I was buying my meal ticket for our Wednesday night supper at church when Mina Tatum asked me, “What was that you said in your sermon a few weeks ago? That only 17 percent of the American population is in church on any given Sunday?”
Yes, that was it. It’s depressing, but apparently true.
“And that means everybody?” she asked. “Not just Christians, but everybody?”
She said: “I looked at the attendance figures on the back of the bulletin when you said that and calculated how many of our own members were in church the Sunday before. I came up with 22 percent.”
And that’s rather shocking, isn’t it?
What Mina was saying is that out of all those people on our membership rolls – many of whom walked down the aisle of the church fighting back tears while the congregation sang “Just as I Am,” and who stood in the baptistery a few weeks later confessing “Jesus is Lord!” – only about one in five of those people actually came to church on the Sunday before.
Now, I know that some of our members would love to come but can’t; they are physically unable. And I’m sure that some of the people who are usually there couldn’t be there that particular Sunday.
But that Sunday is more typical than I would like to admit, and it makes me wonder: Does the church have a future?
If we think of church as a place where people go to hear sermons, sing hymns and enjoy Christian fellowship, then I’m not sure that it does. Churchgoing, as an activity, seems to be going the way of bowling.
“The invention of the automatic pinsetter led to a rapid growth in the number of bowling alleys and lanes in the later 1950s and early 1960s,” according to a research report. “The heyday of bowling was the mid-1960s, when there were approximately 12,000 bowling centers in the United States. Business predominately was driven by leagues where bowlers signed up to come once or more every week for at least 30 weeks and to participate in tournaments.”
“There has been a steady reduction in the number of bowling centers since the 1970s, driven by both the decline of league bowling and the sale of many bowling centers so the land could be used for more profitable ventures,” the report continued.
I’m imagining the owners of bowling alleys getting together and commiserating over coffee in the same way pastors do these days.
I can almost hear them saying, “Does the bowling alley have a future?” in the same way my colleagues and I say, “Does the church have a future?”
If we think of church as a place, maybe not, but if we think of church as a people, the picture changes.
Think of those people who used to go bowling. Did they stop getting together with friends? Did they give up their need for recreation? No, they just began to do it in different ways, and maybe in better ways.
These days a lot of people meet on the soccer field, where children race around kicking balls into nets while their parents sit on the sidelines and chat.
That might be a more family-friendly form of recreation than leaving the kids with a babysitter while the grown-ups go to the bowling alley to chain-smoke and drink.
If church is not a place but a people, and if those people are committed to Christ and his mission, then church could take a hundred different forms.
What if there’s a soccer mom living next door to you right now who has no interest in going to church, but if you asked her to come with you on a mission trip to help AIDS orphans in Africa, she would start packing her bags?
What if that guy hanging out in front of the 7-Eleven with all the tattoos and piercings wouldn’t come with you to Sunday school, but would come with you to tutor a third-grade boy at a local elementary school?
What if the church of the future has less to do with sitting in pews and more to do with pounding the pavement?
Would that be a bad thing? No. Not if it’s grounded in relationship to Christ and commitment to his mission. It could be a good thing. It could be a very good thing indeed.
Our year-long, every-member mission trip is giving us an opportunity to explore new ways of being the church, and not just going to church.
Maybe we’ll get to that place where we stop counting how many people happen to be in church on any given Sunday, and instead start counting how many times church happens between one Sunday and the next.
It could happen today.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.