Who’s filling America’s church pews: In Puritan New England, Protestant and Catholic churches are declining while evangelical and Pentecostal groups are rising.
December 26, 2012
Religion in America is changing as is what it means to be religious. What that means may subject for debate, what isn’t is the nature of the change.
Established mainstream churches are giving way to smaller or less formal and structured ones. As Catholic and mainline Protestant are losing parishioners, evangelical churches are growing at a terrific pace.
The reasons for the change are many but it is clear the very nature of religious identity is driving that change. Blind obedience and dogma are not enough anymore. It their place good works and personal commitment to living a meaningful and religiously inspired.
New England is seeing much of these changes first hand. While what is happening there may well be a bellwether for the rest of the country, these changes prompt other questions. What is at the root of these changes? Are established churches stagnant or do these other churches offer something different? Are the changes the result of cultural shifts or the result of an aging and/or a growing non white demographic?
Are non Christian religions undergoing the same changes? For the same reasons?
While no one has a crystal ball, to be sure, the changes are real and the consequences, both intended and unintended are going to make some big differences in how the nation is defined.
On a snowy 20-degree day in December, the visitors shiver as they move among vestiges of a long-closed Pizza Hut on this city’s struggling main street. A salad bar teeters off kilter. Dust collects on the dismantled facade of a soda dispenser. A few bolted-down tables and chairs remain – usable, but only after a good cleaning.
Yet none of this bothers the three leaders from the Auburn Seventh-day Adventist Church, who seem warmed by holy fire to carry out their task: Help transform the pizza joint into something with a bit more piety. Their church has reached capacity, having doubled attendance in the past year. So they’ve crossed the Androscoggin River to plant a second church, the Ark, in the heart of one of the nation’s least religious states.
This won’t be worship as usual. Starting early in the new year, a smorgasbord of community services will be served where deep-dish pepperoni used to be the lure. Vegetarian cooking classes and health seminars, hydrotherapy treatments and massage instruction, marriage classes and smoking-cessation clinics – all will be free of charge and led by volunteers. A vegan restaurant will open to bring in revenue. Worship services will begin next spring.
“It’s almost like you have to use a place like a Pizza Hut,” says Tracy Vis, a new member of the Auburn church. “Some people are not going to be comfortable with [traditional church buildings] or traditions. But they’ll come here and listen to these different messages.”
The Ark is symbolic of a transforming religious landscape in New England. Long defined by dominant Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant institutions, the terrain is undergoing a fundamental shift as traditional denominations cope with steep declines in membership and shutter churches and seminaries.
At the same time, evangelical and Pentecostal groups are doing just the opposite. They’re expanding their footprint in what statistics show are America‘s four least religious states: Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts. And because more and more Americans today identify with no particular religion, what happens in this land of spiritual free agency could offer insights into the future of religion across the country. The recent changes in New England have been significant:
•Between 2000 and 2010, the Catholic church has lost 28 percent of its members in New Hampshire and 33 percent in Maine. It has closed at least 69 parishes (25 percent) in greater Boston.
•Over the same period, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) established 118 new churches in northern New England, according to the 2010 Religion Census. About 50 of them inhabit buildings once owned by mainline churches.
•Other denominations are growing, too, including Pentecostals: Assemblies of God (11 new churches in Massachusetts) and International Church of the Foursquare Gospel (13 new churches in Massachusetts and Maine). The Seventh-day Adventists, an evangelical group, opened 55 new churches in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine between 2000 and 2010, according to the Religion Census. Muslims and Mormons are experiencing membership gains as well.
More change looms on the horizon. In 2013, northern New England will lose its only mainline Protestant seminary and accredited graduate school of religion when the Bangor Theological Seminary closes in May. Three months later, Southern Baptists will open Northeastern Baptist College – the first SBC-affiliated pastor-training college in northern New England – in Bennington, Vt.
“The old establishment is crumbling in the sense that fewer people are going to church and buildings are being sold off,” says Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass.“The old expectations aren’t there anymore, and that creates an openness to new brands.”
New England’s changing religious character comes as religious ties decline around the country. Nearly 1 in 5 Americans (19.6 percent) now says he or she has no religious affiliation, up from 15 percent just five years ago, according to Pew Research Center surveys.
Faith remains strong: More than 90 percent of Americans still believe in God or a universal spirit, according to Gallup research, even as fewer claim a particular religious “brand” or identity. More people are opting not to align themselves with one religious denomination or tradition, but their interest in faith remains keen and creates opportunities for innovators.
“The way people are religious is changing,” says Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor in chief. “And maybe what’s happening up in [New England] is a good indication of what is happening or could happen elsewhere.”
Now emerging in the land of Cotton Mather and Robert Frost are religious cultures marked by immigrant experiences and creative worship, with emphasis on good works and personal holiness. It’s not entirely what stolid New Englanders are used to, but maybe that’s its appeal…