With Easter early this year, Naples-area churches expect packed sanctuaries Sunday

Scott McIntyre/Staff
Scenes from a sunrise worship at Vanderbilt Beach on Easter Sunday April 8, 2012. Over 200 people attended the service hosted by Pastor Tom Louis and Community Congregational Church. After the service, several people were baptized in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Photo by SCOTT MCINTYRE // Buy this photo

Scott McIntyre/Staff Scenes from a sunrise worship at Vanderbilt Beach on Easter Sunday April 8, 2012. Over 200 people attended the service hosted by Pastor Tom Louis and Community Congregational Church. After the service, several people were baptized in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

— Naples-area churches are expected to fill to capacity this weekend as winter visitors continue flocking to church with Christians’ holiest week coming early this year.

“We believe that our attendance is probably going to be double with standing room only. Easter is of course the biggest service of the year,” said the Rev. James Boyd of Life Christian Church, near Golden Gate.

It’s not just the winter seasonal residents increasing Sunday’s church attendance. Several church leaders throughout the Naples area report an increase in attendance overall during Holy Week, the winter tourist season and throughout the past year.

Life Christian Church recently moved to Santa Barbara Boulevard from a site farther west in Naples. The church may need to move once again as it’s continuing to grow beyond capacity in the new location as well, Boyd said.

“Our attendance is heavily populated with locals, so we continue to grow in the summer as well here in Naples,” Boyd said.

The bigger churches are continuing to draw large crowds and expect Easter Sunday services to be at least as heavily attended as previous years. Some are reporting continued modest growth while others are maintaining their numbers each year.

The difference between those reporting growth and those holding steady may be, in part, due to reaching their capacity each Easter on one of the most popular church-going weekends.

First Baptist Church of Naples had more than 7,000 people attend between Good Friday and Easter morning services last year and expects similar numbers this year, said Douglas Pigg, senior associate pastor of the North Naples church.

“The numbers pretty much hold the same for us. We will be totally packed (Easter morning). I can only hold so many,” Pigg said.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Davis Boulevard in East Naples packs the house at about 300 people every Easter and officials expect the same or more if room allows.

Packed is packed, several area priests said.

Outdoor services, including the Easter Sunrise Service at the Naples Pier, may allow room for more growth, which is what the Rev. Doug Pareti of First United Methodist Church expects.

“Attendance has been up this week and in fact all season it’s been up. I think it’s because we have more visitors and Easter is falling earlier. Usually they go back by April 15 or so, but they’re still here,” Pareti said.

Although many people may only attend church once per year on Easter or twice if they make Christmas, several other churches also are reporting more attendance throughout the year thus far.

The Rev. Tara McGraw of St. Paul’s Episcopal is among them.

“Our attendance has been up all season. People are out and active, also evidenced by crowds at our popular farmers market every Saturday morning and record attendance at our seasonal concerts,” McGraw said.

Her church’s seasonal members usually return North right after Easter, regardless of which date the holiday falls on, she said.

“We really only notice a difference when Easter day is the farthest (latest) in April that it could be, and that doesn’t occur often,” McGraw said.

Officials at Unity of Naples didn’t have an extreme forecast in mind for Easter service with attendance numbers holding relatively steady each year, said Nicholas Grissin, interim minister of the East Naples church.

Pastor Doug Learned of Moorings Presbyterian Church said Holy Week attendance has been up and he expects it to continue through Easter Sunday.

“We had very strong attendance through Lent and Palm Sunday was also up more than 15 percent from a year ago. We’re thankful to God for that,” Learned said.

While Moorings Presbyterian Church has been in the Naples area since 1965, other relatively new churches also are reporting some attendance growth, which they anticipate to continue through at least Easter.

The Rev. Les Wicker said his relatively new North Naples church, First Congregational Church of Naples, has grown quickly since he started the church eight years ago, first in the Pelican Marsh School cafeteria and in the past year adding new rooms to accommodate growth at the church building on Immokalee Road.

Usually, there are about 200 attendees at Sunday services, Wicker said.

“Mainline traditional churches are declining in membership with anywhere from a 25 to 50 percent decline. Since we are a traditional kind of church with roots in Congregationalism, we feel very good about having broken the trend in that our church is growing at a very steady pace,” Wicker said. “Rather than build the church to address contemporary styles of worship, we intentionally built the church as a traditional-looking New England Congregational Church and that in itself has had an effect on attracting people to the church,” Wicker said.

Though church attendance is affected seasonally, with Easter falling in March, Wicker said he expects attendance this weekend to be at least as high as usual.

“The church was full last year and we expect the same this year,” Wicker said.

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