Maybe it’s not a good policy to make light of hell, but it seems plausible that the inspiration for Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” may have come less from the biblical text and more from his experiences of a New England sanctuary in high summer. I know that those of you in Texas and California and the deep South will object to this claim, but there is nowhere hotter in the world than a colonial style New England church in July.
Keep in mind all you folks from Arizona, yours is a “dry heat.” You can practically swim in parts of Connecticut during the summer without ever getting near any standing water. Why do I mention all of this? I guess I’m a bit sympathetic to the scores of Mainline Protestant New Englanders who abandon the churches in droves every summer and head to the Cape. But only “a bit!” Does God takes summers off?
One of the larger projects of LiberalEvangelical.org is to work to disentangle and clarify the concepts “liberal,” “conservative,” “evangelical,” and “moderate” so as to show that there is real space for liberal evangelicals. We are not figments! We exist in a peculiar place that is seldom explored. The point of this site is to explore that space and to invite others along for the ride. To this end, I want to float a hypothesis: one of the ways that we might begin to recognize evangelicals in guises other than the caricatured costume of a “Vote Bush” button on the lapel and a backpack full of Left Behind novels and apologetic tracts, is to pay attention to priorities. Where are Christians working hard to realize the Kingdom of God? Where are Christians striving to learn more about God and their faith through prayer and study? Where are Christians making their faith a top priority i.e. where are Christians actually attending services during the Summer? Show me a sweltering sanctuary in August full of Christians and I think there is a pretty good chance that these folks might be evangelicals…no matter what their lapel pins or the church marquee say.
If you detect a bit of exasperation and sarcasm in my prose, you are not mistaken. I worked in a church for several years where it was expected that the majority of the church’s parishioners would disappear for June, July, and August. It was so much the routine that we actually scheduled a “Homecoming Sunday” during the first week of September. In our case, most everyone disappeared to Cape Cod for the summer—though the churches on the Cape did not report a sharp bump in attendance during those months. We would move Sunday worship into the smaller chapel so that the stalwarts who liked to worship more than 75% of the year would not feel quite so lonely. Most of the part-time staff was seasonally unemployed during these months. And most exasperatingly, during the one time of the year when church activities might actually have been able to out compete dance practices, sports, school plays, SAT prep classes, and homework for the attention and time of our young, during this prime season for influencing the lives of the most influential, we boxed it up and shut it down like a circus moving on to another town. “We’re losing our young people!” so many in the Mainline churches wail and warm. Well, what do we expect?
Let us turn for a moment and cast our gaze south of the Mason-Dixon line. There we will see frequently practiced an alternative strategy for handling the haze and doldrums of summer. There in the Appalachians and the Ozarks they do not pack up and head for vacation homes on the Cape or in the Hamptons. They choose a group of strong backed parishioners to march out to the shed at the edge of the church’s property. Once there they pull out a tremendous canvas, unfold it and brush away the cobwebs. They erect a huge tent in the parking lot. Barbeques are stoked, bean salads are tossed, folding chairs are aligned, and hand painted signs go up around town announcing a revival. Not only do these evangelicals shun the notion of abandoning church for the summer, they increase their participation, increase their fervor, and increase their attendance. Church becomes something to do, an occasion to be marked and enjoyed, rather than something to be avoided and fled. Released from mathematics and social studies classes the children of tent revival churches are brought to vacation Bible schools, often attending not just the school offered at their church, but also the classes at the Baptist church down the street, and the Methodist church two blocks further. The weather and season do not provide a reason for skipping out on church, but rather an excuse to spend more time and energy on the church and worship. Is it any wonder that this strategy leads to growth?
My own experience tells me that the theology of most tent revivals would not sit well with most liberals, and I would not endorse many of the lessons being taught to young and old in many of the more conservative churches that gather under canvass in July and August. But surely liberal evangelicals can see in these meetings the embodiment of a kind of holy defiance and refuses to cede 25% of the calendar to merely secular pursuits. Surely there are liberals among us who are not so culturally bigoted and biased that we cannot appreciate the kind of commitment and faithfulness that eschews a day at the beech for a day in prayer and service. If we need examples of liberals who share this sort of full-calendar commitment to Christian practice we need look no further than the traditionally black churches in this country that have championed the tent meeting style while preaching a more liberal interpretation of the Gospel than one would find in many white rural churches.
