Counting Sheep

A news report on a big city church in Ohio men­tioned that the church’s Sunday attendance is over 500, with membership over 2,000. I wonder: are that church’s leaders bothered that on any given Sunday about three-fourths of their members are not there? I do know that among God’s people in many places, there is definitely room for improvement when it comes to being present for worship.

Knowing this problem, many congregations make some effort to keep track of members’ attendance at assemblies. This always angers a few folks (namely, habitual absentees), but it’s a healthy habit. At one place where I visited, a table in the lobby held a stack of attendance cards and a sign that read, “We count sheep, because sheep count.” I like that thought. It’s a good sign when Christians pay attention to whether or not their brethren are with them for worship.


The writer of Hebrews instructs us to “consider how to stimu­late one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near” (He­brews 10:24-25). Notice the contrast in this passage: “forsaking our own assembling together” is opposed to “stimulating one another” and “encouraging one another.” The Lord doesn’t ask us to meet together out of mindless habit or ritual performance; He shows that it’s a vital means of building each other up (cf. Colossians 3:16; 1 Corinthians 14:26). If I choose not to gather with my spi­ritual family for worship, I rob them of the strength they would draw from my presence, and I rob myself of the strength they would impart to me.


Of course, the focus of worship is God. The book of Hebrews also tells us to “continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name” (13:15). Our Father wants us not only to praise Him in individual, daily life, but also to worship Him together with one another. If I choose not to do so, I rob God of some of the praise that is rightly His.


Why assemble for worship? Because the Lord commands it, it glo­rifies Him, and it strengthens us. That being true, my brethren have every right to expect me to be there. And they have every right to be deeply concerned if I am in the habit of being absent. Churches that monitor worship attendance do so because they know that it’s a good “barometer” of spiritual interest. They know that when a Christian starts going to worship less often, or stops going at all, it is an indicator of deeper troubles in his life.


And it’s just here that we often fail each other: we try to treat a symptom (poor attendance) instead of the disease (spiritual weak­ness). If brother Jones is missing most of the assemblies, we try to encourage him to be there more. And we should. But brother Jones’ chronic absence from worship is probably due to a deep-seated spi­ritual problem, and that problem is not addressed merely by telling him he should be at church more often.


A Christian’s presence and participation at the assemblies may suffer for all sorts of reasons. He may be just plain worldly and not really very commit­ted to the Lord. (Personally, I suspect this is most often the culprit.) But there may be other reasons. A brother might be depressed over some tragedy or difficulty in his life. He might be fighting a losing battle with temptation and feel unworthy to worship in God’s presence (hence the common explanation, “When I get my life straightened out, I’ll come back.”) He may be caught up in the deceitfulness of sin and want to avoid his fellow Christians, know­ing that they may try to get him to change.


Now, these may not be good reasons for someone to miss wor­ship assemblies, but they are reasons nonetheless. And while we definitely need to encourage such a person to be present with us, that alone is not enough. We need to help him over­come what­ever it is that has taken away his desire to be there.


Of course, whenever this subject is raised, someone objects that perfect attendance doesn’t always mean spiritual maturity. True, some folks who occupy their pew every time the doors are open are still weak and worldly. But do we seriously think that persistent absence from the assemblies is a sign of spiri­tual strength?


Paul instructs us to “admonish the disorderly, encourage the faint­hearted, help the weak…” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). All three of those conditions may cause a brother or sister to miss worship fre­quently. When a disciple starts disappearing from the assemblies of God’s people, we need to take notice. We need to recognize that he has a problem. We need to find out why he is absent and re­spond accordingly. Is he apathetic or negligent (“disorderly”)? Then we need to admonish (warn) him. Is he discouraged or struggling (“fainthearted”)? Then we need to encourage him. Is he weak or immature? Then we need to patiently help him grow. Anything less is putting the proverbial band-aid on a bullet wound.


When a congregation keeps track of who is missing from wor­ship services, it is not to exert control over people or to single someone out for embarrassment. It is because brethren care about one another’s souls. We count sheep, because sheep count.