunday morning, could decide to have their Eucharist Sunday evening or Saturday, etc. to respond to the reality of parishioners while still allowing the whole Body to gather. Again, it seems I have a lot of work to do when it comes to saying what I mean. I hope you’ll forgive me.


  46. Erika

    PS–I was thinking that same thing about the Church of Acts, but didn’t want to even go there because I thought then I’d sound *really* wack and radical! :)

  47. Christopher

    I’ve offered a few further thoughts as we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension.

  48. Pingback: Consistent churchgoing habits important for children « Churchmouse Campanologist

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