Looking ahead to summer, I am already frustrated by how many of our church members will be gone. Whatever happened to loyalty to a congregation? Do people realize what a burden this creates for those of us who remain at home?
This summer our family will again be spending time visiting our extended family away from home. We’ll have 3-4 Sundays where we will need to decide where to go to church. Almost always this is frustrating. We end up visiting a disappointing church and wish we hadn’t gone. Any advice for us?
I lead an ecumenical summer camp ministry. Every summer people worship with us in an outdoor setting. Yet every summer, people tell me that their congregations back home make them feel guilty for participating in our ministry. Tell them to back off!
What an important topic! Relatively little has been written about this issue, either in print or in the blogosphere. After consulting with a number of other pastorally minded people, I am happy to take a first crack at some reflections. I heartily welcome additional perspectives and responses.
As we get started, it’s important to acknowledge that challenges related to summer worship attendance vary widely across cultures, contexts, and socio-economic groups. Generally, this is a challenge primarily for those with the means to afford travel or participation in summer camp ministries, or a community located near a university or college that is constantly in flux throughout the summer months. Other communities experience these same challenges in the winter as snowbirds depart for warmer climates or as churches in those warmer climates prepare to receive guests.
For some communities, expectations around church attendance are high, and any Sunday away from church is viewed with suspicion. In others, especially those with many new believers, the idea of weekly attendance and prioritizing attendance while on vacation may be a new topic to address. The advice given here should be tailored to each context.
As you think about where to worship during your travels, begin by asking how this opportunity can lead to growth in grace and know-ledge of Christ.
The opportunity to worship in another congregation is a privilege, with great potential for helping us see into the lives of other brothers and sisters in Christ. It can expand our vision for the breadth of the church and for the Spirit-given strengths that different kinds of churches have. For ministry leaders who may be “on deck” 50 Sundays a year, it can be a particular privilege to participate in a service without the pressures associated with leading it.
There are congregations in nearly every geographic location that could be a great source of inspiration and learning. Perhaps you’ll find a church that practices anointing with oil or footwashing—both of which are scriptural practices. Perhaps you will encounter a Bible reading or sermon that will stick with you all year long as a source of comfort or challenge. Perhaps you’ll find a church with remarkable congregational singing of deeply biblical texts, even if that musical style is unfamiliar to you.
Some services are disappointing or perplexing, but still offer an opportunity for learning and growth. I recall a childhood visit to a congregation that featured a long-winded sermon on the charts found in the Scofield Reference Bible rather than on the verses of the Bible that those charts tried to wrestle with. I also recall a visit to a church in which the preacher lambasted the questionable orthodoxy of other churches in their denomination but didn’t say much about Jesus. These are opportunities to make resolutions about things you should not do in worship.
My kids will never forget our visit to a church that celebrated the Sunday after Easter as “Holy Hilarity Sunday,” peppering their service with unfortunately unforgettable groaners like “Knock, knock. Who’s there? Lettuce. Lettuce who? Lettuce pray.” Look it up: Holy Hilarity Sunday (which has never been promoted by RW) is a riff on a medieval attempt to express Christian joy. While the Christian joy theme sounds exactly right for Eastertide, our experience was hard to stomach. It only became redemptive when we had the opportunity to talk together as a family about what enduring, deep joy could really be in Christ. A good debriefing conversation can turn even a disappointing church visit into a learning experience.
To be sure, it takes effort to find a church to visit, to convince family members to join you, to deal with inaccurate information about service times and locations, to encounter unfamiliar songs or elements of worship. But then, it takes effort to find a good restaurant or museum or to purchase tickets for a sporting event or concert.
This past year, I was deeply encouraged when a friend sent me an email asking for a recommendation of a church they could visit while traveling in another region of the country. Several weeks in advance of their trip, they were planning not just their hotel stays, but their church visits. What a beautiful act of intentionality. They knew that a church visit could end up being a memorable highlight of a trip.
When you visit, look for ways to be a blessing there. If you meet a pastor, musician, or other leader who blesses you, be sure to tell them. They may well be missing that encouragement from people who take their leadership for granted.
