I'm sure it probably isn't the most Christian thing to poke fun at, but my dad and I had a little family joke we would whisper to each other concerning the local church we were part of while I was growing up. "It is the first Sunday in February," was our little inside family joke. By whispering that year round to each other, we were mocking (again, I know this isn't very spiritual) the weekly excuse we would often hear, unsolicited, about why our small sanctuary was basically half full of people on a Sunday morning. A staff member or person in leadership would almost always greet us with some kind of apology: "Well, it is summer," or "There was a Florida State football game last night," and even a "You know, flu season is here and it is really going around." That morphed into my dad and I simply claiming, "Well, it is the first Sunday in February,” to each other.
Now I am no longer a 14-year-old kid attending church with my family, but a pastor of a local church. I was thinking about that old joke and I wondered why there was such a need to make those disclaimers about low attendance to people who didn't even say a word about the lack of people coming. The excuse-makers were just assuming we were disappointed in the low turn-out.
I also wonder why there is a tendency in all of our hearts to do the same thing. For some reason attendance has become the great measuring stick of legitimacy, and we pastors fall, like a NBA player taking a charge, right into the trap. Far too often, pastors compare their churches to the pictures of filled sanctuaries they see on social media timelines, and either feel justified by numbers, or completely defeated for not having them,
Here are five suggestions to avoid feeling the need to claim it is “the first Sunday in February,” even if nobody ever makes a comment about “a low Sunday.”
1. Remember that getting people to come to a building for an hour on a Sunday morning is great as a means, but is far from the end.
The Great Commission calls us to go and tell, baptize the converted, and build them up as disciples. It never tells us to draw a crowd. I think we need to be more careful of the flippant usage of "reaching people." It is a disturbing reality how many Churches boast of the many they are reaching by their baptism numbers, but how few of those are actual conversions, but rather meeting a requirement for one's transfer membership. Denominations and publications even reward these numbers with recognition. Between those counted baptisms and a room full of people, it is easy to convince yourself that you're really reaching people. As my mentor Dr. James Merritt once told me, "Barry Manilow can even draw a crowd; numbers can be very misleading." As local churches we are called by Christ to make disciples, not attract the already convinced to a more appealing option. When numbers are the focus, you will lose sight of what it actually means to reach people and make disciples.
2. Don't be afraid to desire for a lot of people to come on a Sunday.
At the church where I pastor, our elders and staff believe that a Sunday morning worship gathering is still a great opportunity to bring people in to hear the gospel, and a time to equip believers to be sent into their workplaces and neighborhoods as missionaries for the gospel. While numbers do not validate us, for our leadership they are important, because we believe it is an effective gateway and a sending center for mission. It is easy to over-correct the numbers craze by all of a sudden pretending they don't matter. I recommend not falling into that trap either. Those who pastor smaller churches can get the attendance chip on their shoulder and write off those in their city that maybe truly are making disciples by large numbers, rather than celebrate and be motivated to follow their example.
3. Ask the question, "Why is this place half full?"
Maybe you just aren't doing a very good job of taking the Great Commission to your city. Perhaps your members don't have relationships with non-Christians, or they don't have confidence in bringing a friend to your hokey service. Or, you might be doing a fantastic job, but need to realize that growing a church by conversion growth is a difficult process that takes time. You might need to be discouraged by the results, or you might need to be encouraged about the labor you are doing that you might not understand the fruit of till years later. One can have perspective, without having numbers be their justification. Be realistic, rather than defensive or defeated.
4. While it is great to evaluate and measure, remember you are ultimately not in control.
Unless he or she lives under your roof, you cannot make a person come to church. If you could, that would be kind of scary. Why sweat something so much that you can't control? You can create a missional culture where people are building relationships with the lost, but that happens outside of your bundling, not inside. People should be encouraged to invest in and invite their friends to church. Church members can control the invitations, but not the response or results. Let's trust God for that, and in the meantime, be faithful to the opportunities he's put in front of us to make the gospel known and love our neighbors.
5. Search your heart to see why you need to claim it is “the first Sunday in February.”
What's going on, man? Why do you have to quickly give a reason for a “down Sunday?” High attendance is a bad idol that won't love you back and likes to take vacations. We don't just preach about these things, we pastors also are blessed in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens. He chose us in Christ, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love He predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ for Himself, according to His favor and will (Ephesians 1:3-5). What other validation do we need?!
I have a little theory I call the "Podcast celebrity without honor in his hometown." Because of so much insecurity and sensitivity resulting from an identify that centers around Sunday morning attendance, I'm convinced that if one's favorite podcast preacher became a pastor in his same city, he would become his biggest critic. A large, booming church that is 6 states away? Fantastic! A booming church in your town which holds to the same theological convictions as the church across the country that you love? You can't even follow the pastor on Twitter, and have to explain away the success. It really is tragic what insecurity does to our hearts and actions concerning attendance.
I have never met a pastor who did not care deeply about people hearing the gospel in his city. However, if the conversion of souls and seeing people become discipled in local churches is your heart, you will be grateful even if it happens at a building that isn't the place where you preach. When the advancement (or lack thereof) of our own kingdom stirs our hearts, we are in a deep need or repentance and examination of what truly is our mission.