Thursday, October 25, 2012

Diary of a Family

Recently I chatted with my mother about the way that church and regular church attendance was a part of our life as a family in my childhood and beyond. She remarked that she hadn’t been sure what she should be doing to strengthen our faith and religious identity, but she knew at least that she needed to get our family to church every week.

And that is what we did. I don’t remember a Sunday when we didn’t get up and go to church together as a family. Even when I became a teenager, we were still there each Sunday. It was who we were as a family.
I am very open about the fact that while in college (and yes, even in seminary) I was not as faithful in my church attendance. A lack of connection to a congregation in college, and a vision of a future after seminary where I would be working in a church every Sunday, led me to enjoy the occasional Sunday sleeping in, watching the Sunday morning news shows, or reading the Sunday paper.

When I started serving my congregation as a pastor (recommitting myself to regular weekly worship attendance), it took me several months to understand the pattern of my parishioners’ attendance. I soon realized that I couldn’t count on seeing the majority of my flock every Sunday. I couldn’t put off talking to someone until I saw them at church on Sunday, because I never knew if they would be there.
No one seemed phased by this consistent 2-3 times a month (for some once a month) pattern of attendance.

There are all kinds of reasons that folks don’t show up for church on Sunday: travel, illness, family obligations, sports, work, sleep, etc. I also know for sure that when folks struggle in their faith, coming to church each Sunday can be too painful.
What is interesting is that if you asked people in my church if they are weekly participants in our worshiping community, they would overwhelmingly give a resounding “YES.” What they mean is that every week that they are ABLE to come, they come to church.

A few weeks ago The Pew Research Forum on Religion and Public Life released the results of their U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. From it we learned that Protestants are no longer in the majority in the United States for the first time in our history as a nation. That was an eye-opening finding for someone in the Mainline Protestant business. But Wednesday morning on NPR I heard a spin on this report that was even more interesting. Here is a link tothe full piece.
In the Pew study, 39% of the total population claimed to attend a religious service at least once a week. For Protestants, 50% claimed to attend once a week. The way that the survey was conducted basically asked folks to self-report how frequently they attended religious services.

With input from sociologist Philip Brenner of the University of Massachusetts, NPR’s Shankar Vedantam discovered that when you ask someone in a sociological survey if they attend church regularly, they do not answer that specific question. Instead they  answer the question, “Are you the kind of person who attends church regularly?”
Instead of talking about what they do, they talk about who they are. Just like in my experience, people consider themselves to be once a week church goers even if they are not. This means that it is most likely that the results of the Pew survey on religious attendance are too high.

In order to get around this confusion, Brenner has developed a method of obtaining more realistic answers about church attendance. Rather than asking respondents directly about how often they go to church, he asks them to walk through the diary or the calendar of their week to see if it included participation in a religious service. Using this method gives a much lower attendance rate and a more accurate picture of a person’s religious habits.
What might this mean for us as parents who seek to raise our children in a religious community that includes regular participation in religious services? Are we telling ourselves that we are the kind of people who attend church regularly when in reality we are not?
Many times, in order to pay better attention to the kind of food that I am eating, I keep a food diary. Through that diary I gain a more accurate picture of what I am putting into my body. I keep an exercise diary to make sure that I am getting enough physical activity. My son keeps a reading diary so we can make sure that he is reading regularly. We use this method all the time to keep track of things that are important in the midst of our hectic lives.

What if we as families kept a church diary? Just a simple record, not to pat ourselves on the back nor to shame ourselves into better behavior - just to be a little more honest with ourselves.

There are an endless number of things that might be revealed in a religious practice diary. It could be an eye-opening experience about how many things in your family’s life keep you away from church any given Sunday. It is also possible that it might show how your participation at church is burning you out and affecting your spiritual health. It might just reveal how the rest of your life is affected by being at church once a week - or  alternately, by not being at church for several weeks in a row.
Do you think that keeping a “church” diary would be helpful for your family? Do you think that we are simply moving to a new era where fewer and fewer folks will be weekly church attendees? How does the rhythm of weekly church attendance impact your family or even the life of your church community?

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