What happens if no one shows up?
The crippling fear that I'm all alone in this.
On November 28, 2018, we decorated the church for Christmas. As far as I know, this is a long-standing tradition at First Congregational United Church of Christ: there are trees to set up and decorate in the Sanctuary, Fellowship Hall, and the Narthex; smaller trees to put out on tables; and nativity sets—sometimes multiple nativity sets—for every room in the church. And people gathered together on a Wednesday night to listen to Christmas music, have some pizza, and make the church look amazing for the Advent and Christmas seasons.
On December 4, 2019, we did the same thing. I don’t remember why we waited until the first Wednesday in Advent to decorate—I’m sure that there was some good reason—but we still gathered together on a Wednesday night and decorated the church.
And then a global pandemic.
My calendar is weirdly silent on decorating the church in 2020 and 2021. I think that in 2020, we put up just enough decorations in the sanctuary to make it look like we had decorated on camera; and we probably put some things up elsewhere so that the few visitors who stopped by the church would know what season it was. And in 2021, I know that we decorated on a Sunday morning after worship.
On November 20, 2022, we will decorate the church again, on a Sunday morning after worship. And here is what I am afraid of:
Part of why we moved decorating from a Wednesday night to a Sunday morning is that we didn’t think enough people would show up on a Wednesday night. Decorating on a Wednesday night might mean that all of the decorating has to be done by the four people on the Worship and Fellowship Leadership Team. So we moved it to Sunday morning, because there’s worship on Sunday morning, and that means that people are there.
But there are fewer people on Sunday mornings than there used to be. This will be our second year in a row when average worship attendance is about forty. And there are entire families who leave as soon—or just slightly after—worship is over. So, what happens if it is a Sunday morning, and it’s still just the four people on the Worship and Fellowship Leadership Team, plus the pastor, who are left to decorate the church? What happens if it’s not even all four of the people on that leadership team? What happens if it’s just the pastor?
What happens if no one shows up?
For about a year, we had family movie nights on the first Friday of every month. I chose some of the movies, but I also happily took requests. So, while I made sure that some of the family-friendly movies that I like—Coco and Inside Out—were in the rotation, I also happily showed The Sandlot and Iron Will, because people asked.
One person asked for old musicals. That is a surprisingly hard order to fill, because musicals are long: The Sound of Music (1965) clocks in at an impressive two hours and fifty-two minutes, The Music Man (1962) at two-and-a-half hours, and Oliver! (1968) also at two-and-a-half hours. But I found some classics that people like, and that seemed like a reasonable amount of time, and we showed The Wizard of Oz (1939; one hour and forty-two minutes) and Bye Bye Birdie (1963; one hour and fifty-two minutes).
And I watched them by myself.
Because there’s a rule in pastoral ministry that the pastor does the thing even if no one shows up. In worship, we do that because it still glorifies God, even if we are the only ones who are doing it. For everything else, we do that because someone might show up while we’re doing the thing. And you can always come into the movie—especially the movie where you already know the story—late.
But what those two events showed me was that—even before the pandemic—there was a real risk that no one would show up. And in the not-really-post-pandemic world, where engagement is down across the board, that risk is even more real. And I dread the Sunday morning when I light the candles on the altar, and turn around to say good morning to the congregation, and it’s just the pianist, the liturgist, and me.
There is a solid tradition of being a Christian by yourself. According to legend, Paul of Thebes walked into the desert when he was sixteen, right around AD 243, and lived alone in the mountains until he died at one hundred and thirteen. His only companions were a clear spring that gave hm water to drink, a palm tree that gave him clothing (in the form of palm leaves) and fruit, and God. And that is legend, of course—the legend of the very first Christian hermit—but Christian hermits are a thing; they have been for a long time.
But the church—the congregation—only exists when people show up.
And one of my deepest concerns is that it seems like there are a lot of people who expect something called the church to just be there, waiting patiently, without them, until they need it. And who imagine that it will in fact still be there when they need it: when they need an inexpensive venue for their wedding, or want a baptism for their child, or need someone who will surely help them with that bill they can’t pay, or are ready for that final service when a community celebrates them as they go home to God.
But, again, the church—the congregation—only exists when people show up. And if people do not show up now, then the congregation will not be around later, when the people suddenly feel that they need it: for weddings and baptisms and charity and funerals and all of the other things that congregations do. Or, to put that a better way, all of the things that the people of a congregation do for each other.
So what happens if no one shows up?
Maybe the pastor watches a movie by themselves. Or maybe the building doesn’t get decorated for Christmas. Or maybe the church—that church, that congregation, that little consulate of the kingdom of God—ceases to be. Maybe for an hour. Maybe for a day. Maybe forever.
So, if you are part of a congregation, and knowing that no one can show up for everything all the time, what are you doing to show up? And how are you encouraging others to show up?
Thanks for reading honestly! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.