There are a number of questions that come up almost every time a congregation considers implementing a zealous system for dealing with delinquency. Let us consider them.
If we have a written plan for dealing with delinquency, won’t some people simply “work the system”?
Yes, most likely. If your members know that your congregation contacts individuals who have been absent four straight weeks, you probably will have some members who simply will come one Sunday a month—just enough not to be contacted. So be it. For many of those people, that will be a substantial increase in church attendance. And while their motivation for coming is not God pleasing (i.e. They are not attending out of love for God, but because they want to avoid “getting in trouble.”), at least they are now in contact with the law and gospel. That is how the Holy Spirit works. “It is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13). The prayer is that through that more frequent contact with the means of grace, the Holy Spirit will change the “will” of those individuals so that they want to come to worship, and therefore stop working the system.
Isn’t this really the pastor’s job?
No. Scripture says that dealing with persistent sin (such as despising the means of grace)requires more than one individual. In Matthew 18:15-18 Jesus says that sometimes, to try and break through to an unrepentant individual, “two or three” will speak to that individual. Jesus says that eventually the whole church will try to send that unrepentant individual a message, so that his or her soul might not be lost for eternity. Using law and gospel to help people trapped in sin (including the sin of delinquency) is never just the pastor’s job.
What is his job? Scripture says, “Christ himself gave… pastors… to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:11,12). God’s plan is that pastors would train people to serve Christ. We all do that in our personal lives. In addition, some congregational members do that publicly, serving on behalf and at the request of their congregation. Examples would be Sunday school teachers, ushers, members of the Board of Elders, members of the Discipleship Committee, etc. The pastor will be involved in training these individuals for ministry. He will not do all the ministry himself.
Won’t some members get mad if we monitor their church attendance? Won’t that come across as treating them like children?
That depends on two things.
First, it depends on how the program is presented to them. Martin Luther’s explanation of the Eighth Commandment says, “We should fear and love God, so that we do not lie about, betray or slander our neighbor, but excuse him, speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.”
Putting the best construction on things would meant that we don’t assume that if someone has missed church for four straight weeks, they have hardened their heart against God’s Word. Instead, we assume there is a good reason for their absence.
It might be that they have been sick. It might be that their work schedule has changed. In such cases, the congregation wants to contact the individual to help in whatever ways it can: helping the family of that very sick individual, bringing the Sacrament to the home of that person whose work schedule has changed, etc.
It might be that the individual is absent because they did something wrong, committed some sin which they think makes them unworthy of being in God’s house. In that case, the congregation would want to contact that individual to comfort them with gospel’s unwavering promise of forgiveness.
In other words, the first purpose of monitoring church attendance isn’t to “catch people” who are absent from worship for bad reasons. The first purpose is to take note of people who are absent for legitimate reasons, so that the congregation might help them. It is inevitable that the program will also identify people who are skipping church just because of their sinful nature. Why would that be bad?
That leads us to the second factor that will determine whether or not people “get mad” at this program—their sinful nature.
If someone objects to tracking member attendance and following up on people who are persistently absent, they need to be asked why they object. Then they need to provide an answer that clearly demonstrates a concern for the gospel and souls. “I don’t like it” does not count. The objection probably flows from a sinful nature that bristles at the thought of being held accountable for violations of God’s law, such as unjustifiable persistent absent from worship. We do not negotiate with or take advice from the sinful nature.
WELS Commission on Congregational Counseling has provided materials that can be used to introduce and explain The Peter Program to your membership in a way that, God willing, will address any potential objections.
Won’t this make evangelism impossible? Will anyone want to join a church that is so strict?
The belief that people want to join a church that has no standards is not rooted in reality. Studies have shown that many prospects want a church to have expectations, often high-expectations, of membership. It is perceived as commitment to core values. Now, those same studies have shown what prospects want those high expectations to be is not always in line with Biblical truth. For example, a spiritually immature individual might think that a church should expect its members to be doing all they can to advance homosexual rights. That individual’s values are not in line with Scripture. However, note that he still wants the church to have high expectations! This illustrates the point that prospects typically understand and even desire congregations to have expectations of its members.
This question is also a matter of timing. One way we rightly law and gospel is understanding that no one will assent to any sanctified behavior unless they first of all see the grace that they have been shown in Christ Jesus. For example, it probably would be unwise to teach about financial stewardship as the first lesson of a Bible Information Class (i.e. the classes one takes to become a member). If someone is spiritually dead or spiritually immature, they are going to see that as a grab for money. Only after the Holy Spirit enables them to grasp that the Son of God became infinitely poor so that we might enjoy the richness of heaven will the individually hear the doctrine of stewardship and rejoice.
It is the same with this program. If the first thing you tell a prospect is that when they become a member you are going to track their church attendance and call on them if they are absent too long, that will seem awfully heavy-handed to them. They are not spiritually mature enough to understand the loving motives behind your program. However, after the individual comes to see that because Christ is infinitely good everything he asks us to do is for our infinite good, the prospect will understand that it is loving and wise to encourage believers to be in worship regularly.
I have read that the best way to encourage faithful church attendance is through small groups. Couldn’t that be a better way to do this?
Indeed, there are some congregations that use small groups this way. The small group leaders are the ones responsible for knowing which members of the group are straying. The benefit of this approach is that members of a small group typically know one another fairly well. That is the point of being in a small group—connecting more closely with fellow members, growing friendships, etc. Therefore, with this approach, when someone becomes delinquent in worship, they are contacted by a church member that they would probably consider a friend.
However, if you use small groups to deal with delinquency, unless you are going to make small group participation mandatory for church membership, you will need a second system (like The Peter Plan) in place anyway. That can make everything more complicated. Is a member’s attendance being monitored by his small group or by the congregation itself?
The Commission on Congregational Counseling (CCC) believes that in most WELS congregations it will work best if delinquency is dealt with as a separate program, apart from any small group program. The CCC believes that a small group program should have one main focus—to knit Christians together more closely in a bond of sincere friendship. Certainly, if a congregation has a small group program, it could aid with delinquency. The encouragement one receives through small groups can be very helpful in assimilating new members, lowering the chance that they become delinquent. (See the Commission on Congregational Counseling ministry module on Developing a Small Group Program for more information.)
© WELS Commission on Congregational Counseling