Bob Wilkins, Director of Channel Initiatives, for Ameritech Cellular Company pulls his jet black Toyota Camry out of the garage every morning between 5:30 and 5:45 driving to work. He fights the traffic for an hour before arriving at his office thirty miles away. His middle management position places intense decisions and stressful demands during his ten-plus hour work day. Then it’s back in his car snaking his way home, arriving each afternoon sometime between 6:30 and 7:00 p.m. Despite the heavy time commitment in his current job, Bob left a retail company over a year ago to work for Ameritech so he could spend more time with his wife and teenage son.
Bob’s work commitment is not atypical. In my congregation the vast majority of workers travel more than an hour one way to their place of employment. Many, like Bob, drive, others travel by mass transit means of buses and/or trains. Many jet out on Monday morning to destinations that will take them to all parts of our great nation and others to distant places around the globe.
While commuting is heightened in an urban context like Chicago, it is not limited to the big city. Barry Lee, my brother-in-law, a computer programmer, travels forty miles one way from his home in Rogersville, Alabama, a small town less than a thousand, to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.
Bob and Barry, and thousands like them, spend large chunks of time traversing to and from their places of employment.
Recent polls indicate that the work week has increased by six hours to 47 hours per week from 1973. For professional people, the number is even higher: 52 hours a week. And, for the majority of people that attend my church, small business owners and corporate executives, invest 57 hours a week. These facts are frightening enough. But add the travel times of two or more hours per day to that over-committed work week, the impact is staggering. People have less and less time to spend with their families and in personal pursuits, much less church and spiritual growth.
What is a church to do in ministering to people when their time is limited? As I have worked with these types of people most of ministry career I made several observations.
Streamline church activities.
When I came to my present church over ten years ago, I realized very quickly that people did not have time to attend all the services that the church was providing. At the time, the corporate activities the church offered required people’s attendance over six hours a week, not to mention the extra hours if one served on a committee, or was involved in a visitation program, or sang in the choir or other music group. In previous generations such a demanding church schedule would be acceptable and expected, but in contemporary society, with job demands and commuting travel, people have less and less discretionary time available.
Early on in my tenure as Pastor in Naperville I attended a meeting where the speaker said that most people are willing to give three to four hours a week to a civic activity, community service project, or church. Fueled with this information, I set out to revamp our schedule. We settled on Sunday Service (a.m.), Bible Study (Sunday a.m.), Wednesday Worship, and Adult Electives (Sunday p.m.) for training and deeper spiritual growth. Each activity addressed a different purpose of the church and was aimed toward a different target audience. People appreciated fewer and better programs and events.
In recent years we have cut back our schedule during the summer months, especially on Sunday nights. And during holiday seasons we don’t hesitate in canceling Wednesday and Sunday night activities. I once thought such behavior was less than spiritual, now I know it is simply being sensitive to the needs of our church family and the demands on their schedules.
Do not make people feel guilty for not attending every church function.
Bob and his family are committed believers—to Christ and to his church. Bob teaches an adult Bible study class and serves on the strategic planning committee for our church. His wife, Treena, is involved in the music ministry and volunteers her time in the church office. Their son, Collin, is actively involved in the youth ministry. But they do not always come to Sunday evening activities of the church. It is not because they do not like it or that they are lazy. But years ago they made a commitment that Sunday night would be their family night. And so it is.
Gene Getz, pastor, author, and director of the Center for Church Renewal in Plano, Texas, writes, “Oftentimes we in the church teach people to devote time to the family, then we fill up the church schedule. People have to make choices about what meetings they can attend. And then we tell them they have to be committed to the Lord. The real tension spreads when we want people to be more involved. That confronts them with more choices, and the guilt level goes up.”
As a pastor, I had to realize that I would not receive brownie points in heaven for the number of people that came to all the church activities. My role was not merely to coerce folks like Bob and Treena to attend every church function. My role is to help Bob and Treena and people like them to be faithful spouses, better parents, and obedient believers. Bob and Treena are that and more and they don’t come to all the church events. I or anyone else need not make them feel guilty.
Allow for alternative meeting times.
For too long my church operated on the take it or leave approach to ministry. We offered one time of worship and one time for Bible study saying in so many words take it or leave it. Instruction and relationship building activities that lead to growth and maturity can take place at other than traditional times. Our church has several men’s accountability groups that meet at various times during the week. One group meets at 6:00 a.m. on Monday morning every other week. They asked if I would like to join them. I said, I’m not sure even God is awake at 6:00 a.m. but you go right ahead. Our church has ladies Bible studies that meet during the week that attracts many young mothers.
Alternative times for Bible study for Christian growth allows for people’s schedules. In our generation our churches need a shopping mall mentality. Offering a variety of options and choices to meet the various needs of the people in one’s community will only strengthen the church and its members. The church building should be open for business at all times, not just a few hours a week.
Encourage people to maximize their commute time.
Roland Wilson commuted by train from his home in Naperville to the Sears Tower in the Chicago loop. While many commuters slept, read the paper, or caught up on work, Roland memorized scripture, often, large portions at a time. Dan Jones also commuted to the National Safety Council office in downtown Chicago from his home in Warrenville. He would pack his Bible in his brief case and use the time on the train in personal devotions. Dale Schwartz works for Lucent Technologies. He travels a few times each month to their facility in New Jersey. When he finds himself in a lonely motel room he is studying to teach his Sunday School lesson. Often he is four to five lessons ahead in preparation. Bruce Christian often spent the better part of his day in his car from one client’s office to another. He would always have his radio tuned to the Christian radio station for inspiration and encouragement.
And, Bob, who used to get angry about the long commute traveling by car to his office, reevaluated his time. He decided to maximize what was two hours of “dead time” and discovered a windfall of redeemed time. No longer does he waste his two hour commute while venturing up I-355. He listens to inspirational and motivational tapes. In less than two years he has listened to over forty books on audio tape. Also, he signed up to pray for an hour in our intercessory prayer ministry. He prays that hour during his commute time.
These stories, and others like them, need to be highlighted in a congregation. We should celebrate the variety of creative ways people are employing to strengthen their spiritual life. In fact, churches could assist people looking for creative helps to spur their spiritual growth. Tape lending libraries, devotional helps, spiritual growth helps can be great resources for the commuter.
Church leaders model appropriate behavior.
Church leaders often are caught up in this hectic lifestyle dashing from one meeting or appointment to another. Hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life and ministry in our day. Hurry can destroy our souls. Hurry can keep us from living well. As Carl Jung wrote, “Hurry is not of the devil; hurry is the devil.”
Following Jesus can never be done in a hurry. It is not a hundred yard dash. If we want to follow someone, we can’t go faster than the one who is leading. To follow Jesus we must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from our lives. This does not mean we will never be busy. Jesus often had much to do, but he never did it in a way that severed the life-giving connection between him and his Father. He never did it in a way that interfered with his ability to give love when love was called for.
Someone once told me after I mentioned that I was a Pastor that took a day off, “How can you do that? The devil never takes a day off!” I said, “I’m not trying to be like the devil.”
I would rather be like Jesus, wouldn’t you? And I would rather my flock mimic his lifestyle, too. Perhaps if all church leaders committed to slowing down and making the most of our lives and ministry, Bob and others like him, would follow suit.