The Rev. Dave Mowers is using a 21st-century word to describe efforts to revitalize a Portage congregation that dates back to the 19th century.
He wants the church to “reboot.”
St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church, 211 W. Pleasant St., faces challenges common to many churches, said Mowers, vicar of St. John the Baptist and rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Baraboo.
There are about 35 members in the Portage parish, and there are about 15 in the pews on a typical Sunday, Mowers said.
The church has not had a regular clergy presence for years.
And while the church continues to serve the community in a variety of ways — such as hosting a shelter for homeless men in the rectory and, until about a year ago, hosting the Portage Food Pantry — the outreach could be much stronger, Mowers said, if the church could grow, numerically and spiritually.
That’s where the reboot comes in.
Here’s what it will look like:
- 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.
Over time, Mowers and the St. John the Baptist parishioners will enter into conversations about other ways the parish can reach out to Portage.
“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.
St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church has been a Portage presence since 1853. The church building, of Victorian Gothic architecture, was completed in 1898, and built of cream-colored brick to replace a wooden church that had burned down.
Susan Wenger, bishop’s warden for the parish, was confirmed in the church and has been a member for many years. She lives a short walk from the parish, and the back-lighted stained glass windows facing West Pleasant Street — including a 1893 rose window from the Chicago World’s Fair — have long been a familiar nighttime sight for her.
It’s the people of the parish, she said, who have kept her in the fold.
“I guess it’s another family that I’ve committed to,” she said.
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 the congregation is open to including new members, revitalization isn’t solely a matter of filling the pews on Sunday and boosting participation and collections.
“I want this church to be a vital place, where people find ways to be in friendship and community with each other,” Mowers said.
At a time in U.S. history when fewer people are turning to institutionalized religion of any kind — the Pew Research Center reports that people with no religious affiliation, also called “Nones,” represent a fast-growing segment — Mowers said he envisions St. John the Baptist as a place where people can find a relationship with Christ.
“We anchor on Jesus — his incarnation, his death, his resurrection,” Mowers said. “But we also are a community that values people’s ability to think and question.”
Wenger said she has hope for her parish’s future as a result of the reboot.
“I hope the congregation builds up, and that we get younger people in here, to keep going for another 150 years,” she said.
Mowers added, “We need God’s help.”