We've got to become pastors if we want our people to become congregations.
— William Willimon
The first Christmas I was at Duke, during the time I was not preaching regularly, my wife and I attended a local church. That year Christmas fell on a Sunday. Our son was 2 years old, so we dressed him up in his spanking new Christmas clothes and headed jubilantly off to church. We looked forward to the service with anticipation.
But when the pastor stood up to welcome the congregation, he said, "Today is the first time in a while that Christmas has fallen on Sunday. It would have been unfair to ask the choir to sing this morning, this being a big family day and all, so they won't be singing.
"I'm not really going to preach this morning either. Instead, I've got a little story to share with you. You know, I'm amazed you're here this morning. Most of you have guests from out of town. Coming today was such an inconvenience."
"I'm leaving," my wife whispered to me. "You stay with the baby, if you want." She was annoyed the pastor hadn't dignified his congregation with preparation, and she stomped out.
I couldn't be too critical of this minister, however. I remembered many Christmas Eve services when I had scrambled to put together a service only to find no one showed up. Still, he had taken for granted that his people would be uncommitted, that they would be as fickle as a Hollywood audience.
Certainly, the dynamics of the modern congregation are discouraging. Sunday has become just another day to consume. Those who do attend worship nearly demand to be entertained.
But they are still a Christian congregation, and we do well to treat them as such, though how we do that is often hard to discern. How do we preach to such a crowd week after week? How can we move them from being individualistic consumers to a community of saints responding to God's Word?
A number of factors inhibit our Sunday morning crowds from being a congregation, and the first is that our people have adopted many of the values of our consumer and leisure society.
We see this in people's lifestyles. One pastor in Colorado recently complained because of his congregation's weekend trips. His church is located in a suburb of Denver, and many in his congregation own condos in Breckenridge or Vail. Certain periods of the year — ski season, for example, which can run from early November to the middle of April — many otherwise steadfast members attend irregularly. Trying to sustain a sense of community is futile.
We also see consumerism in people's expectations. Not long ago I attended a conference of lay people from a major denomination. When asked, "What do you want out of a sermon?" one of the conference participants said, "We want sermons that start us thinking about something in a new way."
In the name of intellectual stimulation, these people wanted to consume fresh ideas rather than being confronted with the old truths of Scripture. Their attitude reflects that of an audience, a consumerist mindset bent on being served.
Second, those attending have fewer strong ties to others in the church. In my last church, for those nearing retirement, the church was their social center. The crowd at a covered-dish social at church would also be the same at a downtown dinner party. If I would have asked them, "Who are your five best friends?" most would have named at least three from the church.
Even a generation ago, the majority attending our churches lived in the same town and got their mail from the same post office and shopped at the same general store. So much of their lives was shared together before they even arrived on Sunday morning.