Published September 7, 2010

Paul's Epistle...
"Empty Seats"

Recently I heard a simple but challenging thought regarding church attendance. It suggested that instead of focusing only on church attendance – the number of people who are actually in the seats – the focus should also be on the number of empty seats.

Ouch.  Most churches have plenty of empty seats on a Sunday morning. In fact, LifeWay Research has found that although 83 percent of American adults identify themselves as Christians, only about 20 percent attend church on a given Sunday.

Look around you as you sit in church Sunday morning. Let every one of those empty seats represent someone who should be there, who would benefit from being there, who needs to be there.

Who are these people? Barna Research found (in 2008) that 23 percent of American adults had not attended any church or Christian gathering in the past year. About 15 percent of Americans, referred to as "under-churched," had attended church during the past year, but not during the past month. There is plenty of room for growth here.

Of course, going to church – even regularly – doesn't make you a Christian any more than sleeping in the garage would make you a car. But it certainly is a step in the right direction. It opens the door to the hearing of good preaching and teaching of God's word, and the invitation is there – implicitly or, one would hope, explicitly – to accept Christ as Savior and Lord. And the Christian fellowship afforded by church involvement helps Christians grow in their walk and provides a powerful witness to non-Christians.

This coming Sunday – September 12th, 2010 – has been designated "National Back To Church Sunday" by Outreach, Inc., and LifeWay Research. It's an effort "to reverse declining church attendance and encourage former church-goers to rediscover church." Materials provided by these organizations have already been used by individuals in more than 3,500 churches this year as the means to invite more than 1.4 million unchurched people to attend this Sunday's service.

A study of 15,000 Americans by LifeWay Research and the North American Mission Board found that 67 percent say a personal invitation from a family member would be effective in getting them to visit a church. 56 percent say an invitation from a friend or neighbor would likely move them to respond.

To make it easy for you, the "Back To Church Sunday" people even have a website (http://www.backtochurch.com) with more information and a simple way to send an e-mail invitation to a friend. Other resources are available there, too.

Singer/songwriter Woody Wright has a way of putting complex thoughts into an easy-to-understand song. Such is the case with his song called "Lifeboat." Woody says he watched a documentary about the Titanic and was impressed by some similarities between that "unsinkable" ship and today's church. Here's what he wrote:

On a dreadful night in an ice-filled sea
With darkness all around
The unsinkable ship met an awful fate
Titanic did go down.

But a little known fact of that terrible night
When over fifteen hundred drowned
Is lifeboats were only half-way filled.
They never turned around.

Now doesn't that sound like today?
As many around us are seeking the way
We watch as they face impending doom
And our lifeboat still has lots of room
Our lifeboat still has plenty of room.

Our churches are large, well staffed and refined
With eloquent prayers that we pray.
While less than a mile from our steeples we find
The hungry are hurting each day.

We take attendance for weekly reports
To account for the people onboard
We should count the empty seats we need to fill
With souls in need of our Lord.*

Your lifeboat has plenty of room. And there certainly is, as Woody's song says, "darkness all around" us. Who do you know who would benefit from attending church with you? Why not ask them right now to join you – in the "lifeboat."  While there's still time.

- Paul

*Lyrics by Woody Wright, Would He Write Music, SESAC.  Used by permission.

Comments on this? paulheil@thegospelgreats.com

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