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Local pastors discuss efforts to attract congregants in rapidly changing society

POST PHOTO: BRITTANY ALLEN - Pastor Kevin Fenster preaches to a congregation of 70 to 90 people at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 39901 Pleasant St, Sandy, every Sunday.As culture and technology charge onward, people notice changes in how they shop, how they work and how their children are educated, but one aspect of many people's lives — religion — doesn't tend to generate as much discussion.

For people of the cloth, a question constantly on their minds is: How do I keep my faith relevant and relatable in the modern world? In Sandy, it seems a few pastors have found answers to that question and say their religion is not only maintaining, but thriving.

Immanuel Lutheran Church, led by Pastor Kevin Fenster, has been in the Sandy community for 116 years. Fester attributes much of that success to the simple-yet-complex miracle of faith, which, he said, is "not something you can market (or) appeal to. It's something you live out of."

Immanuel Lutheran's attendance, like every church's, "ebbs and flows."

Fenster explained that Immanuel has about 160 congregants, with an average of 70 to 90 people attending on a regular basis.

Oregon as a whole, Fenster said, is a well-known "none" state. A great percentage of people in the state mark that they are not religiously affiliated on surveys and census documents.

"There's no cultural expectation that everybody's in church on Sunday (in Oregon)," Fenster said.

But he holds that Sandy may very well be a small-town anomaly for the state.

"As far as Sandy, I think there are lots of Christians. Sandy is a little pocket in the Portland area," he noted. "Immanuel's doing very well and is on the edge of thriving."

Fenster said the church has kept, if not grown, its congregation by being flexible and adapting where necessary through the years.

"We want to reflect the demographic of our community. For us, what we do here on Sunday morning is for what we live out there. We're still a resource for (people who can't or don't attend)."

The fact that some things haven't changed, he maintained, has kept people in the pews regularly.

"We don't have a huge attendance on the books, but all of those who attend are active. (Those active church members are always) looking for opportunities to do good," he said.

One way the church has tried to be helpful to the community is by providing a place of learning.

"We've found this need for after-school care for K-5," Fenster said. "For us that's not evangelizing or preaching ... I just hope (people's) lives will be a little better."

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Gregg Chastain's congregation at Sandy Community Church holds true to their traditions while leaping into the technological age with an app for sermon notes and online tithing.New applications

Sandy Community Church attempts to remain a resource for people with an eye toward accessibility.

Under the pastoral leadership of Gregg Chastain, the church, an affiliate of the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, even has its own app. The "CCS" app provides people with a portable connection to the church, offering the ability to tithe, read and hear sermon notes and recordings, and much more. And it's not just for the younger generations of Christians.

"The motivation (to start the app) started with a conversation we were having about giving online," Chastain explained.

The church put out a survey asking how congregants handled money, and a majority said they did all of their banking online.

"If everything's happening here," Chastain said, holding up his smartphone, "then we need to be here. ... We're striving to be accessible to anybody who comes into the church."

The Community Church sees around 100 people every Sunday, comparable to the attendance at Immanuel Lutheran, and Chastain attributes much of the state's relative lack of attendance to the present "culture."

"When I was a kid in the '70s, stores closed on Sundays," Chastain recalled. "Now, more and more people are working retail jobs or second jobs to get by, and their schedules are just fuller. I would posit that some of that affects Sunday attendance."

Though this culture of "none," Chastain admitted, has affected every church in some way, the Community Church is still operating on a upward trend in attendance.

"We see the same number of people, but there are just as many we may see every other week. We've actually seen a growth in the last year."

Another trend the church is combating is what's known as "aging congregations." Many churches in recent years have noticed a dropoff in participation of younger people, and the retirement of the baby boomer clergy.

Chastain said that his church has continued to grow and maintain a diverse congregation because of its mission of accessibility.

"We say we're committed to being the kind of church where people can come as they are," he said. "We have a good children's ministry, but we're not pouring all of our energy into it. We strive to invite people into deeper relationships through small groups."

POST PHOTO: BRITTANY ALLEN - Bob Bryant's following at Good Shepherd Community Church has reached about 2,300 a week. Commitment and identity

Good Shepherd Community Church Pastor Bob Bryant is no stranger to the small group. At the nondenominational Boring church, 2,300 people attend a service every weekend. There's been so much growth that the church is adding a fourth service in March.

Bryant said one of the main appeals for people when looking for a church is a healthy community.

"The people make the church," he said. "It's not what happens on the weekend, it's who."

Bryant started at Good Shepherd last September, and was immediately drawn in by "the genuineness of the people." Throughout the past four months, the church has seen an increase in weekly attendance to 300.

"God is a creative god," Bryant shared. "And we are made in his image, so we are creative too."

At Good Shepherd, people "really wanted multigenerational leadership," he noted, so the church got creative with a collection of children's ministry groups for tiny tots to teens.

"The church culture changes every 30 years or less," Bryant said. "We are hiring younger so the people in their 20s and 30s have a voice, (and that's) helping us have an eye toward the next generation with every step we take."

This is how Bryant and his fellow clergymen and clergywomen plan to maintain the church and keep it a diverse gathering of believers rather than a dwindling, aging congregation.

The church's youth ministry has been so successful that it appeals to not only those who have been raised in the church, but some of the aforementioned "nones" as well.

"We've seen a large part of our student groups are young people who wouldn't necessarily consider themselves followers," Bryant said. "But, they are finding community, and they enjoy the community so much that they may in time become a follower of Christ."

Overall, community building is the cornerstone of keeping the church alive.

"I see a genuine sense of commitment," he said. "The people here have a really healthy sense that their identity is in Christ. I think that's attractive to people."

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