I pulled into the church parking lot, and there was nobody there. It’s still early on a Sunday morning, I told myself as I unlocked the doors and went inside. They’ll all be here shortly. They’ll walk in any time now.
But they didn’t. Nobody showed up. Nobody walked in. The time for worship came and went, but nobody came to church today.
“How can this be?” I wondered to myself. Surely not everyone had taken vacation on the exact same day, and they can’t all be sick. I had noticed over the last several weeks, months even (years, really), that more and more seats were going un-sat. The faithful were few, and growing fewer. But certainly there would always be somebody there with me, right? Not today.
So I determined to figure out where they went. If I could find them, maybe I could talk to them, and perhaps I would discover how this had happened.
I got back in my car and drove up to the café, on a hunch that some of them would be there. The parking lot was full, but I found a spot and went in. Sure enough, there were a handful of our people having breakfast: a family at one table, a couple couples in the booths, another guy at the counter.
When they saw me they mostly looked away, but one of the couples offered a rather sheepish hello. When I asked what they were doing here, they said they’d made plans for the day and were starting it off with a nice breakfast. They would’ve gone to church, but they were really looking forward to enjoying their time together, because they needed a break.
Then I drove down to the sports complex and had to park out by the road. On the long walk up to the main entrance, I recognized several vehicles, including those with silver Jesus fish emblems and Bible verse bumper stickers. I stepped into the lobby and was immediately met with swarms of junior athletes, already dressed to play and big duffel bags lying nearby.
I ran into a frenzied mother from church, who was trying to shepherd three 8-year-olds to the right place. She said, “It’s tournament day,” as she hurried on by. Coming down the hallway were two dads, one of whom I recognized, and I heard him tell the other, “If they don’t come to every practice and every game, they sit the bench.” He saw me and gave a smile and a nod as they walked away.
Back in the car I realized that I couldn’t drive all over town like this to find clumps of members somewhere, so I figured to head back to church. I took the long way, through subdivisions and past condos, and sure enough, I saw a few cars in driveways that used to park in the church parking lot.
As I turned onto the street where the church is, I thought that now someone may have shown up for the late service. Nobody did. It was supposed to start in a couple minutes.
I went into my office and flipped open my laptop. A bunch of church people were posting and sharing on Facebook. Same with Instagram. Many of the posts were time stamped within the last hour or so, even the last few minutes.
I decided a more direct approach would help me find some answers, so I picked up my phone and tried calling some of our members. Mostly I got voicemail, as the realization that they may not want to talk to me today of all days sunk in. After trying several different numbers, I finally got a guy who answered. A rather groggy voice said, “Hello?”
I politely identified myself (did he not have caller ID?), and asked him how they were doing. They were fine. Without pushing too hard, I learned that this was their day to sleep in. It didn’t take long for him to catch on to my ulterior motive. As he offered his reasons for why they attended less and slept in more, he hit me with the phrase, “You don’t have to go to church every week to be a good Christian.”
I was stunned, not because I’d never heard it before, but because I had heard it all too often: coming from me! All sorts of sermons and lessons started cascading through my memory as I told people they couldn’t save themselves by going to church or saying lots of prayers or doing good deeds. I didn’t mean not to do them at all. They would have picked up on that, wouldn’t they?
Maybe I should’ve been more clear. I thought they understood the importance, the need to prioritize their time so that church comes first on Sundays. Maybe I could’ve made it more invigorating and entertaining to come to church. How could I have let this happen?
Then I reflected on what was missing. No one here to forgive, or be forgiven. No one to share the Word with, to share a prayer with, to share life with. No one to sing with.
No one to baptize, no one to feed at the Lord’s Table. It was heart wrenching to absorb how much I missed them, how much I needed them.
That’s when the revelation came: they weren’t supposed to be coming to church, and they certainly weren’t supposed to be coming to me. They should have been coming to Jesus. After all, He’s the only One who makes them Christian, and He’s the only One who keeps them Christian. Somehow they had interpreted “You don’t need to do” into “You don’t need anything.” Or anyone. They have themselves, and they think that’s enough.
I arrived at a scary conclusion: if each generation thinks less and less about spending time with Jesus, where will their children be? Or their grandchildren? Probably at the café, I muttered to myself half-jokingly.
As I locked the church door, I looked at my watch. Good timing: I would’ve had to cut things short for this service. I had tickets to the game. I drove away.
Nobody came to church today.
Pastor Steve Kline was installed as Senior Pastor at SHLC on May 25, 2014, after serving 12 years as Senior Pastor at Zion in Wayside, WI. He was ordained in 1992 and previously served congregations in Pulaski and Hales Corners.