I have recently concluded a couple of weeks of study and renewal, a time that also included some teaching, meals with students and conversations with academic leaders. I lived in an extended stay hotel; I chose it because it was comfortable, economical and adjacent to the school where I spent time each day.
A Sunday Apart
On the first Sunday morning I knew I would attend worship, most likely at eleven o’clock. This would give me time to enjoy coffee, read my devotions and perhaps take an extended walk. When I entered the dining area I met a number of the men and women who serve in the hotel—at the front desk, in the kitchen area, and as servers. All were without exception friendly and welcoming. I soon realized that I had timed my arrival perfectly. A college field hockey team was just leaving; most had sweatshirts with their school’s name prominently displayed. And then, in a few minutes, another college team (soccer) came down for breakfast. They were from a different school and they filled the room.
I finished my coffee and breakfast, completed my devotions, looked at the calendar and scanned my iPad. I then went to the front desk and asked if there was an area near the hotel that would be a good area to walk. Again the desk clerk (who happened to be from Nigeria) was very helfpul: “If you cross the street”, he said, “you will come into a parking lot of the shopping center. Many people walk outside there in the mornings and evenings.”
And so I looked at the time (I was hoping for a 30-40 minute walk) and stepped outside. I crossed the street and, just as the clerk had said, it was fairly quiet and pleasant. I walked about twenty minutes from the hotel, and then began to retrace my steps, returning to the hotel.
As I walked back I noticed that the parking lot was beginning to fill up, particularly the spaces nearest the big box store related to home and building supplies. I noted that seniors, young couples and individuals were streaming into the store. And again employees were watering plants, putting out signs and displaying items for sale.
I returned to the hotel, got ready for church and drove to the service. Later that day I would reflect on what I had experienced that morning. Most of my life, the Sunday morning experience in a local church has been at the center of my experience. This was true in my family of origin, in my young adult years, and in my work as a pastor. A Sunday apart from this rhythm helped me to see three distinct groupings whose experience is very different. I am not judging them in any way; I simply describe their lives as data that points to the necessity for new and emerging forms of church.
Three Groups of People Who Don’t Go to Your Church
People Who Work
The first grouping included those who were working on Sunday mornings. We have clearly transitioned from a production economy to an experience economy. People are mobile—they travel to see family (who are also mobile), to watch sports, to celebrate weddings and to find recreation and renewal. I met people in all of these categories. And there is labor at the heart of serving these persons—lodging, meals, security, housekeeping. My experience in meeting many men and women who work in these fields is that they are quite open to conversations about faith and the church—they are simply in a place where the work happens at exactly the same time the church traditionally offers worship.
People Who Play
The second grouping include those who are athletes—on this particular morning, both teams were female, but they could have been male. Travel sports now begin at an early age, and many young people play a single sport on a year round basis. I remember a conversation with a family fifteen years ago. “Our son will be playing soccer for the next few years”, his mother began, “and we will miss worship more than we will be present. Can we find a different way for him to be confirmed?” Many of these young people play sports in college; many more become lifelong fans who also travel on weekends through the year as adults to follow their favorite teams. Again, they are not averse to developing in the Christian faith (this was at the heart of the mother’s question, and we did devise a plan for her son to read scripture each week with one of the pastors); they are invested in the development of their athletic skills, and committed to the teams on which they play.
The third grouping consists of men and women who work many hours each week. When they have leisure time (and this is often Sunday), they want to spend that time in their homes or apartments. And because they value these spaces, they want to decorate and improve them. The “do it yourself” industry has exploded as a form of creativity and as an economic activity. As many spend more time at work and in commuting, there is a pull to stay home on weekends, and especially on Sunday, when not traveling. This reality is true in both the United Kingdom and the United States. There was a stream of folks entering into that big box department store that Sunday morning; it almost had the feel of some of the large and newer worship centers that have also been constructed over the past two decades.
The Church in a World of Choices
I grew up in a time when there were three television networks. There are now hundreds, and of course movies are now streamed in media beyond the networks. It is interesting that particular televisions networks support and communicate with the second and third groupings: ESPN and HGTV, respectively. These networks can engage these groups with hours of programming and market products that are appealing to them.
The traditional church does not exist in a vacuum. We serve many women and men who can often be found in each of these three groups. In the church culture of decades past we might have been critical of these groupings and their lifestyle choices. We no longer live in a church culture. And yet we as a church have not always been motivated to adapt to a culture whose rhythms of life are shifting. People live and gather in increasingly varied and non-traditional ways.
Consider: How have patterns of life changed in your own family? How does your local church respond to Sunday activities in your community?
Ken Carter is the United Methodist Bishop appointed to the Florida Episcopal Area. He hails from Georgia with an M.Div. from Duke Divinity School and a D.Min. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Ken and his wife Pam live in Lakeland, Florida.