AMESBURY, MASS. — Like the creation stories of Genesis, summer means different things to different churches.
For Main Street Congregational Church in this bedroom town of 15,000, August means locking the doors and sitting with "summer friends" at a smaller church a mile away. Doing so keeps costs down and means the congregation isn't dwarfed by its sanctuary.
In Old Orchard Beach, Maine, a popular vacation spot, summer brings the opposite. As many as 1,000 out-of-towners pack the pews of St. Margaret's Roman Catholic Church on fair-weather Sundays. Three months a year, St. Margaret's opens a second church, twice the size of its year-round one, to accommodate them.
"People want to take in an experience of God on their vacations," says Associate Pastor Daniel Delargy. "We look at it as an opportunity to evangelize." And when weekly donations jump from $3,200 to about $5,200 over the summer, he says, "It helps pay the next winter's oil bill."
Seeing their congregations shrink and swell in the heat, denominations of all stripes are confronting the realities of vacation season. As they do, the expectation that good Christians will attend their home church year-round may be loosening its hold. Growing instead is a sense that habits can change with the seasons and congregations can benefit from the variety.
On one level, summer means a break for armies of church volunteers. "I think it really helps people" regroup after a tough year, says Robin Schell, chair of Main Street Congregational's Board of Worship and Music.
And for those temporarily worshiping in a different setting, summer sometimes means considering new possibilities for their faith lives. When visitors to St. Margaret's annex taste a liturgy spiced up by a folk band and electric piano, they sometimes take those ideas back home. Moreover, Mr. Delargy says, after a long time away from it, many people will take part in the sacrament of confession only in an unfamiliar church, because "a lot of people are uncomfortable with doing it in their home parish." In this way, summer churches help one another's members stay inspired and faithful.
United Methodist pastor Fred Morris says that years ago, when he first saw the summer patterns of New England churches such as New North Church in Hingham, Mass., closed this year from June 30 to Sept. 8 he was amazed. Even today, Mr. Morris puzzles over "a faith such that [someone might consider] taking a break from it because it's warm."
But Morris, now executive director of the 2.8 million-member Florida Council of Churches, also says there's a chance that those who skip worship for a season best understand the grace of God. "[It] may mean they have a better glimpse of the Gospel, because they're not worried about earning their way into heaven" through dutiful attendance, he says. "If that's what they're doing, then I'd commend them for it."
The trend toward shifting Sunday habits isn't just for Northerners eager to seize a scant few hot days, though. Reports say congregations change habits wherever people migrate with the weather. In Florida's "snow bird" communities, for instance, summer means shriveling congregations as parishioners head to the Northeast or Midwest until November. A Winter Haven church that boasts a thriving choir in December depends on pew-sitters for all its vocals in July. And so many New Yorkers and Philadelphians seek island relief in Wildwood, N.J., that the end of school in June means St. Ann's Church boosts its number of weekly masses from five to 14, relying on a Catholic school gym to fit everyone.
Churchgoers aren't playing musical chairs everywhere this season, though. Florida's permanent residents, Morris says, keep its mega-churches packed with thousands of worshipers on summer Sundays. And congregations in rural areas nationwide report few changes in worship habits during summer.
Sometimes, summer means a vacation for the pastor, but not for the flock. In those cases the laity often wind up taking more initiative in their own spiritual growth. Fran Lajoie was so disappointed when First Baptist Church in Methuen, Mass., suspended its Bible study from June to September that she offered to host the group at her house on Friday nights.
She's had 10 to 12 attendees every week.
"People get so much out of it, they don't feel like they're giving up a Friday night," Ms. Lajoie says. "They just say, 'See you Friday.' "
But not everyone sees these summer habits as an unmixed blessing. The nation's 16 million Southern Baptists generally take a dim view of seasonal reprieves, says spokesman William Merrell. "People who are more committed to a personal walk with Christ tend to be more attentive to the disciplines of church life, including worship," he says. "The more nominal [their faith is], the less it matters" if they miss a season.
Yet over 28 years as a pastor, Dr. Merrell noticed "a greatly increased tendency for people to take a break" in the summer. He tried "not to make people feel guilty," encouraging them to worship in other ways. So "get up in the morning and read the Bible. Come together with your family for ... prayer," he says. "Serving the Lord should be with gladness, not with a grind."
Especially for a congregation that worships only in the summer months, the ticket to success is gladness. That's according to the Rev. Duane Windemiller, the pastor of Hampton Beach Community Church in Hampton Beach, N.H. Where most churches post worship times, Mr. Windemiller's church, located behind the town's casino, announces: "Happy Hour: 9:30." He is known to choose a partner from the pews for a two-step during the offertory; someday, he says, he'd like to baptize a baby on the amusement park water slide next door.
To critics, Windemiller's approach is more sideshow than service. But he says summer gives him and his followers the freedom to rediscover what church ought to be.
"If you feel lifted up in the place, then it could be a life-changing experience," he says. "If it doesn't change your life, then I don't think it's worship."