How do we handle concerns of non-attendance?

‘Where was John? I haven’t seen him for a few weeks.’

I am sure the question, or something close to it, has surfaced with more frequency than you’d like in your church. It has certainly reared its head in my own.

Along with it come some other implicit questions. Why wasn’t he there? If you don’t know, why don’t you know? Does anybody else know? If nobody else knows, why does nobody know? All valid questions that deserve an answer and, potentially, a bit of change if the answer is known but somewhat uncomfortable.

But the biggest of the implicit questions that undergirds all these others is this: did anyone do anything about it? This is the big one. If somebody has been missing a few weeks, what are you supposed to do? Here are a few things that I have typically done.

Query the question

I have found it is prudent to query the question. It’s not that I don’t trust the judgement who the one who asked, I am just conscious – as much in myself as anybody else – what we perceive to be the case is often not the case in reality. We may sense somebody hasn’t been around much but our perceptions may be based on a host of other things.

For example, I have been at church one week and wondered where somebody was before. My immediate reaction was to think, ‘I haven’t seen… for a while. I feel like they haven’t been around much.’ But when I thought further, a large chunk of that feeling stemmed from the fact that I had been out to preach or on holiday in a small cluster and hadn’t been there all the time myself. Whilst it was true, I hadn’t seen this person for a while, it also coincided with a few weeks where I had been out for various reasons and so wasn’t really in any position to judge whether the person had been AWOL or it was just that they weren’t there that week and I had been away.

It’s very easy to read what we feel into situations too. There may be people with whom we struggle – or who have a history of being flakey – so that whenever they aren’t around we immediately assume the worst. One week away means we immediately leap to the assumption that they’re neglecting their membership obligations. We need to make sure those raising the concern are doing so accurately and based on the best of motives.

Ask the concerned to show concern

Sometimes, behind the question, is not a genuine concern for the person. Sometimes, the one asking the question is really seeking to feel good about themselves. ‘I haven’t noticed… for a while’ can sometimes be translated as ‘as you know, I am frequently in attendance and fulfil my obligations.’ The question isn’t always asked out of genuine concern. Just as a ‘didn’t you know about Mr Smith?’ can be an accusation, it cuts back on the one asking the question, ‘why didn’t you know where Mr Smith was either?’

Sometimes, the pastor and elders will know something that the congregation doesn’t. Sometimes they will have no clue where Mr Smith was. But it has been a standard statement in our church, for some time now, that we do not have ‘a minister’ but the whole church are the ministers. Every one of us is responsible for each other and it is not the special preserve of the elders to know everything about everyone but the church, together, out to be looking out for each other.

As such, I want to push those who raise concerns to show concern. If you don’t know where Bob or Maureen were, give them a ring or go and visit and find out. Rather than asking the elders to either assuage your genuine concern or to affirm the righteousness of sounding the alarm, go and find out for yourself. This approach has a few benefits.

First, you may discover things the elders don’t know. Rather than implictly asking, ‘what are you doing about this?’ you might be able to speak to them and say, ‘you might not know, but Jim is struggling with… and he said… would be really helpful to him.’ This will simultaneously encourage your elders that you are showing practical care and concern for the membership and will present them with helpful solutions rather than problems to be fixed.

Second, you will encourage the person who has been missing. If the elders already know – whether its legitimate or not – it will prove to the person that the whole church, rather than just the leaders, care about them. But if the elders don’t know, it will give that person the necessary visit that they haven’t had. You will then be able to tell your elders something they don’t know so that they might get involved and do something about it.

Third, it makes the job of pastoral care more manageable. Far too many people have a view that unless they have been visited by the pastor, they haven’t had a visit. The church doesn’t care unless an elder is involved. But if all the members are ministers of the church, if you have been visited by a member, you have been visited by the church. And if all the members are ministers, each person ministering to another may raise specific points of concern with the elders are necessary if something more significant needs to be considered.

Begin informally

Most church discipline that happens in our church is formative discipline that many wouldn’t even consider ‘discipline’ at all. Of the corrective discipline that does take place, 90% of it is informal and private. It is one member quietly chatting to another member and nudging them toward godly behaviour.

There are those who like to operate something close to a three-strike system. Miss three Sundays and you will face some formal discipline. But the reality of life, and the messiness of communities like mine, mean that whilst not ideal there are sometimes wholly understandable and reasonable issues that prevent people from attending. These can be things that are almost universally recognised, such as ill-health, or the more culturally specific problems associated with recent but repented sinful lifestyles from which they are trying to disentangle themselves.

But informality only works if you have existing opportunities for informality. If all you have in your church life are formal meetings or, outside of that, visits from elders that feel decidedly formal, it is very difficult to have a low-key conversation about membership obligations that are not being fulfilled. But if you have built into your church life a sense of community in which people do chat, discuss life together and informally rebuke one another as one friend might to another, beginning informally is almost always preferable. Oftentimes, when legitimate causes and reasons arise, it allows for more pastorally sensitive forms of help to be put in place rather than a basic threat of removal from membership at the first sign of trouble.

Be prepared to actually remove people

However, with all that said, there must come a point where we are actually willing to remove people from membership because they are unwilling to fulfil their membership obligations. Whilst there are sometimes legitimate reasons, for every member who has them, there are those who insist that their reasons are credible when they are no such thing.

‘I can’t come, I have to take my kids to football practice’ is not a legitimate reason to miss the meeting together of the Lord’s people. It is an active decision to favour sport, or the approval of your children, over the Lord. ‘I can’t come, I have a job that takes me away every Sunday’ is not a legitimate reason, it is placing a job – which you can change – over the Lord. In many cases, the reasons given are little more than lifestyle choices that boil down to a question of something we are actively choosing to prefer over the Lord and his people. This is even more stark when it is a frequent, regular fixture.

But at some point, if somebody is unable to fulfil the obligations of membership, we have to ask why. If the issue is a matter of ‘genuinely want to but can’t’ – somebody is infirm or has such health issues it is impossible for them – we want to recognise them as a member of the body who is genuinely unable to be with us. If it is more a case of ‘want to but prefer something else’ we have to be prepared to remove such people from membership. They are not genuinely seeking to be a part of the body but are treating the church as something to be at when they have nothing better on. Which is, in effect, to say that I’ve found something better than the Lord this week! Such people do not belong on the membership list.

But we have to be prepared to actually remove people from membership. If we aren’t prepared to do that, our membership lists are a mockery. They have no purpose. They are merely a list of everybody who has registered, on any level, an interest in the church. But our membership lists should be a reflection of those we can affirm – so far as anybody is able – those who are genuine believers. If the way we treat the church is a reflection of how we treat Christ, those who trample on their membership obligations must be removed from membership. A church that is unwilling to do this is tacitly affirming that it is legitimate to treat Christ the same way.