Commentary: Sunday mornings are broken

Religion News ServiceNovember 19, 2013 

In a tech newsletter I read, two colleagues addressed the end of the world of the personal computer that they spent three decades mastering.

There will be no more building PCs from scratch, no more tinkering with the innards, no more fine-tuning the operating system.

“The evolution of the PC industry over the last several years has not been good to the old-school PC professional, particularly for those whose careers have been heavily hardware-oriented,” said the writer.

Many clergy and lay leaders are in exactly this position.

Leading Sunday worship – the thing they know how to do, were trained to do and want earnestly to do better – simply isn’t as important as it used to be, and it isn’t where they need to be devoting so much time.

Sunday worship isn’t growing churches any longer. Sunday morning has become a time for sleeping in, kids’ sports and shopping. Young prospects want engagement, not pew-sitting.

Churches grow when they have active small group ministries, high-commitment mission work, lively online offerings, and activities beyond Sunday mornings.

Sunday worship should be part of the mix and it should be done well. But it ends up getting in the way when older constituents remembering an earlier era demand that Sunday receive the greatest share of church resources, that it be the pastor’s number one commitment, and that it be the ultimate measure of success.

Clergy who should be blogging, nurturing small groups, looking for ways like video to reach more people, and using technology to pursue “touches” and “leads” find themselves under fire for putting anything ahead of Sunday worship.

Some of that resistance comes from the clergy themselves. Many believe deep down that their job is to stand up front on Sunday, to welcome the faithful, to lead them in prayer, song and sacraments, to preach with power, and to send them out into the world refreshed and eager to serve.

The problem, however, is that it isn’t working and it probably never worked as much as we wanted. It certainly isn’t what Jesus envisioned. Christians were to share a common life and pray “unceasingly,” not gathering occasionally for worship in a large, walled-off space.

But this Sunday life is what drew many into the ministry. This is what they find most rewarding. And this is what signs their paychecks.

The tech writer said he felt deep “sadness” when he read a colleague’s piece about losing all that the PC world had brought him: purpose, joy, expertise, marketplace value.

I think many clergy feel that same sadness. When what you know how to do isn’t working, what do you do next?

First, don’t expect to find a single answer that’s applicable everywhere. Be an entrepreneur, in the way Jesus was an entrepreneur, namely, adapting to the context; having a fervent vision but flexible methods; focusing on outcomes (transformed lives), not consistency of practice; working outside institutions; being a disruptive force.

Second, use today’s tools (especially technology) to reach today’s people, who are largely diverse, scattered, isolated and not joiners.

Third, proclaim fresh messages that don’t reinforce negative perceptions of religion as judgmental, harsh, condescending, overly concerned with institution.

Fourth, break Mammon’s hold on Christianity by reconsidering facilities, staff and other overhead, and by teaching personal stewardship, not institutional fund-raising.

Finally, stand where Jesus stood: on the margins, in solidarity with people, speaking truth to power, risking everything to declare hope and healing.

Such a faith experience would transform lives and heal a broken world.

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