If you are going to be away from your church for a while, keep up on communication, reading weekly bulletins to guide your prayers away from home. And be sure to keep up your financial commitments to your local church.
The many benefits of visiting other congregations during travel or vacation times would be my reason for resisting the impulse to sleep in on Sunday mornings—attending “church of the lake,” Bedside Baptist, Pillow Presbyterian, you name it. This approach treats vacation times as also a vacation from Christian practices, rather than seeing vacation as a prime occasion to re-engage Christian practices. In many places, church attendance is down not only because some people never go to church, but also because many lifelong worshipers are more likely than in the past to think of church attendance as more optional, especially during vacation weeks. We can gain a lot by realizing what a missed opportunity this is.
To be sure, I know that some families have profound and moving common worship times while vacationing. They gather around Bible reading, prayers for each other and the world, deeply loved songs. For some, this is one of the most centering and rich experiences of worship all year long. This can be an example of freedom in Christ working well: families making choices that deepen their conformity to Christ by worshiping together as a family.
For Congregational Leaders
It is tempting to use guilt or shame to encourage attendance, but often that is counterproductive. Rather, consider a positive but strong way of asking the question “How can our choices about summer worship attendance promote growth in Christ?” Challenge people in your congregation to consider every Sunday away from your church as a beautiful opportunity to visit another part of the church that Jesus loves so much.
Then equip your members to make good choices about where to visit. Offer to search the Internet with them for possible churches to visit in a given area (the exercise of visiting church websites will likely have a side benefit of giving you ideas for improving the hospitality of your own website). Provide guidance about what denominational families of churches might bless them. Ask them to share what they learned in their travels and how God helped them to “discern the body” (Paul’s own phrase for our act of deeply perceiving the nature of the church).
Meanwhile, prepare those who do not travel to receive the visitors God may bring your way this summer: families who send their kids to your vacation Bible school, people who move to your neighborhood, or people just passing through.
Sharpen your preparation to offer hospitality by making sure your website is both accurate and accessible. As a visitor, I have been routinely frustrated by my attempts to find clear and accurate information about worship services: start time, directions, some guidance about what door to enter and where to find restrooms, a description of what the nursery is like and what you have done to ensure it is a safe space. Consider adding a warm description of your service and sharing your vision for public worship.
Be thoughtful about visitors as you lead people through the service. When you invite kids to the front for a children’s message, take care to invite the kids of visitors, but also indicate that it’s perfectly fine for visitors’ kids to stay by their parents. If worshipers need to turn to a Bible, songbook, or prayer book, briefly point them in the right direction.
Invite visitors to help your congregation grow in Christ. It’s fine to ask people to sign a guest book. Why not also ask them about things that could make their experience as a visitor better? Invite them to send a brief email or note about something they noticed that could strengthen your congregation. And why not ask about something spiritually enriching that they discovered among you? That gives visitors a chance to bless you with a word of affirmation. It may even help them have a richer conversation on the car ride home than merely talking about what they did or didn’t like.
For Leaders of Summer Camps
What a remarkable opportunity you have to lead worship with worshipers from many congregations, to express unity in Christ, and to learn from each other. Do all you can to encourage that learning and growth, avoiding the impression that your summer worship is “church lite.”
Affirm the importance of people’s commitment to their local church. Encourage people to attend your service, but also encourage them not to neglect their commitment to their own local church. Bless them when they come, but also go out of your way to bless them when they stay home in order to serve their home church. Even the act of naming this dual blessing is a positive move forward.
Affirm the importance of the congregations represented in the group. Pray for those congregations and for the people who lead them. Encourage people to stay in close communication with their home congregations in the summer.
Ask people to name something they are grateful for in their local church, realizing that you have a unique opportunity to encourage their appreciation for their local church in ways that their home church itself might not.
Ask people to name something from their local church that can be shared within your ministry. Look for ways to create a culture of affirmation of different gifts that emerge from different parts of Christ’s body.
The bottom line in all these reflections is the same: there is great joy in making decisions that keep us on a path of spiritual growth. In this way, Christian freedom becomes a powerful opportunity for us, rather than a burden—even in the summertime.