“If our members did not let their kids play on travel leagues or Sunday sports, our attendance would increase by 25 percent.”
A pastor in Texas said that to me just one week ago. I’ve heard that sentence or similar sentences countless times. Sunday used to be the day for church and only a few other businesses. Now Sunday is a day for almost anything and everything. And church leaders are often frustrated that some of their most committed members are among those whose children are in Sunday sports.
Let’s look at the issue as objectively as possible. I get the angst. When I served as a pastor many years ago, we would lose one-fourth of our attendance when members and their extended families went on a weekend camping excursion twice a year. I immaturely dreaded preaching to the more vacuous room on those frustrating days.
Here are five considerations. I would love to hear your perspectives as well.
1. Many members are less committed to the church today. From the second chapter of Acts to the third chapter of Revelation, that entire part of the New Testament is either to the local church, about the local church, or written in the context of the local church. The local church is God’s plan A for His mission on earth until Jesus returns, and He did not give us a plan B. Sadly, many church members view the gathered church as just another activity from which to choose. Sometimes sports win. Sometimes sleeping in wins. And sometimes, taking a day off wins. By the way, what do you call a church member who attends only once a month? An elder (or deacon). Yes, that was my weak attempt at humor.
2. Churches expect less today than they did a few decades ago. It’s not just that members are less committed; churches have lowered the bar of biblical expectations of what it means to be a part of the body of Christ. It’s analogous to a wedding ceremony where the groom tells the bride that he loves her, but that he does not plan to spend much time with her. We have dumbed down church membership in many of our churches. We don’t even expect our members to spend time with the bride of Christ.
3. Cultural norms have changed. Have you ever heard of “blue laws”? Those were real laws of cities, counties, and states that restricted most businesses from opening on Sundays. I grew up with those laws. You either went to church or hid in your home so no one would know you weren’t in church. The culture was largely pro-church and pro-Christian then. Yes, the times have changed. But we can’t blame culture for our low-commitment churches. The problem is best seen in the mirror.
4. Churches have adapted to cultural changes in the past. It is likely that Sunday morning worship times, particularly the sacrosanct (at least for a season) 11 am service, was an accommodation to an agricultural society. Get the farm chores done, then go to church. Do we leaders in churches need to reconsider our times and days? Is there anything heretical about offering a Thursday night service in addition to the Sunday morning service? Are we being too rigid with our own schedules? Should we consider accommodating the Sunday sports schedules at least part way?
5. The frustration has been exacerbated by COVID. Since the quarantine and re-opening of churches, attendance has fallen by a median of 20 percent. It feels like we lost one of five members and attendees overnight. In reality, we did lose them! Now, when those three kids are playing soccer, softball, and flag football on Sunday morning, we really get frustrated. There are even fewer people gathered for worship than before.
I doubt we will solve this challenge with this short article. But I would really like to hear from you. Does your church have the Sunday sports challenge? Are you trying to address it positively? If so, what are you doing?
Let me hear from you.
Want to learn more about this subject? Check out these resources: The Complete Membership Class Toolkit, I Am a Christian, “The Once-a-Month Churchgoers Are Becoming More Common” by Thom S. Rainer.
Posted on October 31, 2022
With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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Another way of looking at it is that in the free market of ideas and activities, the church can’t compete for peoples attention. In other words, without government support of Christianity through the passing of “Blue Laws” which you so fondly refer to, religion doesn’t have a chance. Too bad that pesky Constitution prevents that.
Now that Christianity sold itself out, and has become nothing but a political movement, people really would rather spend their time otherwise.
You guys made your bed, you lie on it
These days it seems that being “committed” to a church means that if I go to any church service on Sunday, I will go there, and I will not go anywhere else because I am “committed.” But it does NOT mean that you can assume my presence and participation every Sunday, or even most Sundays, and probably less than 50% of the time.
This is a real challenge. I appreciate your reminder that 11 a.m. Sunday morning is not sacred. I remember decades ago when the suggestion to move our Sunday night service earlier met great resistance. “Change” was opposed. When we investigated the history of the late start time, we discovered that it had been set because of all the farmers in the church who needed to get their chores done before coming to church. How many farmers were still in the church? ZERO! This challenge could also be an opportunity. What if churches had a mini church service — say 15 or 20 minutes — which was offered at the soccer field complex at several different times? Perhaps that would be an incarnation move in our current culture and put a different “face” on the growing sense that it has become irrelevant.
The problem with lack of people at church is:-
1 When people join the church they are not bring taught a) what the church expects of you
b) what you can expect from the church.
2. Lack of commitment.
Elders should watch the podcast you and your father did some time ago.
I was with a church in Sacramento, Ca. for 28 years. I do not recall ever hearing a conversation or complaint along
the lines of which you speak. Church sport activities were always in the afternoon after church worship. There were
two church venues each year that caused attendance to drop. However, these were church functions and they were
planned and intentional. I think that pastors and church leaders need to learn how to ‘think outside the box’. Church
life does not ‘start and end on a Sunday morning’. This (Sunday mornings) need not be a problem, even in today’s modern culture.
