Most Christians are familiar with the command to stir one another up to love in good works in Hebrews 10:24. The negative counterpart to this is the related command in Hebrews 10:25, to not neglect the assembled church where this stirring primarily takes place. To forsake the assembly altogether may betray that one may not be a Christian at all.
But what about Christians who come to church some of the time but not all the times that a church has said it would assemble? What if someone comes on Sunday mornings but not other regularly scheduled times, especially if it seems that he could have otherwise been there?
As a pastor, I have thought about this question many times. Whatever your schedule may be, my answer to these “semi-regular attenders” is to try to understand exactly why they are missing services and then go from there. What follows below are some questions I might explore in light of why some might be absent from the assembly on occasion.
- First, “Is this person a member?”
My church has a covenant and bylaws to which all members must agree. In our covenant, among other things, members agree “with the aid of the Holy Spirit… to sustain its worship, ordinances, discipline, and doctrines; to give it a sacred preeminence over all institutions of human origin.” In the section “Ecclesiology” in our Declaration of Faith, it states, “We believe the true mission of the church is to worship God in all of its services and activities.” Likewise, our Bylaws specifies the duties of members, one being this: “Each member shall seek diligently, by Divine help, to… attend the services regularly.” Our Bylaws even specify when these services or meetings will take place: “The regular meetings of this church shall include the Sunday morning worship service, Sunday morning meeting, Sunday afternoon/evening meeting, a midweek service, fellowship around the Lord’s Table (normally the first Sunday of each month), and other meetings…”
So, if someone has been admitted into the membership of the church, that person has obligated himself to live up to what the church has agreed concerning its belief and practice of the faith. The church has likewise committed itself to holding each member accountable to this covenant, which means that all of its members should be checking up on one another to do as they have agreed to do, assembling with each other included. Thus, there has been a mutual agreement to simply do what everyone has said they would do. It would thus be natural to hold each accountable in the event of absence from the assembly.
- Second, “Why are you missing services?”
My observation is that people miss services for two primary reasons—suffering or sin.
In a broken world, people suffer the loss of being with the assembly due to a job that schedules their presence during services, a sickness that keeps them at home, care for family members who are sick or aging, or health issues from aging themselves. Perhaps a long commute makes attendance difficult, especially if the weather is poor.
As to sin, sometimes people miss services because they are lazy, have misplace priorities (e.g., become too involved in youth sports leagues or vacation too often at their cabin), reject the church leadership, or want to avoid other people in their church due to some kind of conflict. Using the language above, sin is keeping them from assembling because they are forsaking the “Divine help” and “aid of the Spirit” that would otherwise move them to want to be with the people of God. This leads me to question #3.
- Third, “Should I confront this person? If so, when do I do so? After missing one service? Five? Fifty?”
If someone attends some services but not others, I find it difficult to conclude that they are altogether violating Hebrews 10:24–25. If he has not made his excuses known and his absence is not a pattern, one should give the absentee the benefit of the doubt concerning his absence.
In reaching out, however, simply showing concern may stir the one absent in a far better way than confrontation. You might say, “Hey, I missed you last Sunday. Glad to see you back. I hope everything is going well.” Just the mere mention of noticing an absence and affirming the joy of his presence can strengthen his resolve to be faithful.
Or, it may be that the Lord gives the pastor and church an opportunity to address the matter through the regular preaching of the Word. I have a unique advantage for this kind of thing as a pastor. I might notice some not-so-faithful patterns in people’s lives that might be better corrected by simply addressing everyone on the matter instead of personally making a bigger deal of something than it needs to be. I just patiently wait to say the needed thing with an appropriate passage as it comes up in the preaching schedule. And hopefully the absentee is not absent on that day! If so, a personal conversation may need to take place sometime in the future.
One needs to be careful to address the congregation when preaching like this, however. Don’t illustrate an example of what not to do by describing someone’s aberrant behavior so exactly that he or she feels singled out in front of everyone else. There is a time to bring a member’s sin before the congregation, but that is the last step in church discipline (Matthew 18:17). It’s not like missing a service here and there is quite akin to outright immorality or the promotion of heresy (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:1–13; 1 Timothy 1:19–20).
At the same time, churches should not let members be absent forever. Otherwise the church is danger of neglecting the command of not neglecting the assembly in Hebrews 10:24–25. It may do well for churches to specify in their bylaws how long one may be intentionally absent from the assembly and still maintain one’s membership. For example, my church only allows for 12 weeks of absence along these lines, but in between that time should be many attempts by the pastors and the membership to bring the wayward sheep back into the fold. And maybe 12 weeks sometimes turns into more while working with the individual. Voting someone out of the membership for sustained, intentional absence should be a tearful matter. Such a member would have been cautioned concerning this matter when he joined the church. Now that he has chosen to be perpetually absent, he can only expect to be put of the church membership as he was warned, an act of discipline by the church.
- Fourth, “But what if the person is not a member?”
For anyone who has not committed himself to the church, and therefore the church has not formally committed itself to him, I’m simply happy for however often the person attends, assuming the individual is teachable and cooperative with the church concerning whatever keeps him from joining. But, as I remind people from time to time, the longer someone attends, the more our relationships will build, and the more we will at least hold the individual accountable for living a godly life (assuming the person is a Christian).
I’m sure more questions and suggestions could be given. I’ve already said a mouthful, and my suggestions obviously assume congregationalism, church membership, and the helpfulness of a church covenant. Hopefully the above is helpful for anyone thinking through how to handle “semi-regular attenders.”