So there’s this old preacher’s joke I heard growing up that I’ve never been able to shake. It’s not a great joke, just the way my OCD selective memory works–completely random things held forever in great detail. It rambles on a bit about a church in a dusty midwestern/west Texas/plains-state-ish community where the bi-vocational pastor wanders in one morning to find a single congregant present. One guy. I don’t remember if the sudden absence of the rest of his flock is explained in the joke, but the preacher is faced with the decision to proceed or call it off for the day. He decides to go for it, and in a stereotypical dusty midwestern/west Texas (etc.) way he goes all in, yelling and pacing and gesturing with his encyclopedia-sized Bible. He mops with his handkerchief and pauses only to breathe and for the occasional gulp of water.
The man in the pew sat silently through the entire display. When he was finished, the preacher prayed then hustled to the rear of the small chapel to shake the hand of his one parishioner at the door. Still shaking from exertion, the preacher sheepishly joked to the cowboy: “Hey, if you only had one cow, you’d still feed it, right?” The cowboy looked back without blinking. “Yes, sir, I believe I would, preacher. But I probably wouldn’t give it the whole load.”
Some low attendance nights are anticipated in ministry; some catch us off-guard. I always struggle with how to respond in those early moment of realizing “no one is coming tonight.” You had this whole thing prepared. Some or all of it may have been prepared with a very specific number of participants in mind. When that suddenly changes, it can be unsettling. What do you do? Give up? Proceed in full force? Say awkward things like, “Where is everybody?” or “I’m sorry nobody came tonight.”
I’d love to hear in the comments how you actually do respond when that happens. I’ve got three things that I try to keep in mind whenever I run into this situation.
1. Don’t over-focus on the people that aren’t there.
If you have a guess where everybody is (school testing week, long practice, game night, etc) mention it and move on. But don’t obsess over it. You’ll make those that are present feel like they’re only special when they’re away.
2. Find a fresh way to love on the kids that are there.
If your program has a pretty standard shape week-t0-week (full band worship/teaching time/small groups is our rolling model on Wednesdays) pick an element of that (or all of it) and change it to embrace those that are there. It will feel a little weird to just go through your normal rhythm with a third (or less) of your average size. Drop the band and do an acoustic set. Instead of small groups pull everybody into a circle. If your group is just barely double-digits to begin with, maybe spend this evening sharing life with the one or two that came.
3. What you prepared is an offering to God for this specific program time. Don’t be so quick to throw it on the fire.
I got to learn this one at another church last night. I’ve written here before about the church that I go to when I get to GO to church. When we don’t have youth programs on a Sunday night I headed up to Chattanooga to attend this church’s Evensong service at 5:30pm. Occasionally in between I’ll find my way to their 9:30pm Vespers service. Sundays average around 13 hours for me, so I have to really need some presence to make that one. The end of this past week proved to be emotionally shredding for me. I began Sunday morning knowing that I desperately needed to find my way to church at the end of 13 hours of… church.
As I walked down Williams off of Main, I heard someone say, “Sure; Kevin would show up right now.” I’ve become friends with most of the staff there, and I looked up to see their sound guy and worship team standing outside the door. I was a couple of minutes late, and apparently only the 2nd or 3rd person to arrive to attend the service. As a church staffer, I totally understood their quandary. 7 people ministering to 3 seemed like an unnatural ratio, especially for a service that was usually home to 30 or more. But as a soul in need of restoration, I could feel myself crumbling inside.
Just then William, the celebrant for the evening, came around the corner putting away his phone. “We’re a go,” he said authoritatively. He’d called Chris, the priest of the church, for direction. As we all walked inside, I heard William tell the worship leader, “Chris said that this is just as much for us as it is for them. It doesn’t matter how many come.”
I forget that most of the time. The work we do is an offering to a holy God. May we work to create worthy offerings regardless of who shows up.