Why shifting your service (or cancelling it altogether) is not the evangelistic opportunity some insist it is

In the aftermath of the women’s world cup – having written before the final so that I wasn’t pointing fingers at any particular individuals – I wrote about a matter of priorities. I argued that we ought not to change our service times or to skip church, as some were arguing, in order to accommodate the desire to watch the world cup final. In the end, I argued it was a matter of priorities and we do better to ensure our priority really is for Christ and his people.

Against this argument (nobody, to my knowledge, wrote this directly to me, I just saw it floating around) some argued that it should make no real difference to shift your meeting by half an hour for the sake of a gospel opportunity. Doesn’t it look worse to your community to refuse to move your service by half an hour, when you could invite them into the church, than to press on as before? For a series of reasons, I fully disagree and think this is poor reasoning. Let me briefly outline why.

Church is for believers, not unbelievers

Of course, the mission of the church is to make disciples. Part of making disciples necessarily means going out, doing evangelism and engaging our community. But a significant part of discipleship is building up the people of God, who already know and love Jesus, and bringing them to maturity in Christ.

The Bible is not entirely silent on how we are to do this either. And part of what we are to do is to meet together as believers on the first day of the week to worship God together and build one another up. As I have argued a number of times before, what goes on in church is primarily for the purpose of building up believers. Your preaching, singing, prayers and – most obviously – the ordinances are for believers. Of course we are glad if unbelievers are there and engage with the word and hear the gospel. But what goes on during a Sunday service is not primarily for them.

Which means it is a mistake, in my view, if we start altering our Sunday service in order to capitalise on what we perceive to be a good evangelistic opportunity. Sunday is the time dedicated to the worship of God and the building up of his disciples. It simply isn’t designed primarily for unbelievers and we short change God’s people if we sack off what God has ordained for their good in favour of chasing a potential evangelistic opportunity he hasn’t explicitly called us to take.

If we are fulfilling our mission, one-off events mean much less

As I said above, clearly the church is called to reach out to the lost and engage their local community. But it seems to me, if we are genuinely doing that already, we aren’t going to get het up over whether we missed a single Sunday opportunity to evangelise.

I don’t set my church up as the model everyone else should follow nor as a perfect example. But we are already regularly engaging with our community through our Food Club, English Classes, Dialogue events, homeless outreach, schools visits, people involved in various community groups and activities and other such things. We are pretty engaged with our community already. It would seem very odd for our community to think we were inflexible, unhelpful and unengaged because we didn’t shift the timing of our Sunday service (which isn’t even directed at them) in the face of all the other things we do in and for the community.

I’m not suggesting one-off events can have no value. We do at least one a year, running a Light Party on Halloween which pulls in many local Muslim families, and find fruit from it. But I do maintain our community engagement and evangelism is in no way made or broken by those one-off opportunities. They are potentially helpful extras that become much less important when we are about the work of engagement and sharing the gospel multiple times every week already. If your community engagement and reputation will be made or broken by whether you shifted your meeting to accommodate the women’s world cup final, can I gently suggest that is not a badge of honour but a potential sign that you aren’t really doing much else to engage your community because such a minor decision may make or break your entire witness.

If we are fulfilling our mission, people will see our priorities

In my original post, I argued that moving our meeting time or sacking off Sunday worship altogether in favour of the women’s world cup would be a sign of our particular priorities to our community. Funnily enough, this is not a new argument I have made. Usually, however, I make this argument in relation to Christmas Day services.

Christmas Day, as I’m sure you know, is not a day we are commanded to celebrate in scripture. It is not, strictly speaking, a “christian festival” in the sense that the Lord asks us to celebrate it. However, as I have previously argued – particular in a community like ours full of Muslims – what we communicate to them by not having a Christmas Day service is not good. They think if we really loved jesus we would surely want to celebrate his coming into the world and we suggest something to them about our feelings towards him by not meeting on Christmas Day. So for entirely evangelistic/local witness reasons, I am inclined to have a Christmas Day service. But I was also clear, when Christmas Day fell on a Sunday, or when a Christmas Day service fell on Saturday or Monday, our priority was to the Sunday service to which Jeuss actually calls us, not to the Christmas Day service to which he doesn’t. If there is a discussion to be had about sacking off a service, Christmas Day is the one that is to go and falling on a Sunday will not alter our usual service.

Now, just as cancelling Sunday in favour of Christmas, or not having a Christmas Day service at all at another point in the week, communicates something about our priorities to our community, so does the cancellation and shifting around of usual times on a Sunday for the sake of a world Cup final. The question comes back to one of priorities. Do our communities see us prioritising the Lord and his people or do they see us fitting them in around a schedule of stuff that we, and everyone else, know we would really rather be doing? We have to be careful about what we communicate to our community.

Of course, if you aren’t really known in your community at all, I can see how you might make the scheduling calculation, being as that is the most anyone knows about anything you do. But that’s a pretty poor do, isn’t it? The most engagement you have with your community is the times of services they never attend and they see you changing them in order to watch the footy. I can’t see how that communicates Jesus as your priority, his people as family you love or anything helpful to the community. But if you are in and around your community the rest of the time, it seems to me that people will be hearing about you talking about the greatness of Jesus and his priority for your life already. The question when it comes to readjusting services, or cancelling them altogether, is whether we are communicating in reality what we claim in the week.

Is it really an evangelistic opportunity anyway?

The strongest argument for shifting service times is in order to reach a lost world. As I’ve argued above, I think that is flawed logic. But the other point worth considering is, if the community isn’t already coming, what makes you think they will because you screened the football or you shifted the time of your service?

Let’s put it this way, if people from your community are not engaging with you already and aren’t coming to church on a Sunday now, in what world will shifting your start time and putting the football on resolve that? Clearly, they can watch the football at home or in the pub with mates already. It is evident the reason they aren’t coming to church has nothing to do with service times clashing with other things. The Bishop of Derby came close to acknowledging reality when she affirmed there were other church services you can attend at more suitable times if your local service clashed with the football. The decline in attendance across the Church of England suggests the the convenience of the service times really isn’t the issue. I find it profoundly unlikely, then, that shifting the time so people can watch the football then come to church will do anything to halt the decline or to make great inroads for the gospel.

But, as I argued above, what shifting your service times might do is alert your community to your own priorities. It probably won’t get them to come in, but it may well get them to think that you value sport more than the Lord and his people. It may well get them to think this Jesus you bang on about can’t be up to much if he can’t even get you out of bed on a Sunday or have enough pull to get you to skip the football. None of them will come because you put the football on. They have plenty of other places they can watch without the side order of religion they think they can do without and have managed their lives quite happily without you up to now and popping the football on in church isn’t likely to change that. But if they notice at all, it might just make them think you too would rather be watching the football than singing some hymns and listening to a sermon they assume is almost certainly dry and boring. They may even empathise. But you will only be communicating to them what they already presume in reality: church has nothing of value to offer and even those that go would rather be doing something else. Which, if we want to be talking about evangelistic opportunities, seems pretty terrible as it goes to me!