Summer for some might mean vacation from all things church-related, but that's hardly the case in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Toledo, Ohio, where the fun-loving faithful can't wait for the August youth ministry's fundraiser.
That's because, for the first time this year, a $10 donation to the diocese buys a 70-mile ride across the Ohio countryside with more than 200 of their fellow motorcycling Catholics. Leading the pack will be the Rev. David Reinhart, a priest with a dual passion for bikes and bonds made possible by warm weather play.
"It doesn't take a lot of convincing," says the Rev. Reinhart, chaplain for youth and young adult ministry in the Toledo Diocese. "Bikers are looking for something to do on a Sunday afternoon. And it gives me and other church leaders a chance to interact in ways we might not otherwise."
For decades, churches have been trying to find new ways to reach those who consider themselves spiritual but not religious - especially young, childless adults. Many a stuffy conference has addressed the problem, though few have tangible results to show for it.
Today, however, leaders in a number of religious organizations are exploring whether the best way to reach out might be to lighten up, especially in the warm months when regular church life takes something of a breather. Games, sports, and parties held outside the confines of church buildings are increasingly laying a groundwork for friendships among church types and those whose ties to religion are tenuous at best. What's emerging are the seeds of new relationships - and seeds of hope for renewed trust in religious institutions.
"The idea is if you can get [the unchurched] to do something they enjoy with Christian people, they might find Christians aren't as weird as they thought," said Scott Jones, professor of evangelism at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. "This idea and methodology for making disciples are ancient. Is there an increase in activity of this type in recent years? I'd have to say yes."
Signs of recreational ministry are as varied as the institutions behind them.
At Our Lady of Pompeii Roman Catholic Church in Chicago, a routine discussion group in late July attracted more than 100 young adults when the church used food to turn its courtyard into a lively piazza.
In Northern Texas, the United Methodist Church is scrambling to keep up with enrollment in its summer volleyball league. And in Gloucester, Mass., St. John's Episcopal Church is providing a social setting for anyone interested in nature, art, and food through a first-time event billed as "God in the Garden" held at one parishioner's seaside home.
Not every sponsored outdoor event in the summer is a sign of barriers falling between those who believe and those who don't. Churchgoers may invite the world to their picnics but find that only regulars turn out.
"There are an awful lot of churches that are worn out by summertime," says Dean Borgman, professor of youth ministry at Gordon-Conwell Theological School in South Hamilton, Mass.
In recent years, however, religious leaders have found their own summer playtime is opening some long-closed doors in ways that normal observances seldom do. And those bridge-building experiences aren't necessarily the by-products of official events, either.
For Orthodox Rabbi Nachum Shifren and evangelical pastor the Rev. Chip Thompson, the best place to plant faith in summer might be neither synagogue nor church. Both aim to inspire instead at the beach, where their skills on the surfboard earn them a hearing.
"Since they're outside and having a good time, they're more malleable and open to the message," says Mr. Shifren, who lives in Los Angeles and talks of faith often with secular Jews. "They say, 'This guy is an Orthodox Jew and he's a really good surfer. I could do that, too.' They gain a new respect for their heritage and are sometimes willing to pursue it."
As a group, Christian Surfers has grown from 450 to about 1,400 members over the past two years. Mr. Thompson says he understands why so many are coming to faith before going to church. After all, he himself came to believe through a surfing pastor friend, who stood by him in a wetsuit as he made his first commitment on a beach. Now, Thompson performs funerals for deceased surfers by gathering the wave-riding community in a circle at sea, reading Psalm 23, and proclaiming the gospel.
"It's much more meaningful to them [than a church service would be] because it's on their own turf," says Thompson. "I find people are more than willing to talk at the beach about matters of faith."
In cities, too, summer has become prime time for reaching spiritual seekers.
In Chicago, July and August has become high season for "Theology on Tap," a forum where young adults can discuss Catholic life casually - whether in a church or a pub - over beverages. By filling a void in summer social life, the church this year got more than 2,000 young adults talking in almost 50 Chicago venues about issues from marriage to celibacy to sexual abuse.
Timing in the summer is everything, says the Rev. John Cusick, who founded "Theology on Tap" 20 years ago. "In May and June, everybody wants out. By July and August, people are looking for things to do. We're giving them an opportunity to connect with peers in a very nonthreatening, fun environment."
Today, church life isn't confined inside a building's four walls, says the Rev. John Hurley, director of evangelization for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He sees spirituality discussed with growing openness in places such as workplace conference rooms where employees meet at lunch for prayer and Bible study.
"I think there's a reawakening of taking the church to the marketplace," Mr. Hurley says. "In the summertime especially, people's spirits are lifted, and if the church doesn't capitalize on that, then it's missing a great opportunity."