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The gospel truth: Some churches closing while others flourish

Phil Egan High Park United Church in Sarnia held Sunday services for the last time on June 24, the feast day of St. John the Baptist.
High Park United on Brenchley Street is the lastest city church to close. Laurie Egan

Phil Egan

High Park United Church in Sarnia held Sunday services for the last time on June 24, the feast day of St. John the Baptist.

The 64-year-old church, bedevilled by a lack of younger members, an aging congregation and falling attendance, “ran out of steam,” said church leader Dave Watson.

And High Park isn’t alone. A few weeks ago, Knox Presbyterian in Dawn-Euphemia closed after 112 years, and many other Sarnia congregations shrunken to a congregation of 25 or 30 “active” members are wondering how much longer they can pay the bills.

“Churches of every denomination are closing all over the county,” said Ian Mason, curator of the Presbyterian Church Museum in Toronto.

Yet while some churches struggle, others are flourishing.

At Canon Davis Anglican, for example, a congregation of 30-plus manages to keep going thanks to popular leader John Hayter’s church dinners, which are advertised on a marquee facing Russell Street and draw participants from across the city.

Yet directly across the street, New Horizons Community Church regularly draws 100 or more to a Sunday morning service that features a live band and uplifting message.

When it comes to attracting churchgoers today, “authenticity is the new cool,” said New Horizons Pastor Brent Steeves.

Traditional churches may feel the times require them to compromise the word of God, while “in fact, the opposite is true,” he said.

Millennials, especially, have spiritual questions and needs but you have to find new ways of reaching them, Steeves said.

“It’s not that they’re not interested in church. They’re not interested in doing what their parents did.”

Bill Baldock has witnessed four church closings while living in various parts of Sarnia-Lambton. He now attends the busy Trinity Anglican on Murphy Road, which features a live band, active congregation and a dozen “Life Groups” that combine Christian fellowship and Bible study.

The church has a Facebook page, regular picnics and a popular fall fair. And a youth minister engaged a few years ago has attracted new and younger congregants.

“Sunday service is just the tip of the iceberg,” Baldock said. “Trinity is an entire faith community.”

Sarnia’s three remaining Catholic parishes and its Baptist churches are doing well.

Temple Baptist has a congregation of 700, the city’s largest, and Central Baptist has begun bussing in young people from other parts of the city for services.

Churches small and large, searching for new ways to engage the shifting or fading loyalties of parishioners, has become the new normal in Sarnia.

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