When Attendance Equals Participation

Within the larger churches of North America there is the insistent need for people to feel like they are ‘doing something.’ So much that goes on in larger churches is organized and executed by a small fraction of people. If you aren’t on a worship team, preaching, greeting or counting money there doesn’t seem to be much room for you in a participatory kind of way. For a long time the best way that you could participate was to observe, experience and spectate. As time went on though I think people started feeling a little useless. The problem is though that for a large church to function well, it pretty much depends on the select few running the show for the majority. If more people get involved that’s because there is a bigger production at hand. For the select few to have jobs, it depends on the passive spectating of the majority. So what churches started doing so that people could ‘participate’ was start creating more and more opportunities for you to participate. Giving money is seen as ‘doing your part.’ Picking up people that can’t make it and bringing them to the event is one way you can participate. But in the end just showing up ends up being the absolute best way you can participate, especially if you don’t have any transferable skills into making the event run smoothly. Pretty soon you have a lot of people who all are convinced they are part of something important just because they show up, as if showing up is actually participating.

You see this same kind of patterns in all sorts of popular culture. Have you ever been in a conversation with someone about a band and heard something like “oh ya, I listened to them way back before they were famous” or “I went to their concert before they started playing in stadiums.” In these kind of moments of bragging there is this underlying satisfaction of participating in something as if just being present, or just knowing about something, somehow gives value to that person. This is all fine and dandy for concerts, but what happens when this same sentiment moves into the church? I would suggest that when this happens we have a church full of people that think all they have to do is be present during a special moment (that will almost always happen on stage) and think that they are somehow being disciples of Christ.

Perhaps the evangelical church has fallen into this trap that attendance equals participation. Perhaps we as Christians have allowed showing up to observe someone on stage as an act of discipleship. There is plenty of problems with this but what we need to look out for is this lie that somehow watching something happen and listening to things in a big room is actually transforming you. It’s not.

3 Comments

  • Sorry, I’m confused. If there is no room (for most) to participate and attendance does not equal participation, where does that leave people?

    Which leaves me wondering, what is participation? Is participation important/required?

    I like the content of this post, but feel like I’m missing something, so I just wanted to clarify. :)

  • I intentionally left the definition off participation out of this one as I am attempting first to define what it is not, I usually find that a helpful practice when trying to get close to the heart of an issue. What do you think participation looks like in the church? I have some ideas, but I’d like to know what you think?

  • I think participation is when the lines between family/work/play/faith become blurred. You may not play in the band or speak on Sunday but if life outside of a church gathering is reflecting the spiritual journey of the faith community, I think you are participating. Volunteering as a big brother, being on a nieghbourhood association, taking someone out to coffee to see how they are doing, helping a friend move, being a peacemaker at a bar when someone has had too much to drink, these are all ways of participating in the values of a community focused church. It doesn’t have to be done with banners, and it doesn’t need to turn into a weekly small group. Life can be participatory if it is lived looking for ways to be more like Jesus.

    I also think it is detrimental to think of a Sunday Gathering as a performance. If we drop the professional demands of performance and we embrace inclusive attitudes where everyone has something to offer, we might find a higher level of participation occurring. i think any church that moves away from the show will find that there are more people in their community then they ever imagined that have beautiful & unique ways to teach/pray/worship/serve.

    I know this is easier for small communities, but even large communities can move in this direction if we change are assumptions of how church is done. If you have been to an Orthodox building you might notice that there are no chairs. These large gatherings are done in a way where a high level of participation is assumed. If being a spectator is a problem in churches stop setting the buildings up as if it were a theater or a sporting event. Even little things like how a room is set up can create a different participation dynamic.

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