Congregation at a crossroads
The Edgewood Congregational Church, like many mainstream churches of all denominations, is at a crossroads.
Church membership has declined over the years. Sunday school attendance has shrunk.
Pledges have decreased. Repairs to the church building have been put off. Members pass away, move away or lose interest. Pews that were once filled are now empty.
Many other churches have merged or permanently closed their doors.
A report prepared for the Rhode Island Conference of the United Church of Christ by the Center for Progressive Renewal indicates a declining population of youths under 17, while numbers of residents over 55 in the greater Edgewood area has increased, as have single parent households.
A recent survey indicated that only 19 percent of those interviewed thought that “It was important to attend religious services.”
The reVisioning Process at Edgewood began after Labor Day, with the church membership dividing into four groups of up to 12 each, meeting for seven consecutive weeks to answer the question, “What is God calling us to do?”
Once the initial part of the process was completed, the church held a convergence meeting, where the groups shared their findings and developed Action Teams to help move the process forward.
During the process, the minister resigned, the church’s financial resources, including the “rainy day fund,” were exhausted, and church attendance and membership declined even further.
A determined group of deacons met frequently to continue the reVisioning process and adapt it to the current situation.
More committees were formed to further pursue the findings of the Action Teams, bringing their recommendations to the full church membership at the annual meeting in January.
The critical question was brought before the membership: Can the church continue to financially support the building and grounds at 1788 Broad St., where they have been located for over 120 years?
Committee member Steven MacDonald conducted a comprehensive study of other churches in the area, presenting the pros and cons of selling the church, joining with another congregation, leasing space and/or time in another church or private building, or staying at its present location.
While it has been said many times by just about every religious leader that “the church is the people, not the building,” the report makes it clear that Edgewood Church has everything needed to carry out the mission of the church: a beautiful sanctuary, meeting and office rooms, parking, accessibility, rental space, a thrift shop, and a large meeting room with kitchen facilities.
Currently, the church building is rented out to two other small congregations for their worship services, and to a number of community groups, including AA and AlAnon. This not only provides income but also serves a need in the community.
Edgewood is an “Open and Affirming Church,” whose mission is to serve all people, with no restrictions as to who may receive Communion and the other sacraments.
After a brief discussion, the congregation voted unanimously to continue to meet, support its historic building and seek ways to support the continuation of the church’s mission in the community.
Worship format proposal
A multi-option proposal was brought before the church members, first in determining a new format of worship, and then to devise a plan to “fill the pulpit” after the minister’s departure.
During the reVisioning meetings, members expressed their concerns that fewer people were coming to Sunday worship services, especially “millennials.” Without people filling the pews and pledging their financial support, the church doors would soon be closed.
Suggestions were made to increase attendance by making changes to traditional worship, as has been done in many successful churches, plus a need to involve and serve the community in a more tangible way. This could be done by literally feeding the people, meeting in less traditional spaces, incorporating additional forms of music, involving children in the services, and using multimedia forms in worship.
The Worship Proposal team spent many hours incorporating reports from the reVisioning meetings, in addition to conducting an every-member survey and sending invitations to former members who have drifted away for whatever reason.
Four proposals for immediate adoption were presented at the annual meeting, with suggested “price tags” attached, ranging from hiring a full time minister to conducting a service once a month to Proposal #2. The Worship Format Proposal was presented with a recommendation to accept Proposal #2, with an understanding that it would be reviewed in May.
The membership voted unanimously to accept the proposal, which calls for hiring a minister to conduct services twice a month A minister, Rev. Nancy Soukup, has been hired and began her duties in February.
A lay member of the congregation will conduct a service once a month, while a community speaker involved in mission work will fill the other Sunday. On this Sunday, an “Agape Feast” will be held, with church members cooking breakfast.
George Ortiz, leader of the Elisha Project, spoke on February 11. The service continued in the meeting hall, where members filled bags with baked muffins, writing a message of love and caring on the bags.
If there is a fifth Sunday in the month, the church will have an old-fashioned hymn-sing, one of the most popular Sunday services in the past.
The church will retain its administrative assistant who will be in the church office weekdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., plus its long-time organist/choir director.
Edgewood Congregational Church has a long history, serving residents of Cranston, Warwick, Providence and outlying communities for over 120 years. The recent reduction in church attendance is a major concern not only in Edgewood but across America. Church buildings have closed, with many having been converted to private residences, office buildings and non-profit agencies.
Remaining members of Edgewood Congregational Church have made it their mission to save the church and the congregation from ceasing to exist. One member, who wished not to be named, said he didn’t wish to see it torn down and replaced with a Cumberland Farms.
Moderator Kenneth Scarborough has invited members of the community to visit the church’s Sunday worship service at 10 a.m. and join the congregation for coffee following the service.
For information about the church call 461-1344, or go on their website at www.edgewoodchurchri.org.