Conservatives should not have a monopoly on summer piety, and yet this would seem to be the likely conclusion one would draw when the anecdotal evidence is examined. Liberals have ceded the field, and abandoned the blessings available to those who continue to gather and treat the summer as a time of growth leading to harvest rather than a period of inaction.
My family always took a summer vacation. Mom and dad taught school, and worked part-time jobs during their summer break, but we always packed the car and headed to the Smoky Mountains for a week. One of the things I remember most is having our own family service on Sunday mornings. We would sing some songs, pray together, sing some more, and then have a picnic. This may seem like such a little thing, but the message it sent to us as kids was profound: we may be out of town and away from our church home but we will remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Frankly, the fact that it was Sunday did not mean much to us, but it reinforced the idea that church is not a seasonal affair. Participation is not optional. Christianity is not something you pick up and then drop when it interferes with your social calendar. Later in life, this meant that my parents had enormous credibility when they would not let us skip church for sports. My brother and I knew that it was not an option. Our religious and moral education came first every time, no exceptions. As kids we learned a silent lesson about prioritizing church. What silent lesson do we teach our kids and youth when abandon church for the summer? What kind of credibility will we be able to exercise with our children later in life when they are “too busy” or “too tired” to go to church?
One of the saddest things about so many of our liberal congregations isn’t just that we practically close up shop for the summer, but that by institutionalizing the “summer break” we give tacit permission and approval to those who would otherwise rightly feel compelled to worship and serve year round. In the town where I served, the cliché was that everyone disappeared to Cape Cod for the summer, so churches were well advised to scale back on services during these months. We canceled Sunday school, we drastically cut back on nursery workers and space, we dropped half of the church’s support staff, and we moved our worship to a smaller room. I am not merely picking on my church. The truth is that this has become common practice in many liberal churches and denominations throughout our country. What made this a truly tragic development was that on occasion during the summer I would run into someone at the market or post office who I knew from church, only to find out that, yes, they were still in town, but that they were not attending during the summer because there were no classes for their kids, or because no one else would be there. The cliché became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Throughout this nation liberal churches are failing. And our expectation of failure has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
One of my hopes for the growing influence and appeal of liberal evangelicalism is that liberal churches will recapture some of the evangelical spirit that brings with it a commitment to use for the glory of God even those things that seem to be curses. The heat of the summer is tough. It is tough to sit in old churches that were designed to hold heat when the humidity is at 90%. It is tough to turn down that 9:30 AM tee time on Sunday. It is difficult to fight the urge to get a jump on the traffic by heading to the beach before 10:00 AM. So long as we are only liberals, our churches do not have a chance of combating these urges and our sanctuaries will continue to exist as ghost towns during the summer months. However, as liberal evangelicals we can begin to reclaim the calendar for our progressive vision of the Kingdom of God and the work of Jesus Christ. As liberal evangelical ministers we can and should challenge our parishioners to fight the urge to “take a break” from church during the summer. As liberal evangelical parents we can earn credibility with our children and teenagers by making our Christian faith and practice a consistent priority. As liberal evangelical worshipers the summer can be a time of renewal, revival, and spiritual growth instead of time where we merely work on our tan.
In all honesty, it took decades for churches in this country to abandon the summer months as a mission field and to declare June, July, and August a fallow period for the faith. We will not solve this crisis and reclaim this time in a single season. But liberal evangelicals need to start now. Start holding services in the big space again. Start offering childcare on par with what is offered during the rest of the year so that parents continue to feel welcome. Most importantly, break the cycle of expectations and challenge yourself and your congregation to keep being the church, to keep praying, keep worshiping, and keep serving during the entire year. Remember that our young people are watching, and that what we say to them will matter significantly less than the kinds of priorities that they see us set.