We may finally have a cure for churches' "summer slump syndrome," which manifests itself as people pack up their cars on Friday afternoons, bully their way onto overcrowded roads and drive "up north" -- or south, east or west -- not returning until Sunday evening.
The syndrome's most notable symptom is empty pews at weekend church services. The possible cure: higher gas prices that are expected to keep people closer to home this summer and, therefore, available for church.
Is that going to happen? It's pure speculation at this point, but if anyone can find a silver lining in skyrocketing gas prices, it's the clergy. After all, finding silver linings is part of their job description.
"I'm a silver lining kind of guy," admitted the Rev. John Mayer, executive director of City Vision, a Minneapolis company that tracks religious demographics. "Everything I've read indicates that people are going to be driving less this summer because of the economy. I hear people saying that they won't be going to their cabins as much. Of course, they might just sleep in, but my guess is that they will go to church more often because they are around and it's what they normally do on Sunday mornings.
"But I'm not a prophet, so don't stone me if I'm wrong."
Wooddale Church wasted little time in trying to turn a negative into a plus. It added bike racks at its Eden Prairie campus and is installing more at a satellite church it is opening in Edina.
"We have several people in our ministry who are avid bike riders," said communications director Brian Anderson. "So we were a little ahead of the curve on this one; we added the bike racks last summer. And people used them."
St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral also saw the writing on the wall -- or, more accurately, on the response cards to Rev. Spenser Simrill's call for members to make a "responsible living pledge." To mark Earth Day, the dean of the cathedral handed out cards on which people listed things they could do to help protect the environment. Nearly a third of the responses dealt with finding ways to cut gas consumption.
He hasn't had time to research what effect rising gas prices might have on church attendance this summer, but he plans to. Right away. He said that he's going to pose the question to the congregation at this weekend's services.
Even if there are more people in the pews, you might not recognize them, Mayer said.
"Summer is a popular time for people to visit other churches," he said. "Maybe their favorite preacher is on vacation, or maybe they just want to try out a different church. I think that we're going to see some gain in that attendance, too."
The Rev. Chris Jackson, the minister of administration at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis, isn't so sure that the price of gas directly translates to changes in church attendance patterns. But he does expect that the overall economic downturn will impact the relationship between faith communities and their members.
"I think more of them will be turning to us for moral support as they deal with financial stresses," he said. "And I think we're going to see more people coming to the religious community for financial assistance when they use up their food shelf allotment, for instance."
Even if rising gas prices don't affect summer attendance, there could be a long-range silver lining, said the Rev. Sarah Campbell, lead minister at Mayflower Church in south Minneapolis.
"Ultimately, it could be a good thing if it gets people buying smaller vehicles, riding bikes more and using more mass transit, which will also benefit the environment," she said. "Sometimes it takes this kind of a problem for people to get serious about that."
Even Mayer admits that the summer slump syndrome -- "It's a term we learned in seminary," he explained -- won't be offset by just one factor.
"Part of it is a mind-set created by the church," he said. If the church reduces the number of services, gives the choir the summer off and uses a lot of guest preachers, "they're sending a message that it's OK to cut back in the summer."
Either way, we'll probably know the effect of gas prices on church attendance by the July 4th weekend.
That's the litmus test, he said. "Traditionally, that's the epitome of the summer slump. Many churches have about half their usual attendance that weekend."
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392