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Who's filling America's church pews

In Puritan New England, Protestant and Catholic churches are declining while evangelical and Pentecostal groups are rising. Why the nation's most secular region may hint at the future of religion.

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•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.

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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.

* * *

On a December morning, the polished sounds of bongos and electric keyboards emanate from Congregación León de Judá, a 1,500 member church in an ethnically diverse Boston neighborhood. It's a mainline American Baptist Churches congregation, though maybe not one prior generations would recognize.

The 36,000-square-foot complex looks more suited for offices than offerings, but on this day, 500 pack the sanctuary for an upbeat, bilingual service. A high-stepping man leads a praise chorus. Laypeople take turns praying: one in Spanish, then another in English. Dozens approach the stage for prayer. Hands rise and eyelids fall. After an hour, some 75 English speakers representing 15 countries head downstairs to continue worship in their language.

Another 15 go to a window-filled room where a new Anglican Church in North America congregation, started by León de Judá, is gathering for the first time. Ministries here are growing so fast – 500 new members in the past five years – that a 40,000-square-foot building is rising next door to help house it all.

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