I was struck with a paradigm shift on Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday is usually a high attendance day at St. Mary’s. It’s the one Sunday when most of our regular attenders all show up on the same day. When I’ve looked at all those beloved folk gathered on the first day of Holy Week, I feel like I have a glimpse into what the possibility is for more ordinary Sundays.
But not this year. Palm Sunday was a pretty average day, attendance wise. There were quite a few regulars off at the MS 150, volleyball tournaments, and other outside activities. It was at that moment that I realized that the lures of the world had even reached into the Bible belt.
For some time, I’ve known that it takes about a month’s time to see all of our faithful members. This was reinforced on a podcast I listened to last week that said that the trend is for active members to make it to Sunday worship once or twice a month on average.
I don’t see this as necessarily a bad thing. Sure, I’m at church every Sunday minus four for vacation and another two for continuing education, but it means that folks in the parish are out in the real mission field. How can we in the parish help them be the presence of Christ when their activities in the world trump worship? How can we in the parish make sure they have opportunities to be spiritually nourished enough to be that presence of Christ? Of course this is not a new thing, but I think that we in the Church have to find better ways to connect church and places where we are being Church.
I was at book group, one of my favorite non-St. Mary’s activities, several years back when we joined with another book group and met at a local book store to discuss the same book. I was definitely not there as a priest or a rector but as a woman who loves to read. However, in the midst of the conversation, somehow I was outed as the rector of the church on the corner. There was a lovely young mom there with nursing baby in tow, and she remarked that she had driven past St. Mary’s a number of times and thought about trying it out. She wanted to get her children involved in regular church worship and was curious about St. Mary’s. Another member of the group, a member of St. Mary’s, but frankly, one that doesn’t make it every Sunday, launched poetic into what a wonderful, welcoming place St. Mary’s was and what a wonderful priest I was.
That family of six, several years later, is one of our most active families. They have brought so much wonderful stuff to St. Mary’s by their participation–and I often think if I hadn’t gone to book group that night that they might not be at St. Mary’s. If I hadn’t had a life outside St. Mary’s, they might not have ever come. If that member of St. Mary’s hadn’t been there, too, to talk about her experience, they might not have ever given us a try.
Don’t get me wrong. I want everyone who calls St. Mary’s home to join us for worship every Sunday, but of course they won’t. It is one reason that we have Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer six days a week–so if they can’t come Sunday, they can connect with us at a more convenient time. But I pray about how we can empower them on those Sundays where they are off in the mission field–first by helping them be aware that they are in the mission field whenever they aren’t at St. Mary’s. That distraught dad standing next to them on the lacrosse field may need a praying, loving parish to help him have a little more of that peace that passes understanding. A kind word may be all that it takes for him to give us a try. No, we aren’t the parish for everyone, but I’m pretty certain that we are the parish for an awful lot of folk that haven’t had the courage to come and check us out. Our smile or invitation may be an answer to a prayer they don’t even know they are praying.