Church attendance has its seasons, just like everything else. Some communities only open their churches in the summer, when the cottagers arrive from their city homes – which means that some city churches find themselves suddenly emptied out.
This summer, I have been serving one of those city churches. Our numbers began to drop shortly after May long weekend and, by Canada Day, we were down to roughly a third of our non-summer attendance.
I spent much of May and June in a state of well-hidden (I hope) irritation. Church isn’t supposed to go on vacation. Where was people’s commitment? Didn’t they know how hard this was on those of us left behind?
And then a parishioner, eagerly anticipating her own month away at her cottage, said: “I need this. It restores my soul.”
Now, I may not understand the culture of cottages (not a dominant feature of rural Alberta), but I understand the need for restoration and I consider myself professionally obligated to support people in their efforts to attain it. I decided to stop complaining about the impact of cottages on the church and start thinking about how the church could be part of the work of the cottages.
The late-in-the-game offering I shared with my congregation was a set of “Prayers for Summer Sundays,” (Book of Alternative Services, pp. 366-379). This simple liturgy of the word was designed to be comfortably used by one person or by a group and included a short prayer of preparation; the collect, psalm, and gospel appointed for that Sunday; a set of optional reflection questions on the Gospel; guidelines for intercessory prayer; and a closing prayer. I encouraged people to follow the service in the knowledge that their home parish (and, indeed, Christians around the world) were praying with them. The body of Christ is not defined by physical proximity and we do not cease to be members just because we haven’t been “to church” in a while.
So, did it work? Did cottagers use the prayers? Did the prayers make them aware of their membership in the body of Christ and so help to restore their souls? I have no idea. I know that people appreciated the offer of a way to take church with them so that they didn’t have to feel like they were choosing and the recognition that they would continue to be faithful members of the church even in their absence. So I think it worked – even if no one actually went so far as to pull out the prayers while enjoying their coffee and looking out over the lake one Sunday morning.
And it has me wondering how else the church might be able to engage with people’s lives in similar ways. How can we offer people ways to connect with their faith and their faith community without making them feel that they have to choose between “church” and other good things in their lives? As the definition of regular attendance shifts to once a month, how do we help make their membership in the body of Christ relevant all the other days as well?