A Random Series of One-Off Appearances

I recently wrote about preaching series that work their way through a Bible book, or a section of a Bible book. A comment, from Anthony Douglas, made an excellent point. He wrote, “They also normalise what used to be an uncontested idea – that God’s people are meant to turn up week after week, rather than in a random series of one-off appearances.”

This puts a finger on a very clear cultural shift that has taken place over the years.

Is it because the rhythms of society have changed? Sunday used to be a noticeably different day when I was growing up. But then, once it became a seventh shopping day, it quickly became the pre-eminent shopping day. Going to church was dethroned as the primary activity of the day. Add in sports, split families doing child transfers, etc. and Sunday is not what it used to be.

Is it because the variety of alternatives has grown? It is not just shopping and sport that offer an invitation to people on a Sunday. More TV channels, more entertainment options, greater local travel, and until Covid and cost of living challenges, even quick foreign travel became a much more common option.

Is it because family traditions have shifted? I grew up in what was a more traditional set of family values. Going to church on Sunday was not top of the list of things we might do. Rather, it was first on the list of things we always do, along with going to bed at night, and going to school or work each day. Most people today do not live life with that rhythm instilled.

Whatever the reason, we are living in an age where diligent church attendance is not normal. A good percentage of church folks are prone to what Anthony described as “a random series of one-off appearances.” It does feel like a good number of people come to church on Sundays when they have nothing else planned.

The challenge for us, as church leaders, is to think carefully about how we respond to this. It is always tempting to simply dial up the pressure. We can put attendance in church membership covenants, we can declare the importance of diligent attendance, we can chase people when they are absent, etc. Let’s be careful of an outside-to-in approach that pressures without stirring motivation. It is easy to slip over the line into creating a legalistic culture that contradicts the gospel we preach.

What does an inside-to-out approach look like? In one sense, we can aim for making church on a Sunday, or a midweek home group, or youth group, so good that people don’t want to miss it. Whether it is the quality of the preaching and worship, or the warmth of the fellowship, why wouldn’t we want to make church as good as it can possibly be – both for believers and guests?

Then there are other details. It is totally appropriate to pastorally care for people. Their absence is an indicator of concern, so checking in is not wrong (but the tone can convey more legalism than care). Teaching the benefits of full participation in the church community, and involving people on the various teams to help ministry happen is appropriate (but always being careful not to fall foul of the outside-to-in evaluation ourselves – just because someone is present is not automatically a positive indicator of spiritual health).

This is where Anthony’s point comes in – sermon series helpfully support the idea of attendance. Preaching in series normalises the idea that church is not a random collection of one-off sermons for a random set of one-off appearances. Now, that does not mean we can make each sermon fully dependent on full attendance at the series – remember that guests always begin by being first-time attendees. They need to be able to fully engage the message, even if it is part 7 in a 10-part series. Even so, a well-crafted series subtly communicates the expectation of regular attendance, and if done well, will motivate it too.

As Anthony put it in his comment, “series preaching better accords with God’s not-so-subtle decision to supply his word to us in rather large chunks sometimes.” We need the whole of John, and Acts, and Romans, and Habakkuk, and Isaiah, and Genesis, etc. The Christian life is not covered by a one-day seminar, it is a lifelong journey of preparation for eternity to come. So just preaching our favourite fifteen passages simply won’t suffice!