The Attendance Problem: Cause and Cure
P. J. Casebolt
Paden City, West Virginia
Most congregations experience an attendance problem with their own members. It is not uncommon to see only half of those present on Lord's Day morning return for the evening assembly, and even less return for mid-week Bible study. Another general rule is that the larger the congregation, the greater the percentage of decrease in Lord's day evening attendance as compared to the Lord's day morning attendance. There are, thank God, some exceptions to the rule.
Not considering visitors (outsiders and visiting brethren), it would be understandable if there were a few less members present for the Lord's day evening assemblies than there were for Lord's day morning. The elderly, the afflicted, traveling after dark, or living a long distance from the place of assembly are some factors that might account for this. But, when we consider visiting nonmembers who attend "the church of their choice" on Lord's Day morning and then accept an invitation to visit the church in the evening, there should be no decrease whatever in attendance at the evening hour of worship.
Granted, attending the public assemblies of the church is not all there is to living a faithful life, but it does reflect an attitude on the part of the one attending (or not attending), and it is no coincidence that the stronger members of the church are the ones who do not forsake the assembling of themselves with the Lord and other brethren. Also, there are things to be gained and learned from the public assemblies that just are not available anywhere else.
The Lord's Day Morning Myth
Many church members actually believe that the Lord's Day morning assembly is the only one that is essential or important. There are reasons for this misunderstanding. Some unconsciously read "Lord's day morning" into Heb. 10:25. Others emphasize the observance of the Lord's Supper, and think that as long as they commune once a week they have done their duty. Some evidently think that by attending once each week they are doing what is required to keep their names on the "church roll" and be regarded as members in good standing. Some of these false ideas come from sectarianism, others from tradition.
Many of the larger congregations in the cities were established by brethren from rural communities who had to leave the farms and small towns to find work. There is still a steady exodus from the rural communities to urban areas. In years past, it was not uncommon for rural congregations to have but one assembly on the Lord's Day, and more often than not, this was the only assembly of the week. Most of the members worked during the day and were free on the Lord's Day. Some lived so far from the church building and had such poor means of transportation that they did well to make it to meeting and back in a day's time. Yet they put some of us to shame. Few, if any, worked evening or night shifts in factories, and there was no need to make the Lord's Supper available anytime other than on Lord's Day morning. Some of these customs and habits were carried into the larger congregations in cities, and may account for some of the emphasis placed on the Lord's Day morning assembly.
Nearly all can diagnose the ailment, but what is the cure? Too many of us have accepted this blight as an incurable disease that just has to be accepted and lived with. I do not think God is satisfied with the condition, and until we are certain that he will accept it as "just one of those things" we should do something about it. This shameful state of affairs did not develop in a day, and it will not be cured in a day. It may take some diligent teaching on the part of those living, and the acceptance of this teaching by a new generation before the problem is corrected, but we cannot begin too soon.
First, let us cease to manifest a defensive attitude toward the problem of poor attendance, and launch an offensive drive that is characterized by a conquering, victorious attitude. Preachers can help by planning sermons for Lord's Day evening that requires as much time and effort as those planned for the morning assemblies. Let the congregation know that you are not catering to their "once-a-week" habit and that you are going to give equal emphasis to the preparation of sermons on Lord's Day evening. It is hard to preach to empty seats, but too many preachers have allowed this problem to whip them. As a result they resign themselves to preaching their poorest sermons at the evening hour.
Next, we ought to quit publishing attendance figures for Lord's Day morning, and start publishing the Lord's Day and Wednesday evening figures. Actually, this would give a truer picture of a congregation's accomplishments and furnish a better standard of judging its degree of spirituality. We boast about the hundreds who attend on Lord's Day morning, the goals set and broken in Bible classes, the fact that two worship periods are needed on Lord's day morning, and never say a word about how many stay home on Sunday or Wednesday nights. Preachers will boast publicly about the Lord's Day morning attendance, contribution, etc., and then confess privately that the congregation where they preach is dead, spiritually weak, and morally impure. We need to stop this duplicity, for it fools no one, and only gives the lukewarm members something behind which they can hide. Let us publish all the facts, and cause those who are responsible for the poor attendance to be ashamed.
Also, we need to stop trying to attract people by enticing them, begging them, and appealing to their fleshly lusts and pride. The use of gimmicks, recreation, entertainment, social emphasis, youth movements, etc. to bolster attendance is a hollow effort at best, and a failure in the long run. Congregations have tried these things and still have a problem with Lord's Day evening attendance, as well as attendance at mid-week Bible study and during protracted meetings. In fact, the few congregations with which I am acquainted in the Ohio Valley that enjoy about the same attendance at all assemblies have not resorted to any of these methods, and have emphasized plain gospel preaching. We should riot have to entice members to attend, and outsiders can get all of the fanfare they want in sectarianism. People are drawn to Christ by the gospel, and if they are drawn by anything else they will be drawn to something or someone other than Christ (Jno. 12:32; Rom. 1:16).
Another thing which hinders attendance at all assemblies of the church is the light, joking attitude which too many of us entertain. Preachers joke about those who will not be back on Sunday night in such a way that the guilty ones get a good laugh out of it right along with everyone else. We need to speak and to act in a manner commensurate with the seriousness of the situation.
Again, we need to emphasize the Lord's Day as a day of rejoicing, worship, and meditation. The observance of the Lord's Day is not identical with the observance of the Jewish Sabbath, but we should not engage in those things on the Lord's Day which will hinder our observance of it. Different people do different things for recreation, but too many forms of recreation are not compatible with a spiritual attitude, and too often the members who engage in such things do not make it back on Lord's Day evening. They use the excuse that Sunday is the only day they have with their family, or the only day that they can participate in recreational activities. Some put the Lord and the church on a split-second schedule even when they are attending on Lord's day morning, and begrudge an extra minute spent with- the Lord's people and the Lord himself. Their body may be in the assembly but their spirit is someplace else. James says that "the body without the spirit is dead . . ." (Jas. 2:26). One thing I know, it is miserable. When we love pleasure more than God, our soul is in peril (2 Tim. 3:4, 5; 1 Tim. 4:8; Jno. 6:63). If we do not set the right example before our children and families, and teach them to put the kingdom of God first (Mt. 6:33), we can expect them to exercise the same poor attendance habits when they are older (Pr. 22:6).
Finally, let us start teaching on the subject of attendance. We refer to it briefly once in a while or maybe even joke about it, but we need to spend more time indoctrinating the church with regards to this matter. Some are so hardened that we may never help them, but maybe we can teach the teachable. We should also recognize the fact that preachers and elders are not necessarily responsible for the problem where they labor; they may have inherited it. But, they need not condone it, -uphold it, or apologize for it; they should work on it. We had better do something quickly, for if we do not enjoy the Lord's presence now (Mt. 18:20), and do not enjoy the association of our brethren (Heb. 2:11; 10:25), we certainly are not ready for heaven.
TRUTH MAGAZINE, XI: 4, pp. 14-16