Got an email from my church last week.
Attendance, read the subject line. I opened it. Inside was a short missive, personalized with my name:
Hi! We haven’t seen you in a long while. We sure have missed your presence. We pray for God’s blessings in your life and hope that you might join us again soon!
I showed it to my husband. He snorted.
We were in attendance last week. And the week before that. And…well, most weeks, barring vacations or travel or weather-related trouble, for the past several years. The people in the pews around us know that. My friend R., who attends an earlier service than me but who checks in with me to say by text, knows that. I am assuming at least one of the pastors, who shook our hands and remembered our names after last week’s service, knows that.
And yet, this email: we haven’t seen you in a long while. A missive sent in earnestness and no doubt in prayer to preserve a connection with and to encourage the attendance of a believer who was never missing from the pew to start. I can hardly think of a more apt and loving misfire for the digital age, or a better example of the gaps between theory and practice, between old-school and digital shepherding.
On the one hand, it’s an encouraging attempt by the church to cover the gap: to reach out to those who might otherwise be forgotten. It’s not the church’s fault that my husband and I forget to fill out the card at every service to acknowledge that we were present and were thus counted absent. And it’s possible, even likely, that someone who stops attending services and then receives a missive like this might feel welcomed or wanted back, or might even come back. Besides, how else is a big church supposed to reach all its members?
On the other hand, the missives are very clearly generic: little more than mass e-mails triggered by a perceived absence. I’m not sure someone who was absent would feel terribly warmed by them. And sending mass emails like this increases the likelihood of missing the mark with people like me, or frequent visitors who simply forget to fill out the card, or people with disabilities or squirming children or bad eyes who simply can’t. And if the church is so big that absences can only be noted by the absence of a card and by putting the onus on members to fill it out, isn’t that also a problem?
I’m not saying there’s an easy answer here. I’m not sure there is. But this does make me remember, again, that the fundamental heart of ministry cannot be automated. As my pastor put it this past Sunday, many believers want to make ministry “efficient” and, in so doing, forget that the ministry God calls us to is messy and inefficient by nature. When we try to maximize output or automate what we do for the Lord, we run the risk of creating gaps, missing people, seeming impersonal and unconcerned.
The truth is that ministry requires human interaction and effort, the building of relationships, and it always will. Jesus went and ate with people. He went and spoke to people. The necessity of those acts haven’t altered despite the passing of time. They’re slow. They take energy and effort and years of work. You can’t eat dinner and have genuine conversations with 100 people at one time, then dust off your hands and offer up the Gospel story and feel you’ve done your duty for good and for all. But you can do it authentically with one, or two, and build relationships from there that last for years, that nourish the soul.
I don’t think my church was wrong to send out the note. I was able to chuckle at it precisely because of the people at my church who do notice if we’re gone, who care if we’re away, who otherwise minister to us and welcome us into the congregation. The heart of caring people there makes up for the occasional technological whoopsie. But I will admit it might have hit me differently if I already felt adrift within the congregation. And it makes me realize, again, that all of our efficient, automated technological ministries are supplements.
We cannot substitute or farm out the daily acts of relationship-building and genuinely caring for people that display Christ in us. If we do, we risk becoming one of seven hundred other pieces of spam in an inbox: an insincere missive addressed to everyone and no one all at once, that proclaims care and offers a shrug of indifference at the same time.