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Do we need to rethink Sunday morning?

Do we need to rethink Sunday morning?

Do liturgical churches need to rethink their approach to Sunday morning worship?

I’m asking this question in part because of an essay by Lutheran pastor I wrote about on Saturday, in part because of a comment on that essay from the Rev Gary Manning (which is reprinted below) and in part because if people stop buying what you are selling, so to speak, it is sometimes helpful to reconsider the way you are selling it–and the decades’ long decline in church attendance suggest that a reconsideration might be beneficial.

I am aware that surveys suggest that people who attend Episcopal churches love the liturgy and the music. And that’s important information. But it tells us nothing about the opinions, needs and experience of people who aren’t coming.

That said, I am someone with a preference for small contemplative liturgies, who can’t imagine how to make Sunday mornings more meaningful. So I am especially interested in the opinions of people who enjoy traditional Sunday morning worship but have thoughts about how to make it more welcoming.

To get the conversation going, here is what Gary had to say:

I think the author puts us face to face with the very thing we’ve been pretending not to know around liturgical churches for quite some time. My hunch is that we have to begin to let go of our fixation with Sunday liturgy (as in “Average Sunday Attendance”) as the defining characteristic of congregational life. Yes, worship is important, primary to who we are, but it cannot carry the burden of forming followers of Jesus all on its own. Yet we church insiders tend to focus on it as a way of measuring congregational vitality. Vibrant liturgy may be a “marker” of vitality but it is not the sum total of same. But breaking our addiction to number crunching will be a long term process with plenty of fits and starts. In a culture, with its fixation on big numbers, efficient delivery systems and immediate return-on-investment, the notion that we’d invest three years worth of time and energy intensively working with say, 12 individuals to equip them to be servants of the Good News in the world (and not simply members of a church committee), would be cited as a waste of time and resources. Good thing Jesus didn’t know that.


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Harriet Baber

@ JC Fisher: you can have both impersonality and friendliness. Church for religion–coffee hour is for friendliness. And small groups, which are voluntary, are for bonding.

You can make all this available to people while allowing them to choose the way in which they want to be involved in the church. You can make it clear what’s available, and send the message that they’re welcome, without forcing unwanted attention or contact on anyone. You can let people get into the church without forcing them to run a gauntlet of pushy, fawning greeters, without visitors’ tags, pressing them to sign in, without embarrassing them at an announcement period. And you can have signs pointing them to coffee hour announcing that visitors are welcome and there socializing with them, treating them like fellow guests at a party. When visitors complain “no one spoke to me” it’s the coffee hour chill they’re complaining about.

I’m always amazed that Episcopalians, most of whom are sophisticated, socially competent adults, are so ham-fisted about dealing with visitors at church. People who are sensitive to the signals of others in secular settings, who know when to keep quiet, when to chat a little, and when to enter into conversation with seat mates on planes and in other secular public settings, but become glazed-over, grinning friendship machines in the narthex. And people who know how to socialize at receptions and how to make people welcome at parties don’t seem to transfer their social skills to coffee hour.

The bottom line though is you should be able to have the service, the core religion, without the socialization obligation, without being forced to make contact. That’s why I will never accept the Peace. You should be able to pick up your program from an usher with no more interaction than you have with a supermarket checker, participate in the liturgy, and leave without being noticed or hassled.

Ann Fontaine

My current thinking on church growth comes from our recent experience at my local church and a comment from our unchurched daughter in law. Both look at the role of what are we asking of people. We have recently done work on our identity. For instance -we say we are welcoming – but we are looking at what that really means and how deep are we willing to go to be welcoming? Is it more than being “friendly”? We have upped our expectations of members. This is a criticism our unchurched DIL offered after attending a church in Seattle with our son. She felt like it was all very nice but shouldn’t churches be asking more of people? She thought churches would raise the bar for living in the world. At our local church we are open to all – no strings attached – but once you decide you want more we offer it and expect it. It is an interesting ongoing negotiation with long time members and new attendees. The result so far (and it has not been in place long enough to really know the longterm outcome) – is increased pledges and involvement in ministries (both in and out of the church). As a retired priest in the congregation – it is interesting to see how this is playing out.

I do think the key is asking people to step up to the plate while still having an open system. Liturgy and Sunday morning should be done well with the resources available, not trying to be someone you are not.

Laura Leist Catalano

We are starting to have conversations related to this idea at St. Timothy’s too:

” My hunch is that we have to begin to let go of our fixation with Sunday liturgy (as in “Average Sunday Attendance”) as the defining characteristic of congregational life. Yes, worship is important, primary to who we are, but it cannot carry the burden of forming followers of Jesus all on its own. ”

We are starting to ask…

What if someone starts coming to St. Tim’s first by attending women’s book club meetings, and then later starts attending Sunday worship?

What if someone regularly participates in our outreach ministries, but never attends Sunday worship? Is he/she a member? Does counting membership even matter?


“events to which people can go without being noticed, without making contact, so that one can go without having to dress up or deal with people”

Harriet, I’m fairly certain you and I are both introverts. What you describe absolutely appeals to *me* (who am an Episcopal lifer) . . . but there are all those others who would find the above cold&aloof [Even on this board, you hear people speak of church-visiting, distressed “No one spoke to me!”]

There isn’t any one kind of church (potential) visitor, any more than there’s one kind of Episcopalian. We don’t need to be One Size Fits All . . . as long as every “size” in some way reflects the Love of Christ.

JC Fisher


I think Harriet hits the nail on the head–the mainline church Sunday experience for which many have nostalgia was tied a very particular historical moment, and in our church’s case a very particular social class.

For what it’s worth, I’m completely satisfied with my own church’s liturgical life. It’s a wealthy Anglo-Catholic (but politically progressive) parish, so on Sunday morning I have three different styles of masses to choose from, all beautifully conducted and with a lot of lay involvement; on weekdays, two masses daily in addition to morning and evening prayer. The latter is particularly important to me and many of the congregation. It’s an urban parish, and many of us live and work within walking distance. I love being able to pop in for a service when I feel the need. If there’s one thing I miss at other churches it’s that constant hum of prayer and work.

If I were to tie this situation to our current sociological moment, what makes this church work so well right now (and we are growing!) is the trend towards younger people (especially white professionals such as myself) increasingly rejecting the suburbs in favor of moving into the cores of cities. Furthermore, in many cases, as with myself, not having a rigid work or social schedule that necessitates the grand social display of a Sunday 10am service. It’s odd to think of constant quasi-monastic anglo-catholic prayer as successfully meeting the spiritual needs of me and my fellow millennials, but I do think that might be the case–just like Twitter, the church is always on and active.

As Derek points out, however, this all requires a sizable financial ability, and also a tremendous amount of work for the clergy, even with the help of assisting priests. I often worry that my parish makes it too easy for me to worship, and that my spiritual life would be in trouble if I had to move elsewhere! And of course, I particularly worry that as an affluent WASP of Episcopal heritage, I’m simply returning to my roots–and that’s not much of a growth strategy for the church!

Phil Gentry

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