The Sunday Roller Coaster

Reprinted from ECF Vital Practices

by Anna Olson on March 5, 2015

It was a rough first Sunday of Lent in church. Attendance was low, especially in one of our services. There were some explanations for the absences of our regulars (aren’t there always!). But the bottom line was that we had several new folks who were inspired by our Ash Wednesday outreach, and they came for the first time on a Sunday to find the church feeling awfully empty.

On Monday, I shared with my clergy support group that I felt like things were stuck at church, that we are just having the same problems over and over and making no progress. A colleague shared similar frustration in her context. When someone asked what was making us feel that way, we both realized it really came down to one rough Sunday. I had experienced poor attendance and frustration with the way we welcomed newcomers. My friend had had a hard meeting with church leaders. We had both let one Sunday color our perception of our entire ministry.

Maybe it’s just me and my friends, but I suspect we’re not alone in allowing ourselves to get swept onto the Sunday roller coaster. One good Sunday and we’re in the clouds. Church is growing! We are successful! One bad Sunday, and it’s all over. The church is dying. We are failures.

This roller coaster is not a clergy-only ride. A low Sunday or two, and my parishioners are glum as well. I cheerfully remind people that it’s the long haul that counts, but they often seem as unconvinced as I am.

Even if my denials ring hollow when I’m riding the Sunday roller coaster myself, I’m right that it’s the wrong ride for a faithful congregation. Judging our worth Sunday by Sunday keeps us from focusing on longer term efforts that take time to develop and bear fruit. Elevating what happens on Sunday as the test of our whole ministry models a sort of Sunday-only Christianity that we all should be trying to move away from. Judging good and bad based mostly on attendance reflects our desire to be popular more than our desire to be faithful.

Letting “bad” Sundays get us down also serves to obscure the blessings that God often brings out of experiences that we perceive as failures. Having few regulars in the service where we had visitors last Sunday allowed me to focus on the new families, invite their children to help lead the service. We gathered around the altar for communion. They actually got a pretty good taste of the best of who we are as a small, intimate, pastoral, sacramental church that focuses on finding practical ways to live out Biblical teachings on love of God and neighbor. If they wanted big shiny church, they will look elsewhere. As they should. Even on our “best” Sundays, we’re not that big, and not that shiny. Our strength lies elsewhere.

On Ash Wednesday I preached about being dust, and returning to dust, and how embracing that reality can help lay to rest our obsession with success and failure. I preached on temptation and the things that threaten to make us forget who we are, and who God is. This Lent, I will try to get out of the revolving line for the Sunday roller coaster, and listen to my own sermons.

Do you ride the Sunday roller coaster? Might you find ways invite your fellow church members to join you in getting out of line to ride it again?

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