CAPE MAY POINT, N.J. — By bike, on foot, and by car, the scrubbed and the sunburned came to church here one glorious Sunday morning recently - to the gingerbread-trimmed St. Peter's by the Sea Episcopal, to the screen-door simplicity of St. Agnes Chapel (Roman Catholic), and, come evening, to the nondenominational Union Chapel across the green. The next weekend, Beadle Memorial Presbyterian, barely distinguishable from the modest cottages flanking it, would also unshutter for the season.
In this tiny seaside resort, as elsewhere, there are few statistics on just how many vacationers worship each week. Many beachgoers ignore that familiar Sunday school directive against "taking a vacation from God." After all, who wants to slip away from a cozy bed, cool surf, or a leisurely breakfast? Who can resist the temptation to linger over the paper rather than dress presentably, corral the clan, find a service, and get there on time?
But with work a distant blur and daily burdens laid down, many find the pace of vacation perfect for spiritual renewal, say those who minister to the worshipers.
Vacation can foster a new openness to the message, says the Rev. Jan Rudinoff, recently retired after 30 years as rector of St. Michael and All Angels (Episcopal) in Kauai, Hawaii.
When people attend services in a new community, where the ritual is the same but the environment is different, "you may hear some things that you heard in your own [church or synagogue], but that you missed because you were thinking about the laundry," he says.
Many attendees come from a religion that mandates regular worship. "It's difficult for me - you want to sleep in," admits Andrew Gardner, a college junior from Drexel Hill, Pa., as he leaves St. Agnes.
"But it's also something you believe in," he adds. "During the week [after attending a service], I can apply what I've heard to my life."
Some come because of personal devotion or custom. "We just always go to church," says summer resident Rob List, as he leads his family into St. Peter's while the church bell tolls and the waves rush the nearby dunes.
Many relish the opportunity for connecting with kindred souls. Others use the vacation to try a new denomination. Some find themselves responding to the call of church bells or strains of a hymn.
For some there's an aesthetic appeal to a simple Scripture reading at seaside, or to a row of pew-like planks lined up under the pines. "It's just special," says Mr. List's mother, Betty, of the summertime mix of services and ministers, of the dark-paneled sanctuary with its handful of pews and tiny altar.
Many enjoy variations on familiar forms. Bill Paige, of Chicago, has seen cultural extremes at Catholic masses during his recent travels. "It was the shortest 'handshake of peace' I have ever experienced," he says of the Dutch version of a normally relaxed part of the mass.
At the other extreme were services he attended in Paraguay. "It was a very open, very celebratory culture contrasted with very educated, very reserved, well-to-do people."
Typically, those who are churchgoers at home tend to be so on vacation, says Mary Gautier of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington. She marvels at the willingness of believers to get off the beach, locate services, and get there. "It says something about their faith - that this is something valuable and worthwhile and important in their lives."
Jewish families often travel together to ensure having the minyan, or requisite number for prayer, says Bonni Kraus of the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education of Greater Philadelphia. Some carry a torah for makeshift services or seek out a destination because they know services will be available there.
"The more observant a family is, the more likely it is that they would seek out a synagogue during vacation," she says.
Many year-round congregations experience a slip in attendance in summer as members go on vacation. They often adjust for it by cutting the number of services, by substituting lay leadership for vacationing clergy, or by eliminating the choir, church school, or other wintertime staples. Ms. Kraus says her congregation shutters part of the synagogue and moves to a smaller chapel on site.
During the summer, people are also willing to "mix it up" denominationally, says Elizabeth Theobald, a Presbyterian and director of Union Chapel in Cape May Point. Her son, who preaches there, is an ordained Methodist minister. "People are touched by the friendliness of the group," she says.
The only Point church open year-round, Union Chapel, has no members, but its normal 20 or so winter worshipers swell to 30 in a typical summer week and to as many as 100 during its annual Sea Grove Conference, which features speakers from a variety of denominations.
"Nobody dresses up or anything," says Ms. Theobald, describing an atmosphere not uncommon in vacation towns. "I think that's really important, because people come to the beach and they don't bring a lot of fancy clothes."
Mike Watts, a retired Baptist pastor who is now the resort and leisure consultant for the Kentucky Baptist Convention, helps a loosely organized group of believers from several denominations establish services in airports, state parks, lake areas, campgrounds - even auto racetracks. He follows a simple and standard "basically nondenominational" order for worship: song, Scripture, a sermon more spontaneous than might be preached in a regular church, and prayer, closing with an invitation to those wanting to "accept the Lord," he says.
Often, one of the ministry's services will take place at a lake's edge, with camp stools for pews and hymns sung to nature's melody. People learn about the service by personal invitation, made tent to tent. Many attendees are regular churchgoers, Mr. Watts says, and some may feel guilty about missing church. "We say to them: 'Wherever you are, God is, so don't worry about it.' "
Even those who don't regularly attend church when at home are grateful for the prayer, he adds. "You're out in the beauty of God's creation, away from your regular routine, away from some of the stressors in life. Some can be closer to church than they thought they could be."
Most hosting congregations enthusiastically welcome guests. "We love it," says John Mather, senior warden of St. Peter's. "We get a lot of strangers. Anyone who is baptized is welcome to take communion. Generally, someone goes around asking if anyone would like to read the lessons, and the choir is open to all.... There's a core of five or six [in the choir], and you know it's a certain time of year because 'so and so' showed up."
Most resort-area Catholic churches note the presence of guests and specifically welcome them, notes Ms. Gautier of the Center for Applied Research. Orthodox Jewish congregations will extend to the newcomer the honor of reading the blessings before or after the torah, says Ms. Kraus. Invitations for luncheon afterward are common.
In fact, this presence of a faith community, often smaller than normal, perhaps praying near nature and in a more relaxed mood, fosters spiritual growth, says Father Rudinoff, who has written about vacation ministry. "I think in a recreational community it is hard to 'play church,' " he says. "There's a transparency here because people are so close. It's OK to be who you want to be. You're not wearing your coat and tie anymore."