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Bergenfield Pastor Steering 92-Year-Old Church Into New Era

Rev. Mark Ennis of Clinton Avenue Reformed Church. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash
Rev. Mark Ennis in Clinton Avenue Reformed Church. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash
Rev. Mark Ennis writing his daily blog in this study at Clinton Avenue Reformed Church. The minister writes prolifically and has penned a couple of books. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash

BERGENFIELD, N.J. — The Rev. Mark Ennis of Clinton Avenue Reformed Church in Bergenfield is doing everything he can to draw more of the community into his church.

“We did very well, historically, with Northern Europeans of the World War II generation,” Ennis said.

“No one caught until recently that this town isn’t white anymore.”

The 92-year-old parish draws some 40 to 50 white people to Sunday services, half of them older.

Ennis laid out the reality of Bergenfield’s demographics:

  • Whites are less than 50 percent of the population.
  • A quarter, primarily in the southwestern section of town, is Jewish.
  • There are huge numbers of Filipinos and Spanish speakers, mostly from the Dominican Republic.

“We’ve got to become multi-racial and multi-ethnic,” Ennis said, “or we’re not going to be here.”

Here’s what he’s trying:

Clinton Avenue Reformed just started offering bilingual worship on Saturdays.

It runs a lunch program for migrant laborers on street corners.

It joined the Spanish American Cultural Association of Bergenfield.

Ennis went to Costa Rica to jump-start his own Spanish language education. He studies it every day, but the going is tough.

He is, after all, an Irish American guy from Jersey City. (“I’m 10 percent leprechaun,” he quipped.)

To increase the visibility of his church, the pastor writes a daily bilingual blog that enjoys a Facebook following.

To reach shut-ins, the parish is livestreaming its services. So far, a dozen people follow along.

The sign in front of the church reads that it is inclusive, a reference to welcoming gay people.

But Ennis asks himself a question, will any of these actions bring more people into the pews?

So far, no. But the efforts are all relatively new.

Ennis knows the issue is not just about Bergenfield.

Or his congregation.

Small churches thrived when people lived, shopped and did everything in their hometowns, he said. Now folks routinely leave their towns to live their lives.

Unlike past generations that didn’t feel in control of their lives, today’s tech makes people feel in control, Ennis said.

Also, more economic prosperity furnishes folks with more alternatives to religion.

Social services, once the bailiwick of churches, have gone secular.

But there’s something even more fundamental at work, too, according to the pastor: the church is now countercultural.

“We live in a culture that emphasizes almost a narcissism,” he said. “The Christian Gospel doesn’t share their value.”

As a man who comfortably embraces all people, Ennis finds his efforts easy to implement.

Even as he prays they work.

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