It’s a problem facing leadership at congregations across the country. Attendance for Sunday morning worship services – and most church-related activities throughout the week – is decreasing. For many, the decision comes down to a choice between going to church or attending any of a number of other things planned for that day, like youth sporting events or other similar activities.
With families being pulled in many different directions, it can be hard to keep everything straight. Juggling practices, games, dance recitals, music lessons and the like for two or three children is no easy feat. And in many cases, it leaves what’s going on at the church on the back burner, or worse, forgotten.
In an effort to “compete” with all of the other commitments that are pulling people away from church functions, the Rev. Keith Sundberg made it a priority this summer to map out a 12-month calendar of events at Wayside Presbyterian Church in Erie. By having such a detailed list of events that spans into July of 2018, it allows families to have important dates of church functions on their calendars well in advance.
“It used to be just the teenagers would get busy with not coming to events,” said Keith, who is in his 17th year at Wayside Church, which is also his home church. “Now it’s moving down into the middle school, elementary school and even pre-school ages where the programs the parents think their child should be in are interfering with programs that they used to be free to attend at church.
“I realized that maybe we don’t give people enough notice to put things on their calendars.”
One of the major things a church holds every year that seems to compete with sports and family trips is vacation Bible school. Keith made a concerted effort to be able to include those dates in his 2017-18 Family Planning Calendar.
“I’ve gotten a little tired of people telling me, ‘Well, if you had let me know when vacation Bible school would be…’” Keith said. “So now I’m thinking let’s just take the bull by the horns and announce in September when vacation Bible school will be next summer.
“They (parents) will plan camps for their kids and their vacation schedules in the summertime. Could the church be an equal priority? Not more important, but as important as some of the other things that you plan for your family. I’m trying to take away the common excuse of, ‘Well I just didn’t know when the church events were going to be.’”
The Family Planning Calendar was designed like a tri-fold pamphlet so that it can easily be posted on the refrigerator or a bulletin board at home. But despite the early schedule, Keith, who still sends out weekly reminders of the events as well, understands as a father of three how demands of other activities can get in the way of church functions.
“I think the church just needs to respond to the societal changes,” Keith said. “This is an effort to see if it helps. It may not. It may not change anything, but I’m hoping it will make some difference.”
With the school year only a month old, there hasn’t been enough time yet for Keith to see if his advanced scheduling has had any effect on attendance. He did say that for an early trip to a nearby nature center people were emailing him at the last minute saying they had forgotten to register and thus couldn’t make it. So, it may turn out that even a year-long schedule still might not be the answer.
In general, people just aren’t putting as much priority into attending Sunday morning worship and other church activities as they used to. In fact, a recent discussion with Keith revealed that some people believe coming to church once a month or once every two months is considered being a regular attender.
“That reality hit us in the face,” Keith recalled. “OK, so how then do we educate children? What method or timeframe do we have that we have not explored to make sure we keep the responsibility as their godparents?
“For a lot of years I felt guilty thinking I’m failing here to get kids to come. Then it suddenly occurred to me, ‘I’m ready. Things are ready if they come. Is it really my responsibility to get them here or to avail them of the programs we’re offering?’ It went back to the baptismal vows and the answer is no. The parents promise to raise their child in the Christian faith.”
It led Keith and others to realize that they not only have to educate the children but also the parents about how to teach Christian values in their home and of the importance of having their children attend events at the church. A pamphlet created at Wayside helps instruct parents of ways to achieve this.
“This is an effort to correct what I believe has been an oversight and that is to educate parents about the spiritual nurture of their children,” Keith said. “For too long we have thought that was the responsibility of the church but our baptismal vows say it is the parents. So we are hoping to give them tools for educating and nurturing their children.”