Don’t people know that this is assumed behavior for church members, not to mention disciples of Jesus? They are supposed to be in worship and Bible class! Then after they get that right they will prayerfully, hopefully, include other things like serving on a board or committee. They will then get more involved and take greater responsibility. They may even become evangelistic and invite friends. But it isn’t happening. So what’s up?
Sure we can quote the words of Jesus about the seed being sown along the path and the thorns and the good soil (Mark 4) to explain what isn't happening. Sure it seems like some just don’t get it or get wrapped up in competing commitments. True enough. But what else is going on? What could we be missing?
We understand we are to make disciples, teach disciples, baptize them to become disciples. So we provide Bible study, devotional aides, worship services, small groups, catechism classes and on and on. But week after week, attendance at worship and Bible class seems random or an afterthought. It may even seem to be going down. So what do we do?
We assume that people don’t get it, they don’t quite understand the assumed behavior of worship and Bible class at a minimum (ok, we’d settle for just worship at a minimum!). So we preach the law, preach gospel motivation, we’ve begged, we’ve cajoled, we’ve asked nicely, we’ve tried with doughnuts, with coffee, even with beer (well, maybe not). But it doesn’t seem to work. How come there is little hunger to grow in one’s faith? How come people just aren’t motivated to come to worship and read God’s Word? The truth is that if they did then they would be drawn more and more into reading and studying and attending! (Right?) The Word is indeed powerful! But some who used to attend now, attend less. So perhaps something else is going on.
The Easy Answer:
The easy answer, but not the best answer, nor even the right answer, is in the content. You know, zippier, better music, greater variety and creativity, better content or delivery both in worship and Bible class. And these easy answers are even confirmed by the reasons people tell for not attending: “I don’t get anything out of it. I don’t like the slow hymns. It isn’t relevant to my life.” We’ve heard them all before. We tend to believe them. We assume what they say is the truth. And it may be, to some extent. We can always do better at trying to do our best!
But there is a better reason why they are not coming to worship and Bible class. There is a reason behind the reason. It is a reason and a truth that they may not even be aware of. Yet it is a powerful truth behind why people are not gorging themselves with the Word of God at every opportunity like a starving man at a Las Vegas buffet!
We all know they should, even the person who is not coming knows, deep down, that they should. But they don’t. So they suppress those urgings by the Holy Spirit to take in the Word of God in both worship and Bible class, not to mention private reading. We tell them that they will grow as Christians, that they will be more mature believers. We tell them it will strengthen their faith and prepare them for the trials of life. Yet they still stay away. No one thinks these trials will happen to them (even if they are in the midst of it) and so they don’t quite see the value of shoring up their faith or maturing in the faith.
The Far Better Answer:
When people have a responsibility beyond themselves they will seek the nurture and strength from Word and worship. Look at what sometimes happens to mothers (and sometimes fathers) when their children reach Sunday School age. Suddenly some of them take a personal interest in their child’s Sunday school. They volunteer, they help organize. They teach a class. They become the superintendent. They take attendance. They assist. Some even begin to read the Bible for the first time on their own! Sure, not everyone. But it “wakes up” the involvement in a number of parents (unless of course the current Sunday School leaders inhibit people from getting involved! Gotta protect our turf, do it our way don’t you know!) The point is that when parents become aware of the responsibility for someone else’s spiritual life (their child), then they get more serious about their own faith. That child and the responsibility for their child's faith drives them to greater service and nurture for themselves.
Have you noticed when a person gets personally involved in ministry in other ways? It may be that they take a personal interest in a co-worker. They have a friend who is dying. They have a spiritual conversation with a neighbor or family member. Then their spiritual life gets a short term turbo boost. They come to church. They stop at the door on the way out with questions. They drop in on Bible class. They email about something they were asked. They want a Bible passage to respond to a conversation they had. They want prayers for their friend.
It’s pretty clear: When people have a responsibility beyond themselves they seek the nurture and strength of God’s Word and worship. For a time they are more faithful and more regular in both. That’s why we need to constantly do our best to prepare worship and Bible class properly and present it in a thoughtful and winsome manner. Their infrequent visit deserve our best effort. The Spirit has quickened their heart and we need to bring our best, not just show up and put our time in.
But don’t miss the point. When people have a responsibility beyond themselves they seek the nurture and strength of God’s Word and worship. What gets in the way is that we treat Word and worship as an end in itself, rather than the oasis in the desert of life that it is! We play church rather than being the church. Word and worship are not an end in themselves but the means of grace not only for ourselves but also to be Christ to our neighbor or our friend or coworker or family member etc.
So what can we do?
While we do our best at worship and Word, we are missing a huge opportunity if we don’t intentionally lead people, often one conversation and one person at a time, to take on a responsibility beyond themselves. It is not just helping people participate in some kind of random service in the church, just because you have a hole to fill there. It has to be more customized and personalized than that. It is leading and enabling and facilitating people so that they take the step to pray for, speak with and engage in a relationship with a real person and help that person to grow in THEIR faith. When people take on a responsibility beyond themselves, like someone else’s life and spiritual life, they will seek the nurture and strength from Word and worship. They will ever more clearly see that they cannot do it themselves, that who they are is inadequate and they need God. Then they will have one of two choices: give up or get busy growing.
This is a key ingredient to growing people in the faith. It isn’t just about arm wrestling them to come to church and/or Bible class for it’s own sake. It is helping them to take on a responsibility beyond themselves. For some this may mean a small step of prayer, or helping with a project. For others it will be seeing they have the capacity and giftedness to be a positive influence on another human being for the sake of Jesus, giving them hope for eternity. It is something that can scale as more and more leaders and mature Christian members, join in having those conversations with others, facilitating their taking on responsibilities and relationships where they need to depend upon God.
So give up the begging and pleading for people to come. And we’re not talking about twisting arms to fill the vacancies in various programs. Rather, affirm people and give them real responsibility for others and watch them step up by the grace of God to touch the lives of others. Then you will see them in Word and worship all the more. You couldn’t stop them!
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Scott Gress is called by Lutheran Counseling Services and partners with the FL-GA District of the Lutheran Church as an independent contractor. He specializes in Leadership Training, Consulting, Coaching and Coach Training. Contact Scott to continue the conversation or experience a free sample coaching session. 561-542-4472, firstname.lastname@example.org or scottgress.com
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