“I guess we’ll find out who are the real Christians today!”
It was the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, and a fellow pastor’s Facebook post radiated passive aggressiveness toward his congregation, to those folks who dared take advantage of a three-day weekend by hitting the road with their families. “Just kidding!” the post ended. But I’m not so sure it was a joke.
And I get it, I totally get it. On those “low Sundays” throughout the church year, it can be difficult for preachers to remain fully present to the pastoral task of proclaiming the Word and shepherding a hit-and-miss flock. It can be difficult for preachers to remain fully present on 'low Sundays'. Click To Tweet
However, I could not help but cringe at my peer’s biting admonition, and in such a public forum, with such blatant shaming intentions.
Something is wrong, both in the pew and in the pulpit.
Where is everyone going?
Well I can’t speak for everyone everywhere, but in my context of Southwest Idaho, they’re going camping, hiking and fishing.
Those are the unofficial statewide pastimes. Our attendance starts dipping in May, hovers around 25% less than normal all summer long, and creeps its way back to normal after Labor Day.
My co-pastor husband and I have wrestled with the phenomenon, wondering how to respond. As tempting as it is in those moments of frustrations to whip out a trusty ol’ passive aggressive jab about poor attendance from the pulpit (or social media), we have come to the conclusion that such a response is not only immature, it would be ineffective.
But even beyond that, such a response would be unfaithful to our vocation of shepherding the people of God, the Church, as it essentially conveys a hollow missional ecclesiology. It communicates the false (and dangerous!) notion that the church is only faithful to its identity and mission when gathered for corporate worship. It implicitly perpetuates the belief to our people that beyond that brief window of time each week when your backside is in the pew, you’re life is small and meaningless. So get back to church, ASAP.
Is that really what we believe?
That the only time the Church is the Church is when we are gathered corporately for worship? That the time spent beyond the walls of the building is superfluous to what it means to be the Church? Surely not. But for pastors, who keep the “show” running week in and week out, those who bear the brunt of institutional fatigue tend to lose sight of the vital importance of the other 6 days of the week, the days in which are people do most of their living.
A better response
As faithful ministers of the gospel of the incarnate Christ, we must resist that temptation.
There is a better ecclesiology, one that is missional at its very core. One that declares that the church, the body of Christ, has been constituted by God and God alone.
That’s not to diminish corporate worship. When we worship together, we are drawn into the very life of the triune God, a deep, holy inhale.
But, the inhale isn’t interminable. God exhales us out, scattering us into the world to be on mission, to join God’s work of redemption in the world.
Hugh Halter and Matt Smay, in their book AND: The Gathered and Scattered Church, say it well, “God is the one who calls us, gathers us, shapes us, and sends us out again.”
The Church is breathed back out into the world to be on mission, sent out to be for the world as God has been for us in the sent one, Jesus. We must take seriously this idea that the Church, for good or for ill, is God’s chosen way of being in and for the world. Everything we do corporately shapes our understanding of ourselves as the Church. Click To Tweet
As I pastor, I have come to recognize that everything we do in our corporate church life shapes my people and their understanding of themselves as the Church. When I bemoan their family vacations and their camping trips, or make snarky remarks from the pulpit about them “going to the lake one more time,” I am subconsciously shaping them to see themselves as only being the Church when they are present in the gathering, and thus declaring the time they spend “scattered” as empty and without mission.
We have decided instead to practice some subversive formation, implicitly shaping our people week in and week out, with both our language and our programming, specifically during the summer months to remind people of their identity as the Church and of their continual call to be on mission as that selfsame Church.
For us, truly subversive formation has to go beyond encouraging “friendship evangelism” or relying on attractional, event-oriented shenanigans that are, if we’re really honest, just another subconscious statement to our people: “Get people in the building so they can really experience the Church. You’re just the bait.” My people can sniff out that falsehood a mile away, even if they can’t name it. And so can their neighbors.
An experiment among our people
We have sought to flip the script, to re-narrate the story of our chronically poor summer attendance and at the same time, subversively form our people with a truly missional ecclesiology.
The story has been one of defeat, frustration, and less-than-righteous pastoral anger, all of which communicated that the Church was failing to be the Church by not being in the building enough! Instead of vacation-shaming our people and working ourselves into the ground to maintain full-blown programming during the summer months and sliding into September burnt-out, resentful, and tired, we experimented.
We went to a single-service schedule, giving our volunteers a little breathing space. We simplified our midweek services. But most importantly, we introduced “the bus.”
The artsy half of this co-pastor pair (namely, not me, but my wonderfully talented husband) designed a sweet vintage VW bus image, about 6 inches long and printed our weekly benediction across the body: Go in Action, Go in Peace. As our people set out on their summer adventures, we sent the bus with them, encouraging them to “selfie-it-up” with the bus and share the pictures, hashtag them to their heart’s content, plastering those pics all over social media.
Each Sunday, we shared the newest pics and reminded our people once again, “You are going to go. So when you go, remember who you are. You are the Church. Remember that you are on mission, to love God and love people wherever your adventures take you. Remember that you are the Body of Christ, scattered out into the world to embody this Kingdom of God Life. Go in action, Go in peace.”
And wonder of wonders, the experiment is working. We are on Year 3 of the “Go in Action, Go in Peace project.” The VW van morphed into a vintage pick-up in Year 2, and its most recent incarnation is an old-school woodie wagon. People are staying connected to one another throughout the summer and look forward to our simplified summer life together.
And beautifully and in grace-filled ways, they are beginning to see themselves as people on mission wherever and whenever they scatter! New acts of service and ministries are emerging from the empowered soil of our laity’s hearts, not because we guilted them into action, but because they are coming to embrace and embody their identity as the gathered and scattered people of God, the Church. Thanks be to God.