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Walking Our Faith: Take a hike. Really.

When I began writing this column nearly seven years ago, one of the first pastors I met claimed that 90% of Summit County residents don’t attend church on a regular basis.

I was shocked by this statistic until I realized that in my own church, St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Breckenridge, our pews will be full on any given weekend; however, the majority of attendees are out-of-state weekend visitors.

Speaking with other pastors in Summit County, a new concern is for the regular churchgoers who got used to attending a Zoom meeting during the pandemic. As our lives return to normal, will these good souls leave their couch and return to church pews?

In “The Lonely Crowd: Churches Dying Due to Friendlessness,” Mike Frost writes, “I’ve lost count of the number of Christians who’ve told me they either stopped attending church or left their church to join another one because they couldn’t make any friends there.”

When Father Stephen asks at the start of each Mass how many in the congregation are visiting from out of town and 90% raise their hands, I look around and wonder what we could do to bring in more of our neighbors.

Honestly, I have been blessed with exactly the opposite experience described by Frost.

I moved to Breckenridge seven years ago with my two Newfoundland dogs and didn’t know a soul. Then I began attending Saturday evening Mass at Saint Mary’s, and thanks to the outgoing people like Larry and Barb — who greeted me as I arrived and departed every week, and asked about me when I missed a few weeks in a row — my experience was positive, and so I kept returning week after week.

I had the same experience at St. John’s Episcopal Church after I joined its prayer shawl knitting group, which led to me becoming a member of the Tuesday Community dinners group and eventually getting a job working as the parish administrator two days a week.

(Of course, St. Mary’s is still the church of my faith.)

Both churches have been the source of deep friendships and community, which allowed me to experience Breckenridge as my home.

Sadly, I also realize this is not the experience of every church or perhaps of every person who has attended these two churches over the same years.

In my former hometown, I attended the same church for five years, and when I finally moved away, I still didn’t know a single person. I arrived just in time to slip into a pew and leave as soon as Mass was over.

What made the difference in Breckenridge? Both St. Mary’s and St. Johns offer activities throughout the week that encourage anyone to join. At St. Mary’s, there’s Powder with Padre a monthly ski meet-up with Father Boguslaw. At St. John’s, there’s snowshoeing in the winter and hiking through the summer.

This is where the bonds of friendship are formed. In these relaxed settings, it’s about casual conversation and laughter. From these seeds, friendships are formed.

The weeknight prayer group I belong to has met five days a week via Zoom with the same 15 to 20 people. What kept us together for two years running is that we end each evening by praying for one another and begin with 10 minutes of free-wheeling banter about our lives.

These two experiences, one based on faith and the other based on friendship, have helped us form a community. I miss these people when I miss a day or two.

My solution to dropping church attendance is to replicate what I have found in Breckenridge: Create community within the church through weekday activities that focus on faith and friendship. Experience our walk of faith as not being separate from our daily lives but an integral part.

I’m not suggesting that church become a social club but a space that embraces our whole selves. And this rootedness in turn strengthens our faith. This is what I experienced when I began attending 8 a.m. Mass on weekdays and enjoyed seeing the same faces each morning. These people became my community, I wanted to spend more time with them, to have what I perceived they had by spending more time with God, and so my faith grew exponentially, as well.

I hope our goal is to build a community where church is a place that feeds us not only spiritually but is the source of friendships that feed us emotionally. A place where we see ourselves raising our children and growing old, cherishing the bond of friendship we find in this sacred space.

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” — Matthew 22:36-40