Does this sound familiar?
“I think we all believe this is an important decision. And, frankly, I’m on board with it myself. But I think we’re going to run into some resistance. I’d hate for us to lose people over this.”
If you’re in leadership in a church, you’ve inevitably been in that meeting. The church faces an exciting opportunity, the benefits of which promise to bring new energy and offer increased possibility for significant ministry. Unfortunately, it means somebody’s probably going to get upset.
I was pastor of a church one time that offered an 8:30 worship service, in addition to the more traditional 11:00 service. It was billed as an “intimate” service. It turns out that intimate didn’t mean that the congregation assembled for the service occupied a cozy space; intimate meant that we could count on about 4–6 people showing up.
The search committee told me that there had been discussions before about doing away with the service, but a couple of the regulars got really upset. So, the service stayed.
I showed up my first Sunday to eight people spread over one half of the sanctuary. The organist played. We sang. I spoke about something not particularly memorable. The whole thing felt, in a word, awkward. People cleared their throats. One guy had had oral surgery and spent the whole time looking miserable. I kept looking at my watch, thinking that, surely, 45 minutes shouldn’t feel so long.
We slogged through that routine for about eight months. Finally, I went to the team responsible for planning the ministry of the church, made up of the officers of the church and the heads of all the committees, and I said, “I think we need to talk about the 8:30 service. I’m not sure that it’s the best stewardship of our resources. I’m there. The associate minister is there. The organist is there. The janitor is there. Many Sundays we have more staff there than congregants.”
A woman jumped in and said, “That’s the golfer’s service. They come early so they can have the rest of the day to do what they want.” Another woman said, “That’s probably true. But there are a couple of people who only go to that service. And if we only serve one person, it’s worth it.”
“I’m not sure it is worth it,” I said. “The service itself doesn’t inspire much passion in anyone, until somebody mentions doing away with it. It doesn’t appear to offer anything uniquely compelling, apart from the time slot. It seems designed to offer convenience, rather than spiritual edification. And even based on that criteria alone, I’m not sure it’s a clear winner. I have really young children, for instance, and my wife works 3rd shift at the hospital. It’s always an adventure just to make it here. So, for what it’s worth, I don’t find it especially convenient.”
As I spoke, I could see the anxiety descend on the group. Brows knitted themselves involuntarily. People took deep breaths and looked at the ceiling. One man kept worrying his wedding ring, moving it up and down over the first knuckle on his finger. An uncomfortable silence ensued.
Finally, a long-time member of the board said what nobody else wanted to say: “It’s stupid for us to keep having that service. Everybody knows that. But if we cancel it, people are going to leave the church.”