Local churches using different strategies to tackle summer drop in attendence
JANESVILLE Jesus or the beach?
Jesus or the garden?
Jesus or boating on the river?
In the summer, Jesus often is on the losing end of those equations.
Church attendance drops precipitously between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Many mainstream denominations reduce Sunday services from two to one, and classes go on hiatus.
Sure, people go on vacations and might attend church elsewhere. But more often than not, it’s the promise of more engaging outdoor activities keeping them away.
Some local churches are making an effort to keep believers in the pews—or at least at services—during the summer months. Others continue to preach the message and hope and pray for the best.
The summer slump is more common in northern climates.
“I know how things are,” said the Rev. Paul Speerbrecker of Janesville’s St. Mark The Evangelist Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. “You’re holed up for nine months of the year, and you’ve just got to get out.”
Janesville’s Faith Lutheran and First Lutheran churches, which are part of Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, accommodate the desire to be outdoors with “drive-up services” in their parking lots. People sit in their air-conditioned cars with their radios tuned to a certain frequency to pick up the minister’s voice. True, ministers preach to a silent audience, but the services remain popular.
This year, First Lutheran is starting a “Family Express” worship service, the Rev. Naomi Garber said.
The service, which will be held on the lawn, is designed for families with children in fifth grade and younger. It will be 35 minutes long and begin at 8:25 a.m. Families can go dressed for the beach or whatever activity they have planned next.
“We’re trying to make it convenient for people,” Garber said.
During the school year, church activities center on the family unit. While parents are in the sanctuary, kids attend Sunday school for Bible lessons and games.
Family Express brings the family unit back to church during the three-month Sunday school recess.
“We’re going to have some kid’s songs, and we’ll do an activity around a Bible story,” Garber said. “It’s going to be very interactive.”
The service will move to the church gym if it rains.
All this raises the question: How easy does church have to be?
“We don’t want to make it so convenient that it takes all the meaning out of it,” Garber said.
All ministers would love to have full churches throughout the year, but that’s not the reality, and churches can adapt.
“We’re trying to do things creatively so people do hear God’s word and do worship,” Garber said.
More importantly, it’s important to “celebrate the people that do come,” rather than focusing on those who don’t, Garber said.
The Rev. Craig Zastrow, executive pastor at Central Christian Church, Beloit, said attendance drops about 10 percent during the summer, but it’s less noticeable because about 2,000 people attended services there every weekend.
“We don’t stop holding any services,” Zastrow said. “In fact, our traditional service goes up a little bit during the summer because we serve a lot of snow birds.”
His church faces an additional challenge.
“The more ‘seeker sensitive’ your church is, the less ingrained the church-going habit is in their lives,” Zastrow said.
“Seeker sensitive” churches try to reach out to nonbelievers or believers who have no church home.
“We also try to teach that our life is a kind of worship,” Zastrow said.
So what’s the big deal with church attendance?
“It’s a basic human need,” Speerbrecker said. “People need to hear God speak to them; they need to hear God’s love for them. That usually takes place in a church setting.”
Connection to a supportive community is important, too.
Like many ministers, he’s challenged by changing ideas of what’s important.
“So many things have been devalued,” Speerbrecker said. “It’s not that things are worth less, it’s that everything now has the same value.”
That’s a comforting thought and makes life a lot easier. Spiritually, however, it doesn’t work.
He compares it to healthy eating habits—balance is everything.
Reasonable portions of lean meat, green leafy vegetables and good grains once in a while can be supplemented with ice cream, candy or Doritos.
But the equation won’t work the other way around.
It seems that man cannot live on potato chips alone.