Some churches shorten services

Move gives families, busy young people a worship option

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Struggling with shrinking attendance, some churches are shortening their traditional Sunday service, promising to get a generation with limited attention spans out the door in as little as 30 minutes.

These abbreviated ceremonies are aimed at luring 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," 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 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 children have attended each week since the service started in September.

This trend reaches across denominations: Trinity Lutheran Church in Pembroke Pines, Fla., has a service of about 50 minutes targeted at young people on Sundays.

Roman Catholics have long accommodated hurried worshippers at daily Mass. Recognizing they are often on the way to work or taking a lunch break, priests keep some Mass 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.

"The Lord gives us 24 hours a day, seven days a week," said Karen Turnbull of 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, daughter-in-law and 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 service, 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 (NFL team) are doing. The liturgy helps guide you into that zone."

But leaders of churches trying the shortened approach say they hope these condensed ceremonies present overscheduled families and time-deprived adults with an incentive to return to religion.

Parishioners at St. Paul's say they hope innovations that meet the needs of the younger set stem further departures and even attract new members. During the summer, the church started a new group called Spiritual Exploration and Evolving Knowledge for 20- and 30-somethings looking for a religious home.

They also say they 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.

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.