From the Gospel of Luke:
Jesus said, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, “Come; for everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, “I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.'”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Luke 14:16-20 (NRSV) – May 25, 2013.)
A few days ago an ordained colleague posted this status to Facebook:
Memorial Day Weekend & Trinity Sunday. First weekend of summer. Last weekend of church “program year”. #attendancedrop
In the discussion and comments that followed, he noted that his posting was not a complaint but “a reminder that parish life doesn’t exist apart from the lives of the folks who comprise a parish.” Sometimes, he suggested, we try to ignore that reality and end up causing ourselves (both ordained and lay church leadership) unnecessary angst.
I’m sure he’s right and yet I’m still saddened when attendance falls off. We joke about the excuses for low attendance at church – it’s the weather (good or bad) – it’s sports (professional, amateur, kids) – it’s traffic (bad getting to church or good getting to recreation venues) – it’s a three-day weekend (this one, for example) – it’s any number of things. We joke, but the jokes are tinged with that angst my friend mentioned. Always underneath our airy dismissal of low attendance is the conviction that if we just did the right thing, if we just had the right formula, if we could just implement the right program, if we just “tweeked” worship one way or the other people would not choose to try out their six new oxen instead of coming to church.
I wish I could say I’ve given up that sort of thinking. I wish I could say I don’t experience that angst. I wish I could believe that my colleague’s Facebook status was not a complaint. But . . . as my late mother-in-law was fond of saying . . . if wishes were horses we could all saddle up and ride. Ride to church, I suppose, in this case. But the truth is I still think in those sorts of thoughts, I still fret when attendance is down, and I do think my colleague was complaining even as he was facing the reality.
Is there a “right thing” that could change this picture? Given the story Jesus told in today’s gospel lesson, the very familiar parable of the wedding banquet, I’m going to take a wild guess that the answer is “No.” People not attending to religious business in favor of alternatives has been going a long time, at least since Jesus’ day and probably longer. If we church leaders haven’t figured out how to deal with that in 2,000 or more years, my guess is there isn’t a way to deal with it. People, as my non-complaining friend reminded us, have lives outside the parish church to which they are going to attend, even if it means skipping Sunday morning worship, and we forget that to our peril.
So I’ll continue to try not to feel the angst, to rejoice in the presence of those who attend, to pray for the well-being of those who do not, to wish them well with whomever or whatever they have “just been married,” and to hope that we will see them again when they finish training their six new oxen.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.