Nation's churches take a vacation from routine
Like the creation stories of Genesis, summer means different things to different churches.Skip to next paragraph
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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."