Uncharted Territory

Stumbling our way into God’s future for the church

Lisa LopezPermission to innovate
Making the most of low-attendance Sundays   

by Lisa M. López

Year after year they come, as inevitably as the high holidays, though with remarkably less fuss. If you have been serving a particular congregation for a while you may be able to see their approach as clearly as the dates on the calendar. A few of them seem to trail behind Christmas and Easter. A couple more seem to hold hands with the middle of summer. Really bad weather may manufacture one at a moment’s notice, but once in a blue moon, multiple events converge and voilà! You have a low-attendance Sunday on your hands.

Maybe it’s 91 people out of the regular 160, or 25 out of 47, or (gasp!) 12 out of 73. I cannot speak for the experience of larger congregations, but in the smaller congregations I’ve served a low-attendance Sunday can feel downright lonely. The disappointment catches me the moment I see too many empty spaces, and the turn of heads toward the doors during the start of these services confirms my suspicion that they feel the void just as distinctly as I do.

That’s where it gets tricky.

The smaller your congregation and the larger the gap, the easier it becomes to plan around low attendance in different ways. Maybe you decide to hold off on a particular sermon until more people show up. Or you tell the mission team to save their big announcement for the next Sunday when it may get more exposure. Perhaps you consider canceling a Sunday school class for fear of not being able to get momentum going. Or you might even entertain the thought of abbreviating worship.

While flexibility and adaptability are valuable for the well-being of any community, I fear that the tendency to plan around low-attendance Sundays is adapting in the wrong direction. Take a moment to consider the consequences of such a decision.

When we intentionally make low-attendance Sundays nothing much to be missed, we

(1)  communicate that larger gatherings are worthier of our time than smaller ones.

(2)  imply that the people who are absent actually have greater power in determining the life of the community than the people who are present.

(3)   devalue the time that some have already devoted to worship.

(4)  set up the expectation that some Sundays are nearly expendable in the larger scheme of the communal life.

The more I think about these consequences, the more convinced I become that too much planning around low-attendance Sundays is theologically and practically treacherous for the church.

It’s in our best interest to foster a culture where people are certain that it will be worth their while to show up, even if they are the only ones there. Not only does it serve to encourage people to devote time to God and neighbor, it is good practice for the times when being faithful to God will require us to step forward without many others on our side.

As wonderful as it is to be part of a praising multitude, if we trust that Jesus is equally present wherever two or more are gathered in his name, we should be visibly communicating that the numbers do not matter as much as the fact that we joined together to worship the living Christ.

So instead of “saving’’ the best for other moments, what if we tried adapting in ways that honored the strengths of the intimate gathering and the natural break in routine? One of the hidden blessings of a low-attendance Sunday is the fact that those who show up are keenly aware that they are the congregation. The psychological shift makes these occasions ideal opportunities to go deeper into what it means to live as followers of Christ together, whether by engaging with a difficult teaching, providing greater opportunities for collaboration within the liturgy, or trying out a new practice for the life of faith.

What’s more, there are many other factors that make the low-attendance environment favorable for innovation. Smaller groups are generally more conducive to taking risks than larger groups. More intimate gatherings encourage greater interpersonal engagement. And if we consider that the people who show up on the Sundays when many are absent are usually those who are most committed or most available, the creative leader could not ask for a better cohort for experiments ahead.

Can you imagine the kind of church we could move toward if, any time we see a low-attendance Sunday about to materialize, we take hold of the potential of the situation by first asking ourselves: “What kind of faith conversations do we need to have as a congregation that are easier to begin with only a few?” or “What kind of steps do we need to take to break through some barriers that are holding us back?” or even “What do we dream to do one day that we are not yet able to do because we have not tried?”

It may be a bolder church. It may be a freer church. It may even be a more intriguing church.

Let’s discover it together.

Lisa M. Lopez is the solo pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church, a joyful multicultural congregation in Hanover Park, Illinois. She says that she “may or may not” be addicted to books, coffee, and deep conversations about life in the kingdom of God. She is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary.