We've all heard it before. It's an Asian thing. It's a Hawaiian thing, It's a Southern thing. If we're really honest with ourselves, being late has become so prevalent that quite frankly, it's a human thing. I recall reading an article about how we've become accustomed to being late to everything that, as a society, we pretty much accept it as the standard norm. Look, I get as much as the next person that different people place different values on time, and therefore not everyone views time equally despite everyone having an equal amount of time. However, I would argue that it's generally untrue that people are late to everything in their lives. Regardless of how much relative value people place on time, I would posit that pretty much everyone values time. And while I may unfortunately, perhaps offend some in this regards, I feel it is something worth saying. You may disagree with me, but ultimately speaking, we are late to things because we don't care.
The example I would like to raise with this is our timeliness or tardiness in regards to church attendance. Now before I go any further, I'm not saying that there's anything especially sacred about being on time to church. Neither am I saying that there will never be a legitimate reason that we won't be late to church. What I want to examine is why are we chronically tardy to church? While I like to say I generally like (and tend) to be on time or early to my appointments, I definitely have been late without an honestly legitimate excuse other than I was late. In other words, I didn't care enough to be on time. Since we definitely are not late to everything, then the question is why is it okay to be late to some things and okay to not be late to others? For the purposes of this discussion, let's ask the question, why are we late to church?
Jesus tells us that our heart is where our treasure is (Matthew 6:21). And while not everyone may complete agree with the saying, "Time is money", I think we all value time inherently as the ultimately finite resource. We all only have 24 hours in a day, and how we allocate that time, arguably is a measure in what it is that we value. Now, before people start going crazy, I want to be clear that I'm not necessarily advocating everyone cloister themselves in the church building or go become a missionary, my purpose hear is to clarify for ourselves what our values and priorities are. Timeliness for its own sake doesn't make me or anyone else any holier. It ultimately lies within why we are timely. So, since this is an exercise in understanding and analyzing timeliness and tardiness, we have to recognize that tardiness, ultimately, is an allocation of time to something else, something that was too important or uncontrollable to be interrupted (perhaps rightly so) for us to make sure we get to church on time.
So before I go any further, I want to say two things:
Churches, do your congregations a favor, start on time.
People, do yourselves a favor, be on time.
Let's say for the sake of argument, we all agree that church is something important. Then why is it so difficult for us to be timely? I understand that life gets in the way, but how come it is we can accommodate for life in other facets of our weekly routine but not necessarily church? I would posit that for those that are chronically late, it's a matter of perspective. I'd like to posit possible reasons that this may occur:
We are consumers, not participants.
Because we can only truly experience perception from a first person point of view, it's very easy for us to become self-centered. If I really think about it, whenever someone asks me "how was service?" my line of thought generally trends towards answering questions like: how was the pastor's message? Was it applicable? Was it interesting? Was it funny? Was it boring? How was the music? Did they play songs that I liked? Did it sound good? Were there any glaring mistakes? etc... Which, I think, are all very good and legitimate questions to ask because the sum of all of these is our experience of the worship service. However, if I look closely at this line of thought I realize that I'm more answering the question: did I enjoy service? rather than perhaps the more pertinent question: was I worshiping God? I won't be the first to say, that oftentimes, our (definitely including me) attitude towards church is a matter of what I'm going to get out of it rather than what am I bringing to it. Even if I am not in an active, official service position/responsibility, the purpose of the church, while in part is to shepherd and disciple God's people, is ultimately a place of worship. I guess then the question from that is, how big of a deal do I think it is to worship God?
We use too many superlatives, and not enough sincerity.
We feel good about ourselves by calling things important, but relatively speaking they aren't, because there are things that are more important. Certainly, we each need to establish our list of priorities. However, because of our misuse of the language, and the modern day dislike of using negatives, we categorize things from important to more important to most important. While we feel good that everything is important, we fail to realize we've simply tried to rename our "unimportant" category to something that sounds more appealing. While we can certainly think of a plethora of frivolous things that we consider less important than church, when we consider how we allocate our time, there are a number of things that glaringly show up as more important: sleep, breakfast, reading the news, work, makeup, dressing up, etc... I'm not arguing that any of these things is unimportant, but rather, I'm arguing that perhaps we should perceive our corporate worship of God as at least equally as important. We interrupt those things regularly to make sure we get to work, interviews, meetings, appointments, etc... on time, why not church? Now I get that we can always sleep less, eat faster, dress sloppier to compensate, but what I want us to consider is simply this: how important is church to me?
We take grace for granted, and we don't appreciate it.
Church is supposed to be a place of grace. Yes. Therefore it is okay for me to be late. No. I think we often have a great misunderstanding of grace and mercy. We sometimes tend to think (or at least act without thinking) that grace means that my action was condoned. Grace isn't that. Grace is not suffering the consequences despite my action. Now I'm not here to say that there is going to be any sort of "major" consequence to being late. I'm not advocating for some (probably ultimately counterproductive) policy across churches to bar the doors when the clock strikes whatever time service starts. Ultimately, the consequence of being late is that you miss out on part of the service. I'll let you decide what you think it means when you decide that it's not a big deal.
Look, if you're someone that's generally late for some reason or another, I don't want to sit here and guilt trip you. However, I do want each of us to examine, if I am late, why? How do I perceive the value of not only my time but also of the time of others? Does it make sense to punish the timely people to accommodate the latecomers? Sometimes there are good reasons to be late. If I'm honest with myself. Most of the time, my reasons aren't. Ultimately, again it's not about being timely or tardy, but rather the perception and attitude we carry towards the people we are dealing with in our timeliness or tardiness. I hate to say that we just don't care, but if we're always late, we probably don't.
P.S. I'm not going to be mortally offended if you're late to an appointment with me.