Two of my yoga teachers commented recently on the ups and downs of attendance in their classes. I note that when I attend subscription concerts of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra the main floor, where my wife and I sit, may be full or a third empty. There can be empty seats even for a blockbuster performance, like Bernard Haitinck conducting Haydn’s The Creation. So I don’t feel so bad when attendance is down for worship. It may also be up some week for no discernible reason (no big day in the church year, nothing special going on in the service or in parish life). But these days worship attendance is experienced by many of us as more down than up.
This issue of Let’s Talk focuses on sabbath observance and worship attendance. The two are not necessarily related. People may have no time to rest — truly rest — because of the myriad of activities and commitments that demand their time and keep us going seven days a week. Even our vacations can be frenetic, and our omnipresent i-phones give us no respite from work or family obligations. But for Jews and Christians a purpose of the sabbath rest is to have a fixed day of worship. So the two are also related.
Who comes to hear?
Our articles in Volume 17, No. 2 probe this relationship from several angles. First of all, what is actually happening in our congregations in terms of worship attendance? Four of us on the Editorial Board of Let’s Talk agreed to take an unscientific survey in our congregations just to check our perceptions with reality. Nicholas Zook tabulated the results and reports on what we found. My people thought it was a good exercise. Maybe other pastors would like to use it in their congregations.
There have also been scientific, that is, professional sociological surveys of worship attendance and analytical crunching of the numbers. R. Stephen Warner, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a member of Immanuel, Evanston, analyzes the sociological surveys and analyses. He notes the tendency of people to self-report that they attend worship weekly when, in fact, they aren’t in church every week. But he also sees something positive about this in terms of people’s self-perception: they think they are at worship every week because they believe they should be.
What about synagogue worship attendance on the Sabbath? Is there even an expectation among Jews that Sabbath observance includes participation in public worship? Rabbi Andrea London of The Free Synagogue in Evanston, draws on some recent surveys of Jewish worship attendance and offers reasons as to why worship attendance is so low in the Reform and Conservative Jewish traditions. She also lists programmatic efforts in her synagogue to increase attendance that will strike many of our pastors are comparable to their own efforts.
Worship, rest, and play
From a lay perspective, Dorothy Bass discusses the difficulty to making time for Sabbath observance but also develops a spirituality of time that includes a realistic assessment of what we can really accomplish with the time we mortals have. She points out what is so obvious that we take it for granted: time is a gift. How shall we use this gift to honor the Giver and derive its intended benefits in our use of the time we have been given?
“As I see it” (my regular column), the issue is not only that we take no rest but that we have lost our capacity to worship. We don’t see the expression of devotion as something that has value in itself . Imbued with the instincts of works-righteousness (a consequence of our fallen condition), we look for what we can accomplish or get out of everything, including worship. We have spoken of worship, or more specifically of liturgy, as “work.” Maybe we should try the concept of liturgy as “play.” Or do we also need to learn afresh how to play?
My young colleague, Ben Dueholm, is “on the way” (his regular column) toward deconstructing our spiritualization of Sabbath by suggesting that Sabbath has economic as well as religious dimensions, and that the Sabbath commandment entailed justice issues that we might reconsider. Should the ox be muzzled while it is treading the grain? Are we ready to work politically to restore Sabbath/Sunday legislation?
This issue of Let’s Talk will be online during the summer months when people might have an opportunity to explore the gift of sabbath for this world and also worship as the playground of the kingdom of God. Feel free to make use of articles that are posted with this issue or to direct members of congregations to read online.
Do any of you write? Let’s Talk is always looking for writers and Editorial Board members. Let your interest be made known to a board member. We look for both lay and clergy writers and board members from every part of this Church, especially in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod of the ELCA.