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When nobody shows

If you hold a liturgy and nobody comes, is it a failure?

My parish has held a Christmas morning service for years. Sometimes one person came; sometimes nobody. This year, as the new Assistant on staff, I offered to take charge of Christmas Day and do something different: a 4pm festal Evening Prayer service, followed by a 5pm community dinner.

At our mission parish in North Carolina, the Episcopal Church of the Advocate, this was our standard Sunday arrangement: worship at 5, dinner afterwards. We chose to follow a similar schedule on Christmas Day and Easter, with the idea of providing a friendly and familial gathering for folks in the congregation who didn’t have local family or other plans. It worked well; we consistently had small but cheerful gatherings for those occasions, and plenty of good food. Our household always participated.

So for Christmas Day at my parish, we put the word out about the new plan. I carefully crafted a cheerful little Evening Prayer service, using some of the wonderful seasonal liturgy resources from Common Worship. And I made vast quantities of lasagna, and a big green salad. And we trooped over to church – my husband, my son, my visiting brother, and I – and waited to see if anyone else would show.

Nobody did.

So we said Evening Prayer ourselves, which was actually quite lovely – we sang and chanted much more than I would have with others present. And we froze most of the lasagna for a future youth group meal.

Now, if this was the old familiar 10am service, I would just think, “Eenh,” and shrug it off. But because it’s something new and something mine, and because I spent a modest amount of the church’s money on lasagna ingredients, I find myself interrogating a bit more whether, and why, it was worthwhile to do this – given that nobody came.

One reason comes to me from monastic spirituality: When it’s time to pray, it’s time to pray, no matter who is or isn’t there. Even if, year after year, we have attendance approximating zero at Christmas Day liturgies, it just doesn’t feel right to me not to honor this high holy day with a liturgy. I recently spent a few days on retreat at the SSJE house in Cambridge. The SSJE brothers gather for prayer five times a day. People from the community attend many of those liturgies, but that’s not the point – the brothers pray the same way with or without an audience. I don’t want to claim a clear understanding of monastic liturgy after a mere three-day exposure, but it seems to me that those daily offices serve purposes, including ordering time and praising God, that have little to do with how many people are present. We don’t do the daily offices at my parish, but Christmas Day seems like a time when the church should be praying, one way or another.

A second reason why it was worthwhile to put in this effort is hospitality. I planned this evening thinking of the kinds of folks who were attracted to such events at the Advocate: individuals and households who, for a variety of reasons, were on their own for the holiday and might yearn for the warmth of gathering around a table, to keep them from feeling lonely and adrift on this family-focused holiday. I knew of a few people in this category at my current parish, and I expected there might be a few more. And, in fact, I heard from a handful of folks, both before and after, who said they were attracted to the idea and thought about coming. Does it make a difference in someone’s evening that they have a church dinner they could go to, even if they don’t? Maybe. In any event, I wanted to be ready for those people, if they came – to have lovingly-crafted liturgy and tasty, homemade food ready to welcome them.

A third half-formed reason: building something new? The liturgy-plus-meal paradigm is new here, but I hope will keep coming around. If nothing else, this was an opportunity to put that idea out there and let people ponder it a little. My brother remarked, “It seems like people might be more attracted to a Christmas evening service with a dinner than to a Christmas morning service, even if they still don’t come.” I think he might be right. And that might matter, in some subtle, long-term way. 



{ 1 } Comments

  1. Mary S. | January 5, 2009 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Keep the faith, Miranda. I think you make a lot of sense. If the commute wasn’t such a stretch, we might have been there as well. A friend and colleague, also a fellow EDS alum, tells a story of a children’s event she planned and advertised to the community and nobody came. But the next time, they did.

    I could go on but I won’t…it’s great to hear what you’re doing! BTW, the piece on factory made wafers sent me checking my BCP and EOW for our language!

    The seeds of liturgy and hospitality are sound. The making change part

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