By Lisa Cannon Green
Ah, summertime. The living is easy, and the pews are empty.
Family trips, kids’ camps, and a penchant for relaxation can wreak havoc on summer church attendance—but leaders who simply hang on until September are missing an opportunity, says Kris Dolberry, a pastor, Bible teacher, and former leader of Lifeway Men.
“Pastors and leaders say, ‘We can’t do what we would normally do, so let’s batten down the hatches and do only the essentials,’” he says. “Creativity and new strategies to reach people are put on hold.”
Instead, summer can be a time to shift focus and extend the church’s ministry into new areas. “Ride the wave of momentum culture gives you,” Dolberry says.
In every age group, churches can use summer as a time to re-energize. Here are some ideas to try.
1. Create summer traditions. Schedule special events such as Vacation Bible School at the same time each year, says Jana Magruder, director of Lifeway Kids.
Whether you choose the beginning or end of summer, keep it consistent. “Families will start planning around that week and will be there to participate and help.”
2. Experiment. Trying new curriculum can be disruptive in the middle of a school year, Magruder says, and developing new study materials can be a time-consuming burden if tackled year-round.
Instead, she says, “use off-peak times like summer to try new things, whether it’s a curriculum you haven’t used before or writing your own.”
3. Have fun. While school’s out, kids are looking for ways to get together. Check out the parks and recreation opportunities in your community, and schedule some fun outings, Magruder recommends.
“Target the different age groups, from preschool to preteen, and offer times for them to get to know each other better.”
On Sunday mornings, get kids’ attention with fun T-shirts, prizes, games, and activities that feel different from the rest of the year. “The kids enjoy it so much, they wake up on Sunday mornings and say, ‘Mom and Dad, we have to go.’”
4. Provide resources for families to use at home. Parents and kids who study the Bible together in the summer can create a habit that lasts all year.
“Although families may not be coming to church as regularly, they might be spending more time together,” Magruder says. “It’s a great opportunity to encourage them to get into the Word together.”
5. Recruit new volunteers. Volunteers go on vacation too—and without them, many kids’ ministries can’t even open their doors.
To fill the summertime gap, leaders can attract new people with a short-term commitment: “Hey, I really need help for just six weeks. Will you be around?” Some may discover they love children’s ministry and stick around for the long term.
1. Be creative with the calendar. Teens’ summer schedules are packed with camps, sports, summer jobs, and other commitments. To reach them, churches need to offer Bible studies and activities outside typical hours, says Paul Turner, student ministry expert.
Churches may even need to offer the same event multiple times in a single week. “It requires more work of leaders, but if we’re called to equip the saints, we need to do it at times when students can actually be equipped.”
2. Get out of town. Summer camps and mission trips can immerse students in ministry and open their eyes in ways that are difficult to duplicate during the rest of the year, Turner says.
Teens in search of activities to list on their résumés often discover something deeper. “They begin to understand the opportunity and really the responsibility we have to be involved in ministry.”
3. Get into the community. While mission trips are great, students may not realize people in their hometown have the same needs, Turner says. Perspectives change when teens encounter nearby soup kitchens and homeless shelters.
“Kids begin to realize these are real people, created in the very image of God,” Turner says. “We help them see how Christ is at work right here where we live.”
4. Build deeper relationships with smaller numbers. Summer attendance may be lower, but numbers don’t define success, Turner says. Less hampered by the demands of crowd control, leaders can focus on strengthening relationships and guiding students deeper into ministry, nurturing a faith that will ripple into kids’ adult lives.
5. Equip parents to be spiritual developers. Parents may try to outsource their students’ spiritual growth, Turner says: “I’ll send my kids to church, and the church is going to develop them spiritually.” But Deuteronomy 6 shows spiritual development is a parent’s responsibility.
Youth ministers can support parents by saying, “I realize your role is the primary spiritual developer. What do you need from me? How can I best serve you? How can I resource you to be all that God wants you to become?”
1. Give people permission to be away. Instead of fighting the cultural trend, plan to be “the church scattered” during the summer, Dolberry advises. Your people will be traveling; show them how to be an extension of the church as they go. “It’s almost as if you’re mobilizing missionaries for the summer.”
For those who remain at home, let summer be a time to relax and enjoy. “Give your groups permission to get together, talk about life, laugh together and play corn hole in the backyard,” he says. The enhanced relationships will enrich the entire year.
2. Plan outreach opportunities. Where do people in your congregation tend to vacation? Contact ministries there and find out how visitors can help. Share the needs with your people and suggest they devote a day of their vacation to serving.
“Pastors or Sunday school teachers can be proactive before the summer to offer those kinds of opportunities,” Dolberry says.
3. Stream your services. With technology such as video streaming, people can engage in worship gatherings while they’re out of town. “If church leaders aren’t streaming their services, they should figure out a way to, especially in the summertime,” says Dolberry. “It’s easier now than ever before.”
4. Keep in touch. A weekly devotional—delivered by email or even via Facebook Live—can keep vacationers engaged in what’s happening back at church, says Dolberry.
5. Dive deep in a book of the Bible. Summer can be a great time for an in-depth study of a single book of the Bible, Dolberry says. “In the fall, when everybody re-engages, you’ve got a better picture of the Bible than you had when the summer began.”
Kelly King, women’s ministry specialist for Lifeway, agrees. “Summer is a really good time to offer Bible studies for women, especially schoolteachers who may not have time during the school year,” says King. She suggests choosing Bible studies light on homework and easy to follow even when someone misses a week.
Summertime brings new rhythms to everyday life, and although church attendance may dip, the different pace can be a source of spiritual growth, Dolberry says.
“God worked for six days creating, and then on the seventh day He rested—not because He was tired but because He changed his focus,” Dolberry says. “So, picture summer as a Sabbath time for a local church. Change your focus to something different from your normal rhythm throughout the year.
“After the summer, we’ll celebrate—‘Look what the Lord did, not just in us while we gathered here but through us as we scattered from here.’”
Lisa is a former senior editor at Lifeway Research.