By Janis Fontaine
Whoopi Goldberg’s character in the 1992 comedy Sister Act may have oversimplified the goals of the church — “Y’know, get some butts in the seats” — but membership and attendance are what keep church doors open. Gaining new members and retaining existing ones are critical if a church is going to survive.
And church attendance is falling. Only 36 percent of adults said they attend services weekly, according to the Pew Research Center, and only 17 percent of adults age 18-29 attend weekly services.
The leaders at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Boynton Beach have spent a lot of time, energy and money trying to entice new members through the door. In 2011, the Rev. Wendy Tobias became St. Joe’s Whoopi Goldberg. As the associate priest for “Unplugged,” it’s her job to help church leaders fill the empty pews.
“We’re the best-kept secret in Boynton Beach and I want to get our story out,” Tobias said. “We offer an opportunity for a different kind of worship, and I believe we can make a real difference.”
The church’s leaders noticed that few of the people who attended weekly services were in the young adult demographic. They knew people in their 20s and early 30s weren’t coming to church, so the church paid market researchers to find out why. Specifically, what did the young professional in the community want from a church? After careful study and discussion of the research, St. Joe’s decided to offer “Unplugged,” a more casual service offered later on Sunday mornings with modern music and a shorter sermon and service overall.
The church leaders carefully planned every detail down to the exact time — 11:45 a.m. Sunday — that the young adults said they wanted. They hired a minister to perform the kind of music the would-be worshipers said they like.
But things don’t always work out the way market research says they will. The younger folks didn’t come.
“We designed the service around the market research,” Rector Marty Zlatic said, “but we could never reach ‘critical mass.’”
They tried holding services at the beach. They tried different times. They used social media. They puzzled and pondered. Then they brought in Tobias to see what she could do.
Tobias, 62, had grown up at St. Joe’s. She attended the church as a child and had taught at the school, even served as the chaplain.
Most people don’t return home after attending the seminary, so Tobias considers herself lucky. She already knew the community and she already loved the church. She threw her support behind the music minister, Charles Milling, a New Orleans native and a graduate of NYU and Boston’s Berklee College of Music, and his band. More people began attending.
On a recent Sunday, 9-year-old Zachary Raab showed off a bit of his Michael Jackson flair at the service. The congregation is invited to sing and dance along with the band, and it’s even OK to applaud at the end of a song.
Zachary, a Boynton Beach fourth-grader, attended the Unplugged service with his grandmother, Nancy Raab. Zachary said he usually attends Sunday school or goes to the family service, but he thinks the band rocks so he’s happy to come with his grandmother. Nancy Raab has been attending St. Joseph’s for 20 years, since Zachary’s father was a boy.
Children do seem to draw families to church. Research shows weekly attendance at church among 30- to 49-year-olds is 36 percent, the highest of any group. Parents want to give their kids every advantage and to teach them values that will make them good citizens of the world, and many people believe the church is a good partner in reaching that goal.
Kim Tice, of Boynton Beach, attended the service with her 3-year-old son, who introduced himself as Darth Vader. She appreciates the casual, relaxed vibe and the come-as-you-are acceptance. Unplugged is her favorite service because it’s not all sitting and listening and it’s not so long that Luke, er, Darth Vader, gets bored. And if he does make a bit of a ruckus, people are fine with that.
The easy-listening music matches the church’s easygoing, progressive messages. “We are more open,” Tobias said. “Women are equal in the church and we’re accepting of the LGBTQ community.”
Tobias knows there are people who have been turned off by the church. “We try to offer something for everyone. A gathering place. A place to reinforce camaraderie. And a place to celebrate the God within,” Tobias said.
Even spending just an hour focusing on God’s plan is enough, Tobias said. “The love and joy that is felt at the service is a positive spark plug for the workweek.”
Research, including a 2016 study by Harvard University’s school of public health, shows that people who attend church services regularly are happier and healthier than those who don’t.
Churchgoers are less likely to suffer from depression. They have more success stopping negative behaviors like smoking. And they live longer. But why?
The scientists thought the benefit may come from one’s social network, but women who belonged to other groups that met weekly for social interaction (like book clubs and volunteer work) did not show the same benefit to the degree that churchgoers did.
Tobias doesn’t want you to just show up or to follow blindly, and neither does the church. She wants to connect with you. In the Episcopal Church, it’s OK to have doubts. Ask questions. Debate opinions. Ask more questions. And know that if you’re different, you won’t be bullied or ignored or excluded. You’ll be welcomed and embraced — unless that invades your personal space, of course.
If there is one message that Tobias says rings truer and louder than the rest, it’s this: “You are beloved by God. You don’t have to earn it. And you cannot do anything to stop it.”
So, you might as well show up and sing along.
Four services to meet your needs
St. Joseph’s offers four services, hoping that one will be just what you’re looking for:
The reflective, healing service: This is an intimate service with piano and guitar music, healing candles and anointing, and Communion passed from person to person around the altar. At 5 p.m. Saturday.
The traditional, Rite I, service: This is a quiet, traditional service with prayer, Communion and without music. Coffee hour and fellowship available after the service in the Parish Hall. At 7:45 a.m. Sunday.
The family, Rite II, service: This is the largest gathering. Children, pre-K to fifth grade, are invited to participate in Christian education (Sunday school) as younger children get care in the nursery. Music director and organist David Clyle Morse and the adult parish choir perform weekly. The children’s choir performs on the fourth Sunday of every month from September to May. At 9:30 a.m. Sunday.
The Unplugged service: A relaxed, joyful, come-as-you-are service with prayer and music; a haven for people who want to unplug from stiff traditions yet long for spiritual growth and depth in their lives. At 11:45 a.m. Sunday.
St. Joseph’s is at 3300 S. Seacrest Blvd., Boynton Beach; 732-3060; www.stjoesweb.org.
Janis Fontaine writes about people of faith, their congregations, causes and community events. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.