It’s true that even the most committed believers are attending church less, but it’s also true that people are surrendering their lives to Christ at most churches where the Good News is proclaimed. The 21st century dilemma for the American church is discovering how to make disciples of people who are so easily distracted from attending the very gatherings that can help them grow.
I’m writing this on a Sunday evening after six weekend services that were all full, so this is not a rant from a discouraged pastor, but from one who wants to shepherd the growing flock entrusted to my care. Cultural norms are making us busier than we want to be and busier than we need to be. In my book Addicted to Busy, I explain how the chaos of our culture is making us less connected and of our need to slow down.
What does this mean for spiritual nourishment, biblical soul care, and making disciples? It means the weekend gatherings are more important than ever. The songs, sermons and sacraments that make up our weekly liturgies have to be more intentional toward new and emerging believers. We have to give attention to the basics of our faith and make sure we do not hurry past the simple tenets, under the assumption that everyone is up to speed.
Right now, we are in the playoff season for the NFL and the teams that are still competing for the Lombardi Trophy are the ones who emphasized the basics over and over and over and over. They can all block and tackle well. Their coaches did not assume anything in the preseason. When the players were complaining for something more complex, the coaches ran them through one more set of drills. Blocking and tackling led to more blocking and tackling.
For centuries, most church traditions have recited the Nicene Creed as a way of reminding the faithful of our basic beliefs formed around the Father, Son, Holy Spirit and church. It is not religious rote, it is a recitation rich in prayer and Scripture.
One more thing, I do think we must honor people’s time and there is certainly appropriate attention spans, but people are ok with services that last 80-90 minutes, especially if the service is compelling, thoughtful and full of the Holy Spirit. Looking at the average movie length of the ten highest-grossing movies of each year for the past decade, Hollywood blockbuster’s have gone from just under two hours to more than 130 minutes in length. Going back another decade, movies today are 1.2 times longer than they were in 1992.
The amount of time we spend is not as important as the content of our gatherings. People are coming to church to grow and to connect. Make the services rich with spiritual nourishment. Encourage the saints, compel the cynics and welcome home the prodigals. Awaken people’s spiritual appetites on the weekend and then work hard at providing classes and small groups. Discipleship is a long process and we must not be discouraged. It is a journey worth finishing well.