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Remaining faithful, now and in the future: Lambton-West Middlesex examines this time of transition.

The strong rural connection enjoyed by many of the congregations in the Presbytery of Lambton-West Middlesex is evident at the two-point charge of St. Andrew's, Watford, and Knox, Thedford, where they set aside a Sunday each year to pray for their farm families and to focus on the gift and responsibility of being keepers of God's earth. "I am a strong advocate for everyone being involved," said Rev. Christine O'Reilly. "Church is not a spectator sport!"

O'Reilly regularly affirms that Christian service happens beyond church walls and activities. "We remind our congregations that any and every thing they do in the community--coaching hockey, involvement with the construction of a new medical centre, or serving on school council--matters."

Both churches feature lay leadership in weekly worship, and at times lay worship teams and preachers design the entire service. The endeavour is part of O'Reilly's determination to make the most of small congregations. She co-authored Where 20 or 30 Are Gathered: Worship in small membership congregations, with Rev. Peter Bush of Knox, Mitchell.

Lambton-West Middlesex is composed of 14 charges and 21 congregations, with three vacancies. Two ministers will retire this year and a student minister will graduate and move on. "We're examining what it means to be the church," said Rev. Ray Hodgson, presbytery clerk and minister at St. Andrew's, Sarnia, founded in 1841. "How do we carry on our mission and ministry that God has entrusted to us?"

Hodgson said the economic downturn in Sarnia in the early 1990s put a crunch on the churches there, as people in leadership positions moved elsewhere to find work. Ministry became difficult as budgets were slashed, programs ended and churches were left scrambling to find new leaders. However, things are staring to improve. Hodgson said the last two or three years has seen an economic turn-around for the community, and people are even moving back. "It's exciting," he said. "Retirement condos are going up along the waterfront and we're seeing an influx of 'junior seniors'--we're really starting to notice that."

On the downside, Hodgson said the population is aging, with schools closing and families and young people in congregations dwindling. Although not a huge loss, membership dropped by 36 between 2003 and 2004 (from 2,374 to 2,338). Attendance and adherents also decreased.

"But what we do have is people who are the core of the community who have a solid background in the church and are stepping into positions of leadership," said Hodgson, whose near-six years in the presbytery makes him one of its longest-serving ministers. He noted that weekly attendance is growing in several congregations--even though this doesn't always mean a growth in membership. "All the churches in the area are looking seriously at what membership is all about. We have to, given the current context."

Knox, Thedford, established in 1866, sits in a community of only 800, but draws from a much wider area. It has benefited from a new mindset that celebrates the gifts the rural church can offer and refuses to be defeated by small numbers. "The congregation has seen a real turn around in the last 15 years, which began with a spiritual renewal" said O'Reilly. "'Die to live' became a reality when the congregation (averaging 20 on a Sunday) recognized they had nothing to lose and everything to gain. It was a renewal of faith and a renewal of fellowship that made all the difference. As minister, focusing on renewing worship and rebuilding the church as family was key. People began getting excited about faith and worship, and trying new things." The congregation is now about 70-strong.

Local mission initiatives include supplying mentors for students in need at the town's elementary school, and supporting the school snack program. Internationally, Knox has built a house in Nicaragua, worked on three projects in Southern Sudan, including building a school and raising more than $4,000 to buy goats for families there. The congregation sent a team to Mississippi in January to help clean up the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina.

St. Andrew's, Watford, was established in 1925, although the church was built in the 1860s. In a town of about 1,000, St. Andrew's is a family-based congregation, with four of more generations of families active there.

Ecumenical cooperation is a common occurrence in Watford, where a lay council of all the community churches plans and leads inter-church worship throughout the year. Community ministers and school principals work together on programs against violence, and to support respect for people, places and things during a special community week just prior to Halloween. The congregation also ministers to more than 80 children each week at the local elementary school through a bible club led by members of St. Andrew's and others in the community.

This strong attachment to the community keeps St. Andrew's aware of the need to respond to change. "The congregation recognizes that they are in a time of transition, and are working together to act and not simply react to the changing population base in Watford Warwick," said O'Reilly. "We are actively discussing options for the Christian community in our town, and how we can remain faithful to God's calling now and in the future."

St. Andrew's, Petrolia, was established as a mission station in 1856. It has been linked with Knox, Dawn Township, since 1975. For the past four years, the children at Petrolia have been learning from the Rotation Workshop model of Sunday school. According to Rev. Dean Adlam, they have studied biblical stories through skits, art projects, story telling, videos, games and cooking projects. The children also host regular luncheons to raise money for a mission project that relates to the topic being studied.

"The children's hearts for mission has rubbed off on the rest of the Petrolia congregation," said Adlam. "The church is being used three mornings a week to support the Petrolia Breakfast Program that offers children from two area schools a healthy breakfast before school. St. Andrew's has also pledged to donate $3,000 for a Habitat for Humanity build in the area."

Knox, Dawn Township, a congregation of 25 members, will celebrate its 100th anniversary in June. For several years, Knox has grown soybean crops to raise money for the Canadian Food-grains Bank. Last year, 440 bushels were harvested from 11 acres of land. For the last two years, the congregation of Point Edward has been a part of this project by raising money to rent the land on which this crop is grown. The congregations got together last fall to celebrate the harvest.

The small congregation at West Adelaide, Kerwood, began with Rev. William Eoss Sutherland, one of the leading men of the early Presbyterian Church and a native of Scotland. Born in 1823, he attended Knox College, and was ordained in 1848. He remained at the same charge for more than 35 years, having the largest congregation in Western Ontario. West Adelaide has been linked with Knox, Centre Road, and St. Andrew's, Beechwood, (established in the 1830s) since 1947.

Knox, Camlachie, is linked with St. Andrew's, Wyoming (established in 1866). Knox offers various services to its community including premarital counselling, crisis counselling and pastoral visits (particularly to shut-ins).

The congregation of St. Giles, Sarnia, was formally organized in 1946 as a mission station, operating as a vacation Bible school under a tent on the present church property. The building has been upgraded over the years, including the installation of a 14 stop tracker-action pipe organ, unique in the Sarnia area, (the sanctuary also boasts a grand piano and a harpsichord), a handicapped access including an elevator and washroom, the revamping of the church kitchen, the addition of a sound system complete with hearing aids, new lighting and stained glass window, and refurbished rooms used for church school. St. Giles' website notes, "while proud of its history, [St. Giles] is actively and confidently looking to the future."

"What is God calling His people to do?" asked Hodgson. "Size doesn't matter. You have to look outward so the spirit has room to move. If you're looking inward, it doesn't matter how big you are."
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Title Annotation:presbytery profile; St. Andrew's, Watford, Knox and Thedford; churches
Author:MacLachlan, Amy
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Feb 1, 2006
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