Keeping the faith: As Easter arrives, pastors eye new ways to boost church attendance

CAMDEN — Across many denominations, church attendance will swell today, as Easter draws more people to worship.

Whether it’s because of religious faith, tradition or fond childhood memories, the holiday speaks to people.

And, area faith leaders are ready to converse.

With church attendance declining nationally, religious leaders are looking for ways to reach new members and retain their existing ones.

Recruiting, they said, means embracing new methods of spreading the message, such as using social media and the Internet and relying on tried and true strategies like offering food and fellowship after worship services.

Father Kevin Von Gonten at St. Paul Episcopal Church in Camden. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“We feed you,” said the Rev. Father Kevin P. Von Gonten of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Camden.

Another simple strategy: short sermons.

Rather than a 45-minute sermon, he said he keeps it to 10  minutes. Though his fellow veteran ministers tease him about preaching a “sermonette,” Father Von Gonten said the condensed delivery is effective and people  remember his message when they see him the next week.

As the new leader of St. Paul’s, he said his goal is to draw young people to the church who can keep its membership going in the years to come.

Sandi Dawson, left, and Bonnie Johnson chat with Father Kevin Von Gonten before bread and soup dinner at St. Paul Episcopal Church in Camden. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

After officially taking over Jan. 1, he realized the church needed a better website with continuously updated information. That’s something that appeals to a younger demographic.

He also plans to work with other Episcopal churches in the area, and spread that word that he’s available for baptisms and other services that younger families may need.

He moved to Delaware with his wife when he retired three years ago after serving congregations throughout New York. He started working part time to cover ministries with vacancies and then was asked to lead St. Paul’s. He appreciates the active, friendly congregation there and how longtime members are always willing to help, “but we don’t have any young couples who have kids — yet,” he said.

Ann Degano, left, and Barbara Edwards prepare for a bread and soup dinner at St. Paul Episcopal Church in Camden. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Pastor Dale Brown, of Asbury United Methodist Church in Smyrna, understands that need to speak to young people.

Unlike St. Paul’s, Pastor Brown said Asbury has a strong Sunday School program, and his church will hide 2,000 eggs to be hunted today. Vacation Bible School registers almost 300 children in the summer, which he attributes to reliable leadership and program reputation.

One of the ways the 27-year minister has built on that foundation is involving children and young adults in the services.

“Young people like to do the readings,” he said, and have the responsibility of hands-on tasks like lighting candles and ringing bells during services and even feeding leftover bread from communion to the birds each week.

“That tangible stuff is really good,” he said.

Asbury also has two college students pursuing futures in the ministry who are active at the church. Pastor Brown said that is important because millennials like to see people their age involved in visible roles; it helps to keep them engaged.

And, supporting Father Von Gonten’s desire to be available for baptisms to attract families, Pastor Brown said that is a successful way to reach members, as are marriage ceremonies.

“We have a lot of people that come back to the church after they have their first child,” he said, because they want their son or daughter baptized and raised with religious education. “When that first child is born and you realize you’re responsible for a wonderful little person, most of us look for some help and some assistance somewhere.”

On a usual Sunday morning, Pastor Brown welcomes 200 people at Sunday services. Today, he expects at least 75 more, based on last year’s record when he had over 300 worshippers.

The boost comes from family members in town visiting loved ones, he said, people who are new to the community or those looking for a new place to worship.

Robert G. Krebs, director of the Office of Communications for the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, which covers 56 parishes in Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore, said the diocese doesn’t track closely Easter or Christmas because the spike in attendance is a given.

“Easter is the most important feast to Christians. I think it has to a lot to do with tradition — same way with Christmas. It’s a time when people travel, go back home to visit mom or dad, kids coming home from college,” he said.

“What our pastors try to do on Easter is try to be very welcoming and to realize that this might be someone’s first visit to church since Christmas, or they may have been away from practicing their religion for months or years. It’s an opportunity to invite those folks who have fallen away to come back and practice their faith.”

Opportunities to serve

In addition to involving children and adolescents in service, Pastor Brown said a key is providing opportunities for young adults to volunteer.

A trend he has seen, especially among millenials, is people want to help others. While they may not sit on church committees or attend worship every week, they are willing to give their time, so the church works to provide those opportunities, whether it’s packing food for the hungry and homeless to delivering meals to the elderly.

“They like to do things that are tangible and have meaning,” he said. “They love to serve and help,” he said.

A community initiative, “Rise Against Hunger,” led by two United Methodist churches, drew 224 volunteers who packaged over 22,000 meals for people in need all over the world, he said.

Of the helpers,  he said 87 were from Asbury and a third were youth, children and their parents.

Mr. Krebs said the diocese is supportive of new ideas in an effort to attract new members, especially with changing growth patterns.

Most growth in Delaware’s Catholic churches is in suburban areas, he said, which follows a trend happening along the East Coast; Catholic families are moving out of cities and into the suburbs.

Glasgow’s St. Margaret of Scotland Parish and Smyrna’s St. Polycarp are two churches he noted as seeing increases.

“We’re always looking for ways to engage the youth and young people, young adults, young families. It’s not something that’s just unique to the Easter season,” he said.

“Each parish has their own way of doing things. Some parishes maybe will have more activities for young people or for young families. Some parishes may engage in social media to try to reach younger people.

“Of course, some of our parishes have schools associated with them and that’s always a way to reach young families.”

St. Ann’s Parish in Bethany sponsors “Theology on Tap,” hosting ministry in places that serve alcohol. “It’s kind of like meet people where they are,” he said. “Different churches are doing different things.”

Welcoming message

While churches may embrace new and unique methods, and advertise, interact on Facebook and twitter, host yard sales and encourage existing members to invite friends to appeal to new members, the longtime ministers agreed that personal interaction is key.

However new worshippers come in, Pastor Brown said, the goal is: “When they get here, being very happy to receive them.

“People make decisions and things happen, and people walk away from the church for all kinds of reasons. I think the church’s job and my job is to make that coming back as easy as possible,” he said. “We just want to be a place where people feel welcome and wanted and loved.”

Father Von Gonten said, “The Episcopal church welcomes everybody.”

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