Churches expand ministries in unique ways
Easter message conveyed in many nontraditional ways as churches try to build new communities
Christians today will celebrate Easter at churches filled with white lilies, glowing candles, and glorious music. For many, the visit will mark the rare times — along with Christmas — that they go to church each year.
A Gallup survey released in February showed that only 22 percent of adults in Massachusetts attended services weekly in 2014, the fourth lowest rate among the 50 states.
Some churches in Greater Boston are trying to fill their pews by touching hearts and minds through renewed outreach and nontraditional ministries. They are blessing pets and bicycles, taking worshipful walks, gathering for dinner worship, and turning up the volume on church music.
“People no longer go to church because they feel cultural pressure to join,” said the Rev. Laura Everett, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, which represents 17 Christian denominations in the state. “Rather, many people are seeking out places to cultivate authentic community and spiritual maturity.”
Said the Rev. Paul Soper, director of pastoral planning for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, “Parishes are trying to do new ways of inviting people in. Pope Francis has said that we have to stop being a church that just waits for people to come to us. We have to go where the people are. We can’t be successful without doing it.”
Some local pastors said they hope their outreach deepen’s people’s faith.
“My goal is not to fill the pews,” said the Rev. Marya DeCarlen, pastor at All Saints in Danvers. “My goal is to set the hearts of the folks here on fire with the love of God.”
Perfect Paws started five years ago as a spiritual outreach to people through their pets. The service, offered every third Sunday of the month at 5 p.m., welcomes all animals, except for snakes. Dog owners make up most of the worshippers.
“We’ve never missed once in five years,” said Jimmy Juppe, 64,of Tewksbury, who attends with his wife, Lynda, and their Yorkshire terriers, Bella Mia, who is 1, and Pallina, 12.
While Lynda Juppe attends Mass at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Revere, Jimmy said he had fallen away from church until he started attending Perfect Paws.
“I feel these are God’s animals,” he said, cradling Bella Mia in his arms. “What a wonderful treasure to bring them to church.”
Hymns, the Lord’s Prayer, a sermon, and communion (for humans) are offered during the half-hour service. As many as 30 to 50 dogs, which must be leashed, attend with their owners. Pet owners around the world have sent in prayer requests. The March service was streamed live online for the first time.
While those who come with their pets are devoted, the ministry has not resulted in major growth for All Saints, created in 2012 by the merger of Calvary Episcopal Church in Danvers and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Peabody.
“Maybe five or six people have made the transition to All Saints,” said DeCarlen, who was appointed pastor last May. “It’s not a growth mechanism for us. . . . But the people who come connect with God and their animal and that community. . . . That is their church.”
In Brookline, a group of young adults at United Parish explores the word of God and Christian fellowship around the Wired Word dinner table. Sessions are held on most Thursday nights at Chef Chow’s House restaurant in Coolidge Corner.
Wired Word, a national adult Bible study, distributes a weekly lesson by e-mail that relates to a current event, such as assisted suicide, and to scripture. Since it started in 2013, the program has helped to draw more young adults to United Parish, said the Rev. Lisa Straus, interim associate pastor.
“We had a really lively children’s program, and people who are retired come to church,” said Straus, a doctoral student in theology at Boston University. “The gap we had was in the 20 to 30s age . . . We wanted a group so that we could reach out to them and let them know we’re here.”
Meeting outside of church to discuss contemporary issues makes a Bible study more inviting for people who do not regularly attend services, Straus said.
“It’s a little easier to go into a pub or a restaurant than to a church building if you haven’t been in one in a long time,” Straus said. “The lessons we discuss teach people to apply scripture to what they encounter day to day. If Bible study is only what happens in the church, how do you take it into the world?”
During Lent, the group suspended its weekly meeting at Chef Chow’s to attend the parish’s Thursday night prayer service. They gathered afterward for Chinese take-out at the church parsonage.
Some 20-somethings say the dinner gatherings have nourished their faith.
“It’s sort of easy to engage just for an hour in church every Sunday, “ said Jacob Mathews, 26, of Somerville, a law student who helped to start the group with his wife, Jen. “But we wanted to have dialogues with people our age about issues that matter to us, both as young adults and as young Christians.”
Deanna Baker, 29, said meeting outside a church is important.
“It makes it very relaxed,” said Baker, who lives in Jamaica Plain and is the daughter of a Methodist pastor in Ohio. “It’s not like Lisa’s preaching to us. We’re talking about it together.”
It’s really fun, and interesting, and we tell stories outside of the Wired Word topic.”
At St. Mary of the Sacred Heart in Hanover, hundreds of teens regularly attend the 6 p.m. Mass on Sunday, where a six-piece band plays Christian rock.
“We wanted to make going to Mass kind of cool,” said the Rev. Chris Hickey, who started the Life Teen SMASH (the acronym stands for St. Mary’s and St. Helen’s) program when he arrived at St. Mary in 2004. “The music is key.”
As the band jams, middle- and high school students stand and sway in the pews. They clap and slap one another’s ’ hands as they sing, “Jesus loves you, pass it on.”
“It’s a fun Mass,” said Katey Dowling, 19, of Hanover, a student at the University of Southern Maine who attends the service whenever she is home. “It’s a good way to start the week.”
“Father Chris is just the best,” said Molly Terenzi, 17, of Hanover. “He makes it so we understand.”
Life Teen, a national youth ministry founded in Mesa, Ariz., 30 years ago, aims to deepen a teen’s relationship with Jesus. St. Mary’s teens take part in homework days, pizza and prayer nights, a semiformal dance, and trips to Providence Bruins games.
The Sunday Mass draws as many as 800 teens who join Hickey around the altar for the consecration of the Eucharist. “Your goal is to bring people to the Lord,” Hickey said during a 10-minute homily. “My goal is to bring you to Jesus.”
Some teens said they get the message.
“You really do feel the presence of God here,” said Joe Bradley, 16, of Hanover. “Coming to Mass is the highlight of my week.”
“The music here is so great,” said Joe Parry, 17, of Hanover. “It’s on my playlist.”
Perfect Paws Pet Ministry in Danvers
All Saints Episcopal Church of the North Shore
46 Cherry St., Danvers; allsaintsepiscopalnorthshore.org
Average attendance at Sunday worship: 120
Special ministry: Perfect Paws Pet Ministry offers a dedicated service for people and their pets at 5 p.m. on the third Sunday of each month.
Brookline parish offers the Wired Word
United Parish of Brookline
210 Harvard St.; www.unitedparishbrookline.org
Denominations: United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, American Baptist Churches.
Average attendance at Sunday service: 200
Special ministry: The Wired Word , a Bible study for people in their 20s and 30s, meets Thursday nights at Chef Chow’s restaurant for a discussion of how Christianity relates to current events.
Hanover, Norwell parishes combine for teen program
The Holy Mothers Collaborative
St. Mary of the Sacred Heart Parish in Hanover and St. Helen Parish in Norwell
392 Hanover St., Hanover
Pastor: The Rev. Chris Hickey
Denomination: Roman Catholic
Average weekend Mass attendance : 3,068
Special ministry: Life Teen SMASH offers events for teens such as Homework Club, Pizza and Prayer, and a special 6 p.m. Mass on Sunday.