Presbyterians work to reverse sliding attendance

With a long history and prior success, First Presbyterian looks to the future

Photos Courtesy of First Presbyterian Church of Hemet
The original First Presbyterian Brown Church built in Hemet in 1911.

■ By Chris Smith / Advisory Editor

My grandmother used to pay me to go to Sunday school. In a way, it was my first job.
I never saw it as, “Here’s your fee for spending an hour learning about Jesus.” It was more of a tip: “Here’s a quarter for the collection plate – and here’s a quarter for you!”
“Aw Grandma!” I would squirm because it felt a little dishonest. I would think, “I’m getting paid as much as God is and all I have to do is show up!” But I took it nevertheless, even though it felt like a bribe. Fortunately, I never became a politician or it could have become a habit.
After Sunday school, I would walk back to Grandma’s house and survey her extensive collection of chocolates that she kept in the cupboard. I would consume untold calories while waiting for her to come back from the “real church” service. Each chocolate was just a little sinful too because there was no one there to ask if I could have it – I just took it (with her general permission, of course). But how many would be too many?

The Rev. Dr. Tom Rennard of the First Presbyterian Church of Hemet.

Too tempting
The entire experience was a little scary, particularly after having just sat through an explanation of how the devil is constantly trying to tempt you!
I left the area before ascending to regular attendance at the “real” church service, and the few times that I went back– such as for my Uncle Buck’s funeral, and my sister’s wedding– I recall having trouble understanding what the minister was talking about. What I didn’t realize was that I was seeing and hearing Presbyterianism at its finest – the classical music, formality, austere church architecture – and an intellectual interpretation of the word of God that dates back to 16th Century Scotland.
A special church
The church where I attended Sunday school, in fact, claims to be the first Presbyterian church in America, originally built in Southampton, Long Island, in 1640, only 20 years after the Mayflower landed at Cape Cod. And yes, I am a descendent of one of the men in the small band of English settlers who sailed across Long Island Sound from Lynn, Mass., and landed at North Sea Harbor on June 12, 1640 and who, within the year, began to build what later would be called the First Presbyterian Church of Southampton. Of course it was moved a few times, torn down and rebuilt etc., but it all started there in Southampton on a track of land purchased from the Shinnecock Indians.

Hemet today
Fast forward to the present day in Hemet, California, and the First Presbyterian Church of Hemet, which was founded in 1908 by a group of 27 faithful who met first in the assembly hall of the old Hemet High School. A year later, the group bought the property where the church now stands at 515 E. Kimball Ave., between S. Buena Vista and S. Franklin streets. By 1911, the first church was finished, and, because of its color, was called the “Brown Church.” That same year, new ground was broken for a Sunday-school building. Following various moves and building projects, the present-day “White Church” was dedicated in 1974. Between 1909 and the present day, the church has had no fewer than 16 distinguished pastors.
Looking back
The Hemet church’s heyday may have occurred during the tenure of the Rev. Dr. Donald W. Liden, who led the church for more than 25 years from 1963-1988. At its height, the church had some 1400 members, and there was money and enthusiasm for many new and ongoing programs.
Nevertheless, after the Rev. Liden’s retirement, the church membership began to decline. The minister who followed was the Rev. Dr. Donald Owens, who led the church for 12 years from 1991-2003 and was one of the most active leaders of all time. Having received his theological training from Central Baptist Seminary and the St. Paul School of Theology, Rev. Owens headed the church during a period of significant change. He enjoyed being engaged in the community and initiated many local “mission” activities (as the Presbyterians call their outreach work). He led the congregation in helping to build Habitat for Humanity homes, provide food at Valley Restart for Hemet’s homeless families, assisted at the Community Pantry, and supported parishioners’ efforts to restore the historic Hemet Train Depot.
Pastor Owens helped redesign the church sanctuary, encouraged the congregation to make greater use of the Family Life Center community activities, helped start a Growth Through Music Program to encourage young people to sing with the choir, and even began gymnastics and after-school tutoring programs.

Today’s imposing physical structure is large enough to cater to more than a thousand parishioners yet church membership stands at 156.

Steady decline
However, it seemed that no matter how much effort was put into attracting new parishioners, the church membership continued to dwindle. Members were getting older and less active, some died, others moved away or went into nursing homes, and there were not enough new, younger members to take their places. Eventually, in 2003, Pastor Owens accepted a call with the Presbytery of Southern Kansas, and he and his wife moved from the area.
Since then, the church has been led by a series of interim pastors. One included the Rev. Dr. Sylvia Karcher, who had served under Dr. Owens as associate pastor of Family Ministries and Christian Education.
Today, the church stands at a mere 156 members. It is headed by a highly educated, very articulate, and spiritually grounded interim pastor, the Rev. Dr. Tom Rennard (who prefers to go by Pastor Tom). One of his most perplexing questions, however, is about our society where a family would rather stay home and watch a football game on its 60-inch television screen than go to church.
“I’ve been thinking some about how a congregation of reportedly about a thousand in 1988 could be 156 members 30 years later?” Rennard asks in a recent newsletter. “Have we self-destructed, fought our way into decline, or made a series of bad decisions?”

How to connect?
Rennard says he believes the culture has changed. Boredom and lack of interest seem to be the prevailing attitudes toward church by today’s 20-somethings, he observes.
Regardless, “People are experiencing God” more than ever, he notes, and he cites statistics showing that some 48 percent of the U.S. population claim to have had a “mystical experience of God.” The problem? “They just don’t find connecting to a church the place where they express that connection.”
Nevertheless, despite its aging membership and the slide in numbers of parishoners, the First Presbyterian Church of Hemet is attempting to start a resurgence – a renaissance if you like – and is looking for energetic, spiritually minded people to lead the charge. The church recently sponsored a piano concert featuring guest pianists Joyann Gongaware and Virginia Pritchard to which the public was invited. It’s also reestablishing a number of programs that had fallen by the wayside over the years including serving food on a monthly basis at Valley Restart.
The church history is there, the programs have been designed and tested, the leadership is educated and knowledgeable about religious and real-life practical issues. All that’s needed is a following, people who appreciate traditional but upscale music, fellowship, and who are interested in ministering to the area’s population, those who clearly are in need of physical–and moral–support.

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