They came for Christmas, for Easter, for Mother’s Day.
Now it’s summer, and the churches seem empty., “If the weather is decent, people go to the lake or go golfing,” said the Rev. C.W. Andrews Sr., pastor of Spokane’s Calvary Baptist Church. “That’s their church, in a sense.”
When the sun comes out and temperatures rise, dozens of area pastors, priests and ministers find themselves preaching to empty pews.
Every summer - especially on weekends such as the Fourth of July - about 30 percent of Calvary’s 125 regulars skip the service, he said.
It happens at other churches, too.
On Saturday, nearly half of the congregation at the Spokane Countryside Seventh-day Adventist Church was gone.
About 60 of the usual 100 people showed up for Sabbath service, said John Witcombe, the church’s pastor. Those who weren’t there attended a cowboy camp meeting in Chewelah, Wash., Witcombe said.
Most pastors expect the decline in church attendance. Some churches, such as the Unitarian Universalist Church, take summer breaks. Others, such as the Zion Christian Church in Spokane, put Bible school on hold and cut services to just one a week.
“There are a lot of vacations,” said Carrie Liptac, the church’s office manager, “a lot of yard work to do.”
On average, about 335 people attend church at Zion. Now that summer’s here, that number has dropped to 250, Liptac said.
Church leaders keep their chins up, hoping people will return in the fall.
“The summertime’s a time for the family to get together,” said Witcombe, who wasn’t bothered by Saturday’s low turnout. “We as pastors recognize that. … I’m just glad that they’re out doing something enjoyable with their families.”
Other pastors, however, are disturbed by the decline in attendance.
“I’m all for people going on vacation, but when Sunday comes, I would hope they’d find the way to the house of God,” Andrews said.
He knows some who attend service only if there’s “a dire need, when things aren’t going well.”
And he knows plenty of “benchwarmers” or “CMEs” - people who attend church only on Christmas, Mother’s Day and Easter.
“You have to thank God all the time,” he said.
While most churches see a decline, there are some - including Spokane’s Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes and Sandpoint’s Assembly of God - that don’t notice a difference.
Because of its downtown location, Our Lady of Lourdes gets enough visitors, said Monsignor James Ribble, the church’s rector.
In fact, more people attended Mass there on the Fourth of July compared with other services during the week.
Located in a city with plenty of summer tourists, the Assembly of God is always full during Sunday service, said Neree Beal, the pastor’s wife.
“If our people don’t come because they’re out of town, we have a lot of vacationers that make up for them,” she said.
Most churches aren’t so lucky. And smaller churches sometimes have a hard time getting by financially.
“We encourage people to send in their tithes when they’re on the road,” said Kris Broderhausen, a minister at the Unity Church of Spokane.
The lack of church attendance is also hard on morale, she said, “but you can’t worry about it.”
“All you can do is encourage them to remember their church when they’re away,” she said. “If they don’t, you bless them anyway.”