To the Pastor who Preached to Empty Pews on Sunday

Maybe you’re upset about how many people were not there. But those six people in the pews? They mattered, and so do you.

To the pastor who posted this on Twitter, and all others who feel this pain:

“Today was very hard. I know I am supposed to be above it all as the pastor, but when there are only 6 people in the pews it hurts my feelings when 2 of them are whispering to each other during the whole sermon.”

I think I get it. In fact. pretty sure that I totally get it.

You work all week, study your passage, prepare your text, and get ready to go out there and preach on a Sunday morning. You tell yourself, “It doesn’t matter how many people are here–I’m preaching to the ones that are!” And you step out there to do it.

Then you see it–rows of empty seats, empty pews. You realize that only six people are going to hear any of your hard work, thought, faithful writing and careful editing. Not to mention how much time you spent on additional pastoral duties. You see, I know the deal. If you lead a small congregation, you visit hospitals and home bound folks and answer all the phone calls. You might also type the bulletin, lead the music, fix the sound system, and plunge the toilets if it is required. (And occasionally it is).

So there is no doubt that walking in to see empty seats is gut-wrenching and heart-sinking. And yet you preach. You muster all the heart and soul and call on the power of the Spirit. You deliver the Word and Sacrament with all of the Christ-like conviction you can summon. Even as 33% of the congregants are whispering (or drawing, or looking at their phones), you do what you are called to do. You preach.

(By the way, I suspect that AT LEAST 33% or more of every congregation isn’t paying attention in any church on any given Sunday morning. So, as a percentage, you’re doing fine!).

Sure, you don’t know what the “whisperers” were saying, or why they were whispering. You want to be gracious, understanding, non-judgmental or reactionary. But seeing six people in the pews does not flood you with confidence that their whispers are waxing rhapsodically about your preaching or some salient point that you have drawn from their troubled hearts.

In fact, YOU may be struggling with your own fear about whether there will be enough in the offering plate to pay the bills. And you may be asking, “If this keeps up, how are we going to survive?” Not to mention the question of how you will continue to make a living.

After busting your tail over the past week, you can’t imagine what you could do or how you could work harder or how you could give any more of yourself to turn this around. And maybe, just maybe, you’re wondering if it’s even worth it to keep trying.

Here’s the thing. It is. It absolutely is. And you are just the person to do it.

Be affirmed in all of those thoughts and fears and frustrations, no matter how many people tweet back at you to stop whining or not be judgmental or to be more “pastoral.”  God holds you to a high standard, and you hold yourself to a high standard. But neither God nor you expect Wonder Woman or Superman.

Take a step back, catch your breath, and rest assured that your time was well-spent. You did not have the crowd you wanted, probably not the one you should have, and certainly not the one that needed to hear that meaningful message.  But four people heard it, and maybe even six if two of them were gifted multi-taskers.

Dr. Joseph Moore is my dear friend and former university colleague. He also happens to be a former ministry intern for my father, who served as pastor at East Park Baptist Church in Greenville, SC for 24 years. East Park was dying from the time my father took the pulpit in 1976, and he constantly battled to keep the ministry viable.

Joseph worked with the youth, and only had two students present for a Sunday morning Bible study. My dad stopped by to see how things were going, and Joe the Exasperated Intern apologized because he wasn’t getting more youth to show up. My dad replied, “Hey, those two were here. And they’re just as important as anyone who wasn’t here. And what you did for them was just as important. In fact, it may be MORE important.” (That’s a paraphrase from Dr. Moore).

It is so hard to remember, with the tidal wave of emotions flooding your heart and mind as you preach to empty seats. But your preaching matters. Your preparation matters. The 4-6 people who needed your message–and perhaps much more your presence–on Sunday morning matter. And while they do not matter more than those who were not present, they matter just as much.

As we see our church struggling, it is debilitating to feel that your time and effort are only being heard by a very few. It is even harder to remember that those few are vital, as is your ministry. Jesus went from a congregation of 5000+ to under 11 in less than three years, so you’ve got pretty solid company.

Tons of factors go into whether or not a church experiences physical growth. You could follow all the church consultant advice and pull out all the growth guru stops, but it’s no guarantee that your congregation will grow. What you are doing–working diligently, preaching faithfully to those who are present–is all that is required of you. And it is more than enough.

I know this isn’t necessarily going to help a lot. We’re already to Thursday, and you’ve had four days to second-guess yourself while wondering why you even bother to get ready for this week. Please know that you are absolutely not alone. 99% of those who serve in the church have been/are/will be in this very same place at some point. And please, PLEASE continue to be faithful in your calling, in spite of the pain and struggle.

At least six people in this world depend on it, and they are more than reason enough for you to keep going. As is the power of Christ and the Holy Spirit at work in you, as a minister of Word and Sacrament. Blessings and peace to you as you prepare another outstanding and valuable message for this week.

Grace and peace,

The World’s Worst Pastor

P.S. – I do suggest that you try to be better than me and not get yourself…um…”relieved” of your duties!

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