Stated and Revealed
Sometimes, what we think we want and what we actually want are two different things.
At the very first big meeting of the congregation that I serve, I talked to the leadership of that congregation about the importance of being present. I told them that it was important that they—as the leaders of the congregation—show up for things like Sunday morning worship.
At the next big meeting, some people pointed out that showing up on Sunday mornings is hard for them: it’s hard to get out the door with little kids, and there are volleyball tournaments that the older kids worked hard to be a part of, and there are late Saturday nights, and all of that. And some of those people suggested that—while it was hard for them to be in worship on Sunday morning—if there was another serving in another style on another day, then that might be a little easier.
So we thought. And we planned. And on the first Saturday in March, at 4:30 in the afternoon, we had a very informal worship service. A little singing, a little scripture, a little sermon, a little prayer. Some conversation and some communion.
There were ten people there. And then seven. And then five. And then none. And then none. And then Easter (and no Saturday service during Holy Week). And then two.
And only two people ever came more than once. And those two people came twice.
This is a little bit my fault.
When we first planned this service, I told the leadership that I needed ten people would commit to being present at the Saturday services for some number—four or six or eight—of weeks. I did not see ten hands go up. I heard one person say that they would try to be there as much as they could.
So I should have stopped it there. Some people said that they wanted a thing, and I should have asked them to convince other people to want the thing, until there were enough people committed to the thing for the thing to succeed.
But I like the idea. And the people who had talked about wanting the services seemed like they really wanted the service. And it would be wonderful if it worked. So I went ahead.
So this is a little bit my fault. But I’m also a little bit resentful about it.
In an earlier post, I wrote about days off and slack days:
I take one day off per week. At least, I’m learning to take one day off per week: twenty-four consecutive hours where I do not attend to work or work-related things unless they are really and truly emergencies. And that is, admittedly, hard. It means saying to others and to myself that this thing—whatever that thing might be—can wait until tomorrow.
But I also have one day per week that is unscheduled. If nothing comes up, then it can be my second day off for the week. But when things do come up—and something often comes up—it has three units of time that can absorb those things. Sometimes, that might mean that the unexpected gets scheduled for that day. More likely, it will mean that the things that are displaced by the unexpected get rescheduled for that day.
Saturday was my slack day. And now there was a worship service at 4:30 in the afternoon. And there was the work—not a lot of work, since I could repurpose some things from the Sunday service, but work all the same—that comes along with an additional worship service.
I didn’t lose the whole day. But I lost some of it. And that would have been fine if this had been a thing that people actually wanted: if people who didn’t show up on Sunday morning had started showing up on Saturday afternoon, and if those people had invited their friends, and if it felt like the Spirit was moving.
But it was not fine when it started to become me hanging out at the church by myself on one of my kind-of-sort-of days off. And I was not fine with it.
So this is a little bit my fault. And this is a little bit the fault of the difference between stated preferences and revealed preferences.
We do not always know what we want. Or, maybe a little more charitably, we don’t always know how we will prioritize our wants when the time comes to do so.
I may say that I listen to classical music and jazz and the occasional broadway musical. I may say that I listen to heady podcasts about political policy and theology and church culture. And I do. But one look at my Apple Music library would tell you that I also listen to a fair amount of alt-pop. In fact, I probably listen to more alt-pop than I do of the other stuff.
This is a little simplistic, but,
What I say that I want is my stated preference; and it can be completely true. But what I do is my revealed preference; and it is certainly true. I do like to listen to the things that I say that I like to listen to. But, when I just want to throw something on, it tends towards Alanis Morisette and Metric and Kailee Morgue. Or does it? Is that just what I’m saying? Is there more than could be revealed?
I think that people were being honest when they said that they wanted a worship service on Saturday afternoon. And I think that people were being honest when Saturday afternoon rolled around and they had something better—for, I supposed, a given value of ‘better’—to do. It’s just that when the moment came, a different preference won out.
The church—not just the congregation that I serve, but the church in general—is full of stated preferences.
We want a second service. We want to be visible in the community. We want a choir. We want more members. We want more young families. We want more kids running around. We want more people using the space. We want a young and dynamic pastor. We want a Sunday School. We want a Vacation Bible School. We want mission trips. We want youth groups. Et cetera. Et cetera. Et cetera.
And I really think that people are being honest when they say that they want these things (and so many more!). I also think that people want these things because they remember when the church used to have them and they know that other churches do have them.
And, of course, I think that people are being honest when the opportunities to make them happen—to attend the second service or join the choir or teach Sunday School or whatever—come up and people reveal that there are other things that they prioritize over making those things happen.
That’s a problem. I don’t think that I have a solution, but I have two ideas:
The first is making ‘fired up’ our standard. My mistake—the little bit where things were my fault—is that the Saturday worship service was something that people liked the idea of (enough to state their preference for it), but not something that people wanted to do (enough to actually do it). And this is not a radical statement, but the things that succeed are the things that we care about enough to do. We need to be daring enough to attempt only those things that sometimes—anyone—is fired up about.
The second is to look for what the revealed preferences are revealing. People may not be fired up about a Saturday worship service. Those same people may also not be fired up about the Sunday worship service. But people are definitely fired up about helping people living in poverty, providing for refugees, and (I think) creating a welcoming space for as many people as possible. And we need to build on that.
Of course, there are some things (again, I think) that we shouldn’t let go of. Worship is important. Prayer is important. The story that we encounter in scripture is important. But we can also look to the other places—the places that we don’t immediately think about when we think about ‘church’—where people are fired up. Where, dare I say it, the Spirit it moving.
So, what are you fired up about?