A century ago, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Montclair, New Jersey, was a thriving, affluent church in an exurban town where residents commuted each day into New York City and came back to large, neat homes in a comfortable tree-lined setting. And while Montclair still has some suburban characteristics in that residents still commute to the City, St. Luke’s and Montclair are now more than 150 years old. The large stone building was constructed in 1889. Forty years later in 1929 when the church was doing very well—just before the stock market crash—a large educational wing was added and the interior of the sanctuary was renovated by retrofitting it with a gothic Nave, complete with soaring columns within the Victorian superstructure.
Since 1929 the church had its ups and downs, but as late as 1991 St. Luke’s was still one of the largest parishes in the diocese, with more than 1,400 members and an average worship attendance of 262. Yet with fewer than one in five members attending on an average Sunday, the membership roll was obviously inflated, and became even more so during the next three years as the membership continued to grow while attendance declined. There was a massive cleaning of the rolls in 1995 when membership dropped by more than 1,000. The slow decline in attendance continued until 1999, when it stabilized for four years, before starting to decline again in 2003—reaching a low point in 2006 with only 98 people in average Sunday worship attendance. With so few people attending and contributing, the church found it necessary to spend part of its endowment to make ends meet. The Diocese of Newark warned church leaders that if things continued as they were, the parish would be closed within five years.
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