Parish hopes small changes bring big results

Many congregations within the Episcopal Church have seen their membership and worship attendance decline in the past decade.  While a full quarter of parishes have seen membership grow by 10% or more over the past five years, nearly 40% have seen decline of 10% or more.  A full six percent have fewer than 20 members.  Likely, many of these very small and declining congregations will close in the coming years.


But not all, and some will see a reversal, especially those that are willing to embrace some pretty significant changes in how they live out their communal life.  One of those hoping to effect a different future is the tiny congregation of St John’s in Portage, WI.


Portage is a small town of just over 10,000 about 100 miles northwest of Milwaukee.  The city’s population is relatively stable and is expected to see some growth, but no one would mistake Portage for a boomtown.  St John’s has seen significant decline in the past ten years according to the Episcopal Church’s community profile tools (available here).  Since 2006, it has gone from 110 members and 60+ in attendance on Sundays to 35 members and 15 on Sundays.


St John’s, led by their new priest, the Rev. Dave Mowers, has decided to “reboot” itself.  While the church continues to serve the community; they host a shelter for homeless men in the former rectory, for example, and, until about a year ago, they were also the home of the Portage Food Pantry. The outreach could be much stronger, Mowers said, if the church could grow, numerically and spiritually.

“We are called to extend works of mercy into Portage, so that people can know the Lord’s mercy in their daily lives,” he said.


According to the Portage Daily Register, the reboot will consist of these changes;

  • Starting Nov. 5, worship time will be changed to 3:30 p.m.
  • Mowers will lead worship with the Eucharist three Sundays of each month — tentatively, the first, second and third Sundays — with lay-led Matins (prayers) held on the fourth and fifth Sundays.
  • At least occasionally, the Sunday afternoon worship service will be followed by an early evening meal, when participants can engage in fellowship, and possibly also education, Bible study and prayer.
  • The church will inaugurate a nursery, so parents with preschool-age children can attend worship without “wrangling the kids,” Mowers said.
  • The home page for the church’s website will be updated to be more user-friendly.


Other than the time change, these are not big significant changes.  They are though, the kind of small things that can often make a big difference.


Mowers said the commitment of the church’s remaining members is a key reason why the parish is moving in the direction of revitalization, instead of closing its doors as many churches with decreasing and aging memberships have done.


While this effort certainly is aimed at growing membership, it is primarily about improving the spiritual health of the congregation.  Mowers larger goal is creating a vital Christ-centered community open to all.  “I want this church to be a vital place, where people find ways to be in friendship and community with each other,” Mowers said.


He also added; “We need God’s help.”



Image: Lyn Jerde/Daily Register

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