In addition to being a counselor and writer, I am also in leadership in our faith community (Gateway Fellowship) in Sacramento, CA.
I wrote a letter this week to the members of that fellowship–and several of them asked me to reprint it here for a much larger readership. So, with a couple of minor changes, here it is.
There are times I teach on Sunday mornings. I also teach occasional seminars, I write books, and even do a few videos to instruct. That is what God has called me to do—to instruct people on the truths of God’s word. This letter is one of those times of instruction. Indeed, it may be one of the most critical things I have taught in a long time. There is a disease of the ungodly world which has now begun to infect the people of God. It isn’t too late to vaccinate against this disease, but only when we recognize how much a problem it is.
To explain this disease, let me describe the first time I saw it. Hopefully as you hear my description of the first symptoms of this disease it will begin to dawn on you how seriously this disease can destroy many of the things we all hold dear.
One of my daughters many years ago planned a party to celebrate a very important occasion in her life. It doesn’t matter which daughter it was or which occasion they were marking. She sent out about 30 invitations to all her friends and waited for their response. She sent these invitations about 6 weeks before the event, giving everyone plenty of opportunity to respond. And then she waited.
My daughter is well-liked and has many good friends. Two of her closest friends let her know the next day they were coming. What a great start. But then something happened that made no sense at the time. She experienced teen symptoms of a large societal disease. No one else let her know if they were coming. She waited day after day, week after week, and no one gave her any indication if they would be there. She even resorted to calling several of them to confirm. Very few of them said they weren’t coming. The most common answer was this one: “I can’t really let you know yet. I don’t know what I’m doing.”
By the day of the party, 8 more people let her know at the last minute. But the danger within their hesitancy is revealed by that one phrase.
“I don’t know what I’m doing.” Let those words sink it. They indicate two things. First, they show that these people were thinking about attending and had not ruled it out. But the second truth is the most dangerous. They wanted to keep their options open in case something more important came up. As my friend Gary told us at a recent staff meeting, this is a case of FOMO. This stands for Fear Of Missing Out. So many people in our culture have been afflicted with this. We don’t really commit too early to anything because something better may come along. There are so many options in our culture of things to do, we don’t want to miss out. We can’t miss out. We won’t miss out.
Those who study church life have identified a disturbing trend. Though church attendance in America is not growing, it is also not shrinking. By one measurement, people who report they attend church has stayed the same for the last 20 years. But average church attendance is dropping rapidly. How is that possible?
It is simple. The same group of people still attends church; they just don’t attend as often as they used to. Do the math on this: If a group of 200 attend church every Sunday, then the average attendance is 200. What happens if those same 200 attend 3 out of 4 Sundays instead of 4/4 per month? The average attendance now is 150, even though everyone is still going to that church. What if all the 4/4 attenders now attend 2/4 times per month? The attendance is now 100 per Sunday, even though the same amount of people attend the church.
I can hear someone saying, “What’s the big deal?”
If you are even toying with that question, then you don’t understand the real problem of the FOMO disease. FOMO, once it infects the soul, is like a cancer. It doesn’t stop. The more you give in to the idea that you may miss out on something, the more events, people and relationships you attempt to fit in. And the more you try and fit as many things into your life as possible, the less important each of those things becomes. All things in your life become trivial. All things in your life are optional, interchangeable and replaceable.
And that includes the fellowship of people you call your church.
In a recent Kinnaman poll of visitors to church, they revealed if someone is going to visit a church for the first time, they will usually arrive 10-15 minutes before the service begins. A similar poll was done by Kinnaman showing that 10 minutes before a church service, only 3% of the congregation is there. So that means most visitors show up to a church and almost no one is there. Think of the visitor: They are already nervous about showing up at a place where they don’t know anyone. Some of them were invited by friends and they show up 15 minutes before their friends do.
So why are people attending half as much as they used to? Why are believers in Christ coming to church at the last minute? Why do we feel less and less connected to each other in the Church? FOMO. We fill our lives so full all week long that we have to fit so many more things into Saturdays and Sundays. We are so afraid of missing anything that we continue to make plans for Sunday afternoon while the sermon is going on. We fit so many things into our Saturdays, for fear of missing out, that by Sunday we often have to sleep in until 11 just to catch up.
I am going to challenge you that if we don’t immunize ourselves right away, this disease is going to mess our souls up so much we may never recover. I could write an entire book on this (and perhaps this letter feels that long) because I am worried about these trends. And there are some reasons why this damages us:
- At the very least it tires us out constantly
- We no longer see the value of a few things because we are concerned about many things
- We diminish the value of important things in the sheer volume of things we are worried about.
- The Bible tells us in so many places that the Body of Christ is the primary place we will see God move to work in our lives in this world. If we rarely spend quality time with the Body of Christ, then the rest of the Body gets weaker—and so do we.
So, what am I suggesting we do about this?
Allow me to share something a friend wrote to me after a recent meeting. She and her husband came to realize as a family that they were maxing out their Saturdays that Sunday became a tiring day. Here is what they decided:
Some time ago, Mike Phillips led a teaching series on simplifying our lives. Something about that series resonated with our family. We were certainly running in all directions and didn’t have a lot of time on the weekends for the kids to just “be kids” and for us to just breathe. It has taken quite a bit of conscious effort on our part to reduce the amount of “weekend activity” we do, what with all of our friends in every sport under the sun and asking us to do that too. But we have decided that we do not want to live our lives in chaos and miss out on our family time while our children are young. This doesn’t mean we don’t have weekends that we are busy, but we have worked hard on saying no. Last Saturday, we had an opportunity to deliberately say no and be at home all day together. How liberating that day was. The kids played outside. We barbecued as a family and we breathed. We have found that free Saturdays are essential to our well-being as a family and this allows us to come into Sunday morning services without stress or feeling like we are missing out on our weekend.
Notice that they had to deliberately plan this: It didn’t happen by accident or because they are unpopular. They also fought the fear of missing out.
In Hebrews 10:24-25 we read, “24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Why do you attend church? Is it to see a show? Is it to show off a new outfit? Do you do it for the free coffee and food? Do you like having a live band that you don’t have to pay a cover charge for? Obviously, these would be ridiculous reasons to come to church. But this bible passage essentially says that we meet together to encourage each other and spur each other to love more.
This means, you are there to bless someone else. They are there to bless you. If either they or you are missing, so is a major part of the ministry God wants to do in people’s lives. We don’t meet together to pad statistics and make us feel like we’re part of something big. At Gateway Fellowship, we don’t put on a show. We leave that to the megachurches. We don’t have fancy furniture or loud music or flashy preaching. We allow others to focus on that.
We believe in community and we do our best to bring that to every member. But it requires that we are there. Not a quarter of the time, not half the time—most of the time. Can you ask God about this? I think it is time for God’s people to decide that the Body of Christ is more important that a marathon, a wine-tasting party or multiple trips to theme parks. I think our church family needs you more than you need two more hours of sleep.
Will you be there when they do? Will you be there when God speaks clearly through someone to you? Will you be there when God speaks through you?