July 24, 2012
By G. Jeffrey Macdonald
SALEM, N.H. -- As New England sweltered in early July, Sunday mornings came and went without a single soul showing up for worship in the hot, stuffy sanctuary of First Congregational Church of Salem, N.H. Even the pastor stayed home.
But God wasn't forgotten. Worship just waited until Wednesday evenings, when the cool comfort of the basement fellowship hall drew as many as 40 to sing and pray. That's 50 percent more than the church attracted when it met on summer Sundays.
"If people take a break from worshipping, they sometimes don't pick that habit back up," said Owen Williams, a longtime deacon at First Congregational, a United Church of Christ congregation. But because Wednesdays keep people coming, "we have a depth of commitment throughout the year."
Summer has a way of thinning out pews on Sunday mornings as the sun-loving faithful take to trails, outdoor markets and backyard projects. The predictable pattern poses challenges, especially for smaller congregations.
More and more, however, churches are rediscovering Wednesday — a traditional midweek church night — as a prime time to gather the flock for casual worship in summer. Early adopters report improved attendance, slightly fatter coffers and invigorated spirituality as curious newcomers drop by and join in.
"It is becoming more common for churches to experiment with different times, days and venues for worship gatherings," said Elaine Heath, associate professor of evangelism at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. "The prevailing attitude of church insiders, though, seems to be that the worship gathering that really 'counts' is the one on Sunday morning."
This Wednesday (July 18), First Church Congregational in Methuen, Mass, will begin a three-week experiment with Wednesday worship. For the first time this August, the only worship services at Plymouth Congregational in Plymouth, N.H., will be on Wednesday evenings. Worshippers will exit to the sounds of live music as crowds arrive for outdoor concerts on Plymouth Common....