Why Is It? An All-Church Retreat Leads us Towards a Saturday Service x

by Reed Baer and Christine Burns, Pastors, West Parish of Barnstable, UCC

“Why is it?” asked a 30-something mother of two, “that we don’t have a Saturday afternoon service, like all our Catholic neighbors go to? Saturday sports are over, it is before plans for Saturday evening kick in, and it would let us have a slow Sunday morning at home as a family before the crazy work week.”

The Off-Site Retreat and How We Got There

Her question came towards the end of an all-church off-site retreat, held as a sort of desperation measure to address what had become an alarming decline in attendance at Sunday worship, a decline which was particularly marked in families with school-age children. At Church Council, the suggestion was made that we needed to appoint a committee to look into the decline, come up with some solutions, and implement them as well. Sensible heads prevailed – it was commented by one wag that committees are where good ideas go to die – and instead we agreed to try to pull as many of the congregation together as possible at the same time and place to work the issues, and perhaps together come up with some new understandings of the extent of the problem, and possible ways to address it.
But we knew that we were likely to get only “the usual suspects” to attend this meeting, the Board chairs, the officers, those who traditionally were involved in church leadership. So we specifically targeted and personally invited members of the demographic which was leaving in droves – the young parents – and who were for the most part absent from church leadership. We needed their help in learning why their peers were no longer coming, and their ideas, if any, as to what to do about it.

And they came.

We opened, of course, with prayer, prayer for insight, prayer that we might listen to one another, prayer that God might reveal to us a new way forward. We set some ground rules, the primary one being that we were together for some brainstorming, and that in the initial go-round, no idea was to be criticized, we simply wanted to get all the ideas and options aired, so that all would feel free to share their ideas and thoughts. Later on in the meeting, we would try to find some consensus around a number of actions items. And finally, no action item would be delegated out to an existing board or committee to implement – if people had energy and enthusiasm around an idea, they had to be part of a short-term action team to move it forward.

A number of action items came out of the retreat, including a better social media presence, more chances to build fellowship by things like potluck dinners, a survey of the congregation to determine what members were happy with and where they hoped we would improve, and, of course, the new Saturday service. These were the tangible output of the process. But there was an added benefit as well – the congregation came to better understand their ownership of the challenges and responsibilities of being a church together, that they had the opportunity and even the responsibility for working together to prosper the ministry of Jesus Christ in this place. And that is, as the commercial goes, priceless.

Getting the Saturday Service Up and Running

Following the January off-site retreat, the half-dozen folk who agreed to staff the action team to get the Saturday service up and going met with the pastor to figure out what was wanted/needed. The young parents said they wanted it short – no more than 45 minutes in length; not “churchy”, but in the Meeting House, not the church’s fellowship hall (they wanted it to be informal and comfortable, but still in a place they considered to sacred in a sense that a general meeting room is not); with contemporary music (no pipe organ, no choirs, preferably a band of some sorts); no Sunday School on Saturday, they wanted to worship with their children for the entire service; they would be okay with weekly communion; they did not want a “coffee hour” before or after, in-and-out was what they were looking for.

We got a huge break when the guitar teacher at a local music school, who also plays in a couple bands on weekends, agreed to be our (paid) musician for the service; a person of faith, but also one who had the ability to play a wide variety of popular “secular” songs that might serve as a bridge for the unchurched younger folk we hoped to attract. We came up with a logo (a funky rooster holding an electric guitar, playing off the fact that we are locally known as “the Rooster Church” because of our rooster weathervane), a slogan (“It’s Saturday – Let’s Do Church!”), and plastered them all over temporary signage and social media. And then we reached out to the approximately 30 families who had dropped out over the past years, dropping off gift bags with information about the service with each one, thinking they would be likely to give us a try.

How the Saturday Service Has Grown

And then we held our breath and launched our first service on Saturday, October 1, 2011. 80 folk came – primarily Sunday folk from the church who wanted to help us “paper the hall”, to make sure we had sufficient numbers to bridge us to the time when there would be enough Saturday folk to make the service fly on its own. (We had decided that we needed a minimum of 30 worshippers each Saturday, so that visitors poking their heads in would feel that the service was “happening”, not just a few folks attending an endeavor that was doomed to failure!).

Over that first year, we averaged about 40 people per Saturday. We finally gave up chasing those families who had dropped out – only one came back! But that was freeing, as it allowed us to devote ourselves more to the new people, to the unchurched, who were coming more and more. At the end of the first year, to our surprise two of the new families asked to join the church. In May of this year, towards the close of our second year, five more families joined.

We believe that the format of the service works for this younger demographic. There is a lot of movement – we often act out the Scripture, using children as the actors; the congregation is invited to come forward and light prayer candles, which the children (with assistance) love to do; everyone comes forward for communion by intinction; the “sermon” is done in a conversational style while walking around. We (Reed and Christie, who lead the service) wear jeans and everyone else dresses down as well. Children are never hushed, and often dance in the aisles during the songs.

How have the new people found us? A couple families drove by, saw the sandwich board sign, checked us out on the website and Facebook, and then gave a service a try. But most the new people have come by way of word of mouth, and we have discovered that our new families are great evangelists – they tell their friends that they love the service, that it is totally welcoming to kids, and then they invite them to come with them. And they do. And some of them have found that the pace is too active for them or their children, and so they changed over to the traditional Sunday service. Which is, of course, just fine by us.

At the close of our second year of hosting the Saturday service, we rejoice in how far we have come, and yet we also know that we cannot rest on our laurels, that we need on keep moving forward, reaching out to the community in new ways, engaging this new congregation in ways that strengthen faith and which lead us more and more out into the community in service. It has been and is A LOT of work, but what a joy it is to be about renewing this church!