Thanks for this article. I have experienced this frustration. Maybe a follow up article about meaningful church expectations would help. Can we try to define the ‘biblical expectations of church membership’ for both sides-the members and the church? For members, things like attendance and stewardship requirements, a commitment to prayer and service? For the church, a commitment to biblical and creative teaching, worship, facilitating missions and evangelism training in addition to robust discipleship opportunities, fellowship, etc.
Then could you discuss regular accountability to these things? Lake Pointe Church in Rockwall, Texas tried to practice an annual ‘census’ of the membership where they asked non or low attenders, ‘Do you still want to be a part of this?’
I’m niggling here. I think you agree 100% with what I’m about to say. It was just jarring to see the words, “both sides-the members and the church.” My heart yelled out, “The members are the church.” I’m confident you believe that, too, and the fix may be to substitute “church leadership” or “the church as a whole” for “church.
Your comments and questions are completely valid.
I do not believe the solution is an easy one, but I do believe there is a solution. The church has adapted in the past, but for some reason the church is struggling to adapt today. I believe most of it comes from being unwilling to adjust to meet the need. The great evangelist of the 19th and 20th century saw a need to go to the people instead of waiting for people to come to us. We are constantly creating programs for people to come to the church, but maybe now its time to create programs to take the church to the traveling teams. Imagine training a coach to lead his team, and their families, to have church on a Sunday right where they are at. What if the church was starting their own travel team so that they could go minister to their team and other teams?
I work for a large youth ministry, and our biggest problem in reaching youth is that we think youth will come to the church, when reality is that we need to take the church to them. As a pastor for 8 years we did all of our children’s programs in the public school. It took a few years for the church to be ok with not having it at the church anymore, but Guess what happened? Our church grew, and not only did we see young people come to know the Lord, but we also saw their parents come to know the Lord. Now, they couldn’t imagine doing it any other way. As far as I am concerned, we need to stop trying to make the old way work and start doing the hard work and letting God work.
I love this discussion.
First of all a question or so…I wrestle with in today’s culture.
How many Sundays in a normal year should we expect members to attend?
How many Sundays in a normal year should we expect a born again believer to attend?
Thank you for responding
To me you’re describing a much needed outreach which I am all for. The outreach is to a group of unchurched people.
When active members leave their church, their ministry team etc behind and cease to attend for kids sports, as the subject is… we have a heart issue. Their heart is divided.
Optional nights for church service is a great idea as well… if you have the staff to cover it
I like that thinking – I’ve heard the analogy of the bridge being out … we can sit here and wait for the cultural bridge to get fixed or we can find a new route. I think the Lord can help us figure that out!
As the culture sinks lower, it seems that the Church does as well, we just keep lowering the bar, no self-denial, no priority, no call for serious discipleship, so the world sees little distinction. Fellowship at your convenience, online or whatever. Could it be that what we are teaching our kids that the sports gods are more important than the true God? Time for revival preaching and wake up time in America. My opinion.
#4. Many churches offer a week night service…my question is “how does that address the Sabbath day”? If there is a “day” that is to be set aside to honor God on…how does one evening help teach that? I think churches should offer services on days of the week and even multiple service times on Sunday. I’m just not sure how that help us teach the principal of a Sabbath day as well as teach commitment to the local church. Sunday is the traditional, and recognized, day for churches to meet. So while extra services help in the spiritual realm…they need to include Sabbath day teachings. A day…not to do nothing…but a day to do those things that rest the mind and honor God. That day does not have to be Sunday…but a day.
You did hit the nail on the head – Sabbath does not have to be Sunday. Nor does attending worship service have to be on the Sabbath. Arguably, the events of Sunday or the day of worship are not restful or reflective. Often, worship and the preaching in a weekly gathering can be less than restful or recharging. I have often said, if the message is prophetic or even if the message is pastoral it might be upsetting (or should be).
In fact, the gathering for worship should be fellowship and edification – gathering together for the breaking of the bread and prayers.
I love and support the idea of a worship service on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday evenings. I know some churches successfully do it. It helps not only with sports competition but for nurses, wait staff, first responders,and others who must work on Sunday. I’m now retired and was never able to start week day services. I pray others will consider them.
It would be great if a church would utilize your years of ministry experience to start a weekday service.
Many liturgical churches, temples, and synagogues in big cities have one or more daily webcast services (prayers, masses or minyan, respectively). Just look on YouTube.
Very interesting post! My wife and I are now almost 3 years into being Associate Pastors at our church. I am reasonably certain we will not make it to 4.
In a nutshell we are exhausted beyond imagine. Our elderly congregation lives by the motto “I’ve done my time”, thus becoming spectators instead of participants. We cannot get them involved in anything but yet they demand to be “served”.
Even when they come it is sporadic at best, again claiming entitlement to do as they please now that they are older.
I’m just not sure what more can be done here when it’s made clear to me that they have no intention of changing. If ever there was a dying church this has to be it.
I have an article releasing in a few weeks called “I’ve Done My Time”: Four Words of a Dying Church.”
Awesome! I look forward to reading it.
I preach from the pulpit loudly that you have not completed your time until you are in heaven with Jesus. My elderly congregation is active and very involved with ministry.
Yes Greg, as do I also. In fact, I go so far as to tell them that nowhere in all of scripture can you find God’s retirement plan this side of Heaven. We don’t stop until we breathe our last. What’s even more disconcerting is that these same people who now are content to sit by and watch are the very same ones who used to rail against such behavior!