Summertime Church Pew Blues

The 1860 building located across from a golf course has pews that are as old as the building, each board cut by hand with hand-made nails still holding them together.

All the windows and doors stay open during the service and the only modern amenities are the ceiling fans and box fans propped up in the windows.

The services are 45 minutes long.

The congregation makes sure of that; not only are there no offices or telephones but there are no bathrooms.

It’s a summer-only church, open from May to September.

Drawing from 25 to 70 members, the building now caters to a membership of people who have second homes or live on the lake and it occasionally draws vacationers from campsites in the Hartwell Lake area.

It’s one of a handful of churches in the state that are truly tied to the season, including a ‘boat church’ on Lake Marion that draws more than 100 worshipers each Sunday.

To everything there is a season and, as church leaders know, summers are the lean season for the pews.

Summers traditionally have the lowest attendance of the year, said the Rev. Frank Page, chief executive officer of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee.

People go on vacations.

Routines get busted.

It’s hot and muggy.

There’s yard work and the lake and beach are calling.

Churches across the state and nation see notably fewer people in the summer months, said the Rev. Al Phillips, director of missions for the Greenville Baptist Association.

Despite all the tourism that is flooding into Greenville in recent years, churches in the area have seen very little extra tourist traffic at churches in the Upstate, Phillips said.

He said live-streaming of people’s home churches may be a factor, but he misses the days when he would travel with his family and stop at the nearest local church on Sundays.

He said other communities, especially the coastal parts of South Carolina, report seeing far more summer tourist traffic in the pews than in the Upstate.

Page, a former pastor of First Baptist in Taylors, said when he is on vacation in South Carolina he goes to Ocean View Baptist Church in Myrtle Beach and he’s never the only visitor on vacation.

NewSpring Church, the state’s largest congregation with 14 campuses across the state, sees the same trends as other churches, said Suzanne Swift, a spokeswoman for the church.

She said Upstate campuses see fewer attendees during the summer but there are correlating increases in attendance at their coastal campuses, often from members of the Upstate campuses during vacations.

Summers are one of the consistent challenges for churches, said the Rev. Susan Leonard-Ray, who is district superintendent for 74 United Methodist churches in the Anderson district.

Churches use the time to work on outreach programs like vacation Bible schools and summer camps. They turn attention to foreign and local ministries and missions. There are summer barbecues and hot dog festivals.

It’s a help but even with all the outreach, it’s hard to get bodies into the building when the bodies are on vacation, Leonard-Ray said.

The Rev. Bob Stillwell, a former district superintendent, took a turn leading the congregation at Providence church, the summer-only church in Anderson.

He said he’s noticed a trend in his decades as a church leader, the summer slump has shifted from June to September to being May to August, which he suspects has been tied to changing college school calendars.

The breeze from the lake occasionally sends a blast inside the old walls of the church, sped up by the box fans, but otherwise what generations of worshipers would have felt.

The summer-only Providence church is located across the road from Stone Creek Cove Golf Course, and during his Sunday sermon Stillwell played around with the lessons of when he taught his son to golf.

A little church like Providence, he said, located on the lake and with a breeze and view of the links, is a great place to come during the summer.

Follow Mike Ellis on Twitter @MikeEllis_AIM

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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