Sunday morning is not the future of the church.
I’ve come to this sobering conclusion only recently. It’s sobering because I have only ever known “Sunday morning church.” I grew up as a child attending Sunday School and worship every Sunday morning. Attending church on Sunday mornings was not optional in my family. It’s just something we did every week.
As a young married couple, Leah and I worked hard to find a church that we could attend on Sunday morning, no matter where we lived.
And as an ordained pastor, Sunday morning is viewed as the most important part of the week. It is the focus of our practice and faith. Here at Kessler Park UMC, a large part of the budget is spent on staff and resources which will be used on Sunday morning.
However, it is becoming apparent that the Sunday morning experience is in rapid decline, not just at our church, but at churches across the country. Look at our own numbers — our average attendance in 2018 is 108, down significantly from an average of 124 through the first half of 2017.
I don’t think this is necessarily bad news; our membership continues to grow, we’re financially stable and had one of our best pledge campaigns last fall, and we have active members. But our members don’t come to worship on Sunday mornings as regularly as they used to.
Why is that? How do we account for what Perkins professor Dr. Ted A. Campbell refers to as “the contemporary situation that active families do not consistently worship weekly as active members did earlier in the twentieth century”? Why don’t they? I would argue because our lives are far busier and more complicated than in the twentieth century.
Today, like it or not, Sunday mornings are a favorite time to schedule youth soccer matches, baseball games, swim meets, dance practices, and a host of other activities. Parents who work more than one job often have only Sunday mornings free to spend time with their children. Families are often simply exhausted by Sunday; there is no other morning of the week in which they can sleep in, read the paper with a cup of coffee, and snuggle on the couch.
This doesn’t mean that these families have forsaken their commitments to Christ or the church; it simply means that they — and all of us — live out our faith in a different context. Every generation has to work out its own worship patterns and habits in its own context. In fact, the 11:00 am worship hour emerged in a 19th-century American farming context; that time was late enough in the morning to allow farmers to get their cows milked and morning chores finished before heading off to the service!
That’s why I think it’s time for the Church (by which I mean Christians of various stripes and sects) to recognize that Sunday morning is not the future. What I mean is that we should stop deceiving ourselves, thinking that if we only find the right formula, we can get large crowds back into church on Sunday morning.
The verdict is in — American culture has spoken. We don’t own Sunday mornings anymore. We’re not going to get crowds back into church on Sunday mornings.
That doesn’t mean we should stop having worship services on Sunday mornings. Many of you are in the regular habit of worship, which I highly endorse!
But if we’re going to peer into the future, and seriously consider what the church of tomorrow is going to look like, we have to reckon with the fact that it will likely coalesce around something different besides the hour-long worship service on Sunday morning. Furthermore, as we think about the task of creating new spaces for new faces, we will have to increasingly abandon the Sunday morning habits and rituals we have created.
We will have to consider different days and times to meet, based on the days and times that people are actually available to meet.
We will have to consider different places for people to meet, based on the spaces which are convenient and available.
We will have to consider different ways to worship, based on what makes the most impact in people’s lives.
We will have to reconsider how much money we allocate for Sunday mornings compared to other activities, missions, and ministries.
We will have to consider whether our precious programs and curriculum are necessary anymore.
We will have to rethink what we do in worship. Perhaps sermons aren't the best way to spend our time together.
This isn’t bad news, by the way. It’s simply a recognition of reality. The only bad news is what will happen if the Church (and our church) doesn’t adapt, doesn’t find a way to follow Jesus in this new context, doesn’t engage people where they are.
Jesus is moving on ahead, regardless of whether or not we follow. There will always be a Church; there will always be a community of faithful followers of Jesus.
But the time is coming when they may not meet on Sunday mornings anymore.