Gina Fontana, MCT
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Some churches struggling with shrinking attendance are shortening their traditional Sunday services, promising to get a generation with limited attention spans out the door in as little as 30 minutes.
These abbreviated ceremonies are an innovation that leaders hope will lure back the enormous numbers of young people who avoid Sundays at church. With distractions such as the Internet and a weak connection to the faith of their childhoods, many are steering clear, to the dismay of religious leaders who desperately want them back.
"We are increasingly aware of the time pressures on families, and they have been telling us that the traditional service is too long for them," said the Rev. Chip Stokes of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Delray Beach, Fla. "We recognize that things are changing and we have to be more adaptive without losing our core."
St. Paul's recently introduced Family Eucharist, a 30-minute service designed for children up to fourth grade and their parents, as an alternative to the church's 90-minute traditional service. Stokes said he is thrilled with attendance: About 40 parents and kids have attended each week since the service started last month, and participants even include some people who don't have children but seek a shorter worship session.
This trend reaches across denominations: Trinity Lutheran Church in Pembroke Pines, Fla., has a service of about 50 minutes targeted at young people on Sunday mornings.
Roman Catholics have long accommodated hurried worshipers at daily Mass. Recognizing they are often on the way to work or taking a lunch break, priests keep some Masses to less than 45 minutes.
"When you don't give a daily homily, it cuts 10 minutes," said the Rev. Gabriel O'Reilly of St. David's Catholic Church in Davie, Fla.
But not everyone supports the trend toward briefer worship sessions.
"The Lord gives us 24 hours a day, seven days a week," said Karen Turnbull, a lay leader at St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church in Delray Beach. "And he's asking us for only one hour to come to church."
Turnbull said she attends Sunday Mass with her son and daughter-in-law, plus two young granddaughters.
"It's hard for them to sit still. But you have to start teaching a little discipline at a young age," she said.
Eastern Orthodox churches also have no plans to abbreviate their services, which can top more than two hours each Sunday.
"Services are meant to be spiritual; they're meant to be sensory; that takes time," said James Carras, a member of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "When I go to church, it takes a while to get into the zone, to let go of business or how the Dolphins are doing. The liturgy helps guide you into that zone."
But leaders of churches trying the shortened approach hope these condensed ceremonies present over-scheduled families and time-deprived adults with an incentive to return to religion.
The 2012 Millennial Values Survey found a quarter of 18-to-24-year-olds identify themselves as religiously unaffiliated, even though only 11 percent were raised without a faith. Catholics and mainline Protestants, including Episcopalians, are seeing the largest number of young people leaving the faiths they grew up with.
Parishioners at St. Paul's hope innovations that meet the needs of the younger set stem further departures and even attract new members. Over the summer, the church started a new group called SEEK(ers), or Spiritual Exploration and Evolving Knowledge, for 20- and 30-somethings looking for a religious home.
They also hope the half-hour Family Eucharist on Sundays, accompanied by a mid-week video to be shown at home, shows their commitment to the young. The service is informal, with piano instead of organ for instrumentation and folk-type music instead of traditional hymns. The words for the prayers and songs are displayed on an electronic screen. And kids are welcome to make noise, cry or be jittery.
Parishioner Jacqueline Barker said she always sits in the back during the adult service at St. Paul's, ready to make a quick exit if her 3-year-old and 5-year-old get noisy. She said the Family Eucharist allows her boys to pay attention for the whole service and also participate.
Parent Mary Whittemore said she loves having a choice between taking her 10-year-old daughter to the traditional 10 a.m. service or Family Eucharist at 10:45 a.m.
"It's a great gateway for children to be exposed to church in a more casual way," Whittemore said. "If a kid starts screaming, it's fine. The church I grew up in was not like that."