On most Sundays my sermon begins with some kind of story that may provide images to reflect on, or return to later on, or which is a direct illustration of some point I want to make, or some issue I want to address. Over the years, I have realized that beginning with a story is often a good way to draw people into listening. (At least, that's what I hope is happening!)
There are risks with using stories, especially true stories. I am never sure what part of the story will come across as the most interesting or memorable.
This Sunday I began by talking about officiating at a wedding in a nearby church. I mentioned that in my preparation for speaking at the wedding, I had been thinking about two things:
1) What do I have to say that will be useful wisdom to the couple being married?
2) What do I say to a "congregation" of family and friends, the majority of whom are not regular church attenders?
That second question was the one I really wanted to work on. My hope was to get people musing about it on their own- what is it about church involvement that they value?
Even as I was preaching on Sunday, I was aware that I had described being in a full church, that holds about 80-100 people, and being able to identify only 3 people who are regular church-goers. I don't think this low percentage is necessarily an accurate reflection of societal trends- but it definitely feels like it is! People who regularly attend, and give of their time and resources and skills to support a church, are in the minority.
I chose not to dwell on the "negative" picture in my sermon. I did not want those listening to get depressed, or caught in the "survival blues". You know what I mean, "How will we ever carry on....."
There are lots of theories about why church attendance is not what it once was. There are also lots of prescriptions offered, to help churches reverse the trend, and "fill the pews". I am not aware of any "quick-fix" plan that actually works.
I think that rather than finding or creating the formula that will "get them back in the pews", we might be better off if we reflect on the question of what is we ourselves value about our church involvement.
Hopefully it is something more than just keeping our congregations going.