Why do we keep doing what is not working hoping for different results? LeeAnne Watkins, rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in St. Paul, reports that her church canceled all of its adult education opportunities and midweek services (“This just isn’t working,” Christian Century, June 14).
They tried everything: Bible studies, book studies, video studies, morning and evening groups, one-time opportunities, and provocative topics; they’ve met in homes, coffee shops, and even bars.
But people are not coming.
The reason? Time. Parishioners have good intentions, but their lives are full. They use their precious time for the things they really care about.
They are willing to tutor at schools and serve meals to the hungry and love to eat with friends. They flock to the church’s social events. The church is growing. But the only adult education opportunities that attract audiences are sermon podcasts and daily emailed bits of wisdom, prayer, and scripture.
Watkins says she feels like she is selling something people don’t want—and then getting mad at them for not wanting it. So she is letting go of the picture she has in her head about what church is supposed to look like and stopping putting energy into things that are not working.
It is summer in Minnesota as you read this. Among our clergy there may be gnashing of teeth about parishioners’ flight out of church to the cabins up north or to the golf courses or wherever summer takes us.
I’ve seen a couple of church responses to the summer slump.
Some continue what they’ve been doing and get a little snarky about the lack of participation and the energy these little-attended opportunities require. Others simply accept the irresistible pull of summer activities and put most church activities on hiatus until fall.
Hear the summer song
I’d like to propose a third way. I call it a change of pace. When I consider my own yearnings during the summer, I do want to connect to Christ and community, but I want to do it outside, in creation. I love sitting on the patio having a meal with friends, riding my bike on the nearby trails, or strolling through an art fair. I love casual summer clothes, beautiful gardens, road trips to interesting small towns, and a summer evening baseball games.
Some churches creatively go with summer rather than fight against it. They host neighborhood block parties, outdoor worship, ice-cream socials, or movie nights in the park. One church leads weekly bike ride to a local ice cream shop instead of hoping people will sit inside for Bible study.
Community can be built in many ways. Jesus can be found over the scooping of ice cream as much as in the breaking of bread. So instead of growing frustrated over what people are not doing, what if we listened to them and offered what their soul is craving during our short Minnesota summers?
Instead of grinding church to a near-halt in the summer, consider offering a change of pace in connecting people to Christ and community. That might be refreshing for everyone!
Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church