A View from the Pew: “Back to Church” Season

Pew_smAs a child, the most dreaded words uttered every July on the commercials interrupting TV reruns were “Back-to-school sale.”

Like the first few bars of “Jingle Bells,” heard nowadays in late September, that phrase was the harbinger of homework, research papers, and exams. But there’s a relatively new trend in church life that mirrors the “Back to School” season: “Back to Church.”

Many churches face the challenge of re-engaging their membership after a summer of vacation, travel, and general freedom from commitments. While it’s not yet on any liturgical calendar, I think it’s safe to officially declare the first Sunday after Labor Day “Back to Church Sunday.”

At my own church, this started a few years ago. Now in its third iteration, we are calling it “Regroup,” which is being used as an acrostic. See if this rings true for your church:

Return to your place in the church family after a summer break that may have kept you from being active in church programs and ministries
Engage in conversation with your Christian brothers and sisters whom you may not have seen in a while
Grow through participation in Bible study and worship each Sunday
Refresh yourself by asking God for the renewal of the Holy Spirit in your life
Offer yourself to God in whatever way you may be called upon to give
Undertake some new personal ministry, either through the church or on your own
Participate fully in the life of your church family

These new attempts at re-engaging congregations in the fall can be attributed to three factors: increasing disposable income with which to travel, declining cultural influence of the Church, and a societal erosion of obligation.

I’m sure that church attendance has always waned during the summer, or at least as long as people have taken summer vacations. What’s new, though, is our level of disconnectedness.

For people of means, which includes a lot of our church members, summer vacation isn’t just a week or two at the beach or on a road trip in the mountains. It now includes weekly jaunts to the lake or an amusement park. Summer vacation can extend throughout the summer. And for parents of school-aged kids, camps whisk children away a week at a time, leaving Sundays as either travel days or recuperation days. It’s no mystery why church attendance suffers during the summer.

Culturally, in all but rural contexts, churches now hold less sway in people’s lives. They do not plan vacations around attending church, and it is often not even a consideration when making weekend plans. The general feeling is that you attend church only when you don’t have something else on your calendar.

This has relegated church attendance to a “church year,” similar in duration and scope to the school year. Even the faithful feel a stronger sense of urgency about their attendance from Labor Day on Monday to Memorial Day in May. It is a season of commitment after a season of relaxation.

And, yes, there is a generational component to this trend. Beginning with the Baby Boomers, church attendance is not something people feel strongly about on the whole. With each passing generation, there is a decline in a sense of obligation to all institutions, and the church is not immune.

If you are going to attend church at all, now the habit seems to be bounded by the same social constructs that get you out of the house from the late summer to the late spring.

Lest you think I’m beating people up for their lack of commitment, keep in mind that churches often cancel services and activities during the summer, citing low participation and the need for staff to take vacation. As a preacher’s kid, I can vouch for the pastor’s need to take a vacation, but by canceling all other activities throughout the summer, churches are training their congregations not to show up.

It can be a “chicken-or-the-egg” question: do people not attend church during the summer because activities are reduced or are activities reduced because people do not attend church?

So what’s a church to do? I don’t know about yours, but mine will be “regrouping” on Sunday, Sept. 7.

Maybe we need to start a similar promotion on the Sunday after Memorial Day: “Stick Together for the Summer Sunday.”

Lance Wallace_for_webLance Wallace is a Baptist layperson who works as Director of Communications for the Georgia Tech Research Institute. He previously served as Director of Communications with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Lance blogs at newsouthessays.com.

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