Yesterday I received a very kind email from a worship team member at a church who asked how I would address this situation at their church:
We are trying to address an increasing issue of late arrival. We are a large church with two Sunday morning services and one Sunday evening service.
We start on time and our worship is near the begining of our service. We are finding that the sanctuary is not often filled until 20 minutes after the service starts. The worship time has finished by then.
Addressing tardiness is, in my view, 100% the responsibility of the pastor. He is the shepherd of the flock, and it’s his duty to cultivate sheep who see corporate worship as something that is crucial, and who see God’s greatness and glory in Jesus Christ as being reason enough for our getting to church on time. You should feel free, as a layperson or as a worship leader, to communicate your concern to your pastor, and tell him that you think he needs to address this issue with the congregation. Love, support, and submit to him, but don’t be afraid to tell him what you think. If your congregation is regularly very late to a service, he needs to say something and you’re right to encourage him to do so.
The worship leader should never address tardiness from the platform. I’ve seen worship leaders do this and it always creates a very tense dynamic. It feels like you show up late to someone’s house for dinner, and instead of welcoming you in and being a good host, they berate you for being late. Would you want to eat with that person? Would you even want to take your coat off and go inside? I wouldn’t. I’d rather get back in the car and go home. Same principle applies to latecomers and church. The worship leader has reason to be frustrated, but he has to keep trucking and be as good a host as he can be. Leave it to the pastor to address tardiness.
Some people are late because they’re just really bad at being on time. They’re late to everything: dentist appointments, their own wedding, work, and movies. I don’t know if there’s any hope for these people.
Some are late because of genuine hindrances like traffic, parking problems, getting four kids dressed, in their car seats, and in their Sunday school rooms, or newcomers who don’t really know where they’re going. Churches have a responsibility to think through every possible hindrance, and make their campus, schedule, and signage as conducive to moving a mass of people (and visitors especially) to their destinations with ease. If your church is laid out like a maze, don’t be surprised when tons of people come in late.
But some are late because they want to skip the worship. They don’t want to have to stand there and sing the songs. They’d rather take their time getting to church and get there after the singing is over, and be in time for the sermon. They see the time of singing together as being optional and unimportant. Again, I go back to the pastor. If your pastor agrees with this view, then I don’t think you’ll see a change in your congregation. For example, I know that in many churches the pastor isn’t even in the room during the singing. He shows up 30 minutes later when he appears on stage to preach. This sends a message to the congregation that the singing is something that can be skipped.
But hopefully, your pastor would be grieved by a congregation who sees corporate (sung) worship as being unimportant. The responsibility of changing this culture falls to him, and he’ll need your help and prayers as he seeks to change it.
To this end, I’d encourage you and your pastor to watch and seek to emulate this exhortation from Joshua Harris, the senior pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, as he seeks to shepherd his sheep to come to church eager, expectant and early.