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Busy Families Finding Less Time for Church

As more and more families continue to juggle their busy schedules of two working parents, children's activities, and community involvement, many churches are noticing that attendance has decreased over the years as parents and children are finding it increasingly difficult to attend mass or worship services regularly.

"Attendance has slipped substantially," said Reverend Ralph Clarke of the Unitarian Congregation of Mendon and Uxbridge. "Most congregations are seeing less people attending than they have in prior years." Clarke said that while his membership in the church has not declined considerably, regular attendance has.

Rev. Dr. Jan Gregory-Charpentier of United Parish in Upton says she too has seen a decline in regular attendance. "While we have as many or maybe even more actively involved in the full life of our church, those people are coming to worship less frequently. The rate of our consistency has changed," she explained. "While those who used to come three or four Sundays a month are now coming maybe one or two Sundays a month."

When asked about this transition the church is going through, Clarke replied "I think the world is going through a transition." Part of that, Clarke explained, is now young families are so busy with children's activities such as football games or dance recitals that attendance is very irregular. Decades ago, organizations didn't schedule events on Sundays because that was the day for church. "Fifty years ago, if your neighbors didn't see you pulling out of the driveway going to church each Sunday morning you'd get a funny look. Now if your neighbor sees you pulling out of the driveway going to church on Sunday morning you get a different kind of funny look," said Clarke smiling.

Charpentier agrees. "Worship attendance has become harder for people. It isn't so much fewer members or less involvement in our church but there's so much more competing for people's time. Sunday used to be a time for church and for family. Years ago, organized activities would never so boldly intrude on family and worship time. It's not a backlash against religion but a pressure of overly scheduling people lives. I personally don't begrudge people for it. I understand it."

Father Raymond Goodwin of St. Mary of the Assumption in Milford says many years ago there was an understanding between the churches and those who ran organized activities. "Nothing would start before noon so families could go to church," he explained it. But over the years, that has all changed. Charpentier believes at some point, there will be a backlash and things will turnaround. "It's not worth the sanity of our families," she said.

Another factor contributing to reduced attendance is that many younger people are drifting away from what is deemed as organized religion. A study done in 2012 by Pews Research found that one-fifth of the U.S. public and one-third of adults under the age of 30 are religiously unaffiliated. "There's a feeling of 'We don't need God,'" said Goodwin. "There's no faith there."

Clarke believes many people discount the value of religion because some religions insist that Biblical explanations are literally correct. "The Bible says God created the earth in seven days, where as science offers an explanation that better conforms to the facts. By focusing on the literal meaning, people miss scriptural truths about how people can and should relate to each other and to the world," he said.

The implications of less attendance are affecting parishes in different ways. Some churches are reporting less monetary donations coming from parishioners. Clarke says his Unitarian Congregation has felt some of the financial pinch but also notes the economy hasn't helped. "Families are struggling financially more these days."

On the other hand, Charpentier says United Parish hasn't felt such strain. "It hasn't hurt us financially. Our total giving has only gone up." Still, she notes the Parish has experienced other issues from decreased regular turnout. "I think because our religious education for our kids takes place on Sunday mornings it can be difficult to feel like you're having a long-term impact if children are coming once a month." Clarke feels the same. "There's an inconsistency in religious education," he said. "When only four kids show up out of 20, it's hard to keep them all on the same page."

So what are churches doing about their declining attendance rates? "We're actually doing a lot," said Clarke. The Unitarian Congregation has not only been reaching out to its parishioners but to the larger community with new programs.

The parish held a very successful anti-bullying program in which more than 100 children participated. They have also put on free music programs featuring jazz, bluegrass, and folk music. The Congregation is also a big contributor to the local food banks and provides space for AA meetings and other community groups. Clarke also feels it's important for parishes to utilize social media "The church has traditionally been very interpersonal. The older members need the personal contact but that doesn't work for the younger people." Still he says the church does have a Facebook page and he plans to start a blog over the summer. "I'll probably be tweeting too."

At United Parish, social media is just one of the ways they are reaching out to people. The parish developed Widen the Welcome, a program to make the church culture and ministry more accessible. Goals of the new program include making the parish ADA accessible. In addition a new Web site is being launched in September and there are plans for digital ministry projects. Still Charpentier says the program is not necessarily about increasing numbers. "We do it because we believe that we have a community that would be huge asset in people's lives."

Goodwin too says St. Mary's outreach is not necessarily about putting more people in the seats. "For me, it's not about the numbers but about interaction with the people." Regardless, Goodwin says his church is trying to become more social media conscious too with a Facebook page and Web site. "We need to get things out to the public too. Schools do it, coaches do it, and now we do too."

When all is said and done, Charpentier says perhaps it's time to realize that we are in a different day and age of when our parent's attended church. "Maybe it's not all about coming to church every Sunday. Maybe that's not likely to be the litmus test of a successful church ever again." Regardless of that, she said she finds comfort in knowing that during worship services, "The people who are here are here because they want to be."


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