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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For new members like Ted Best, who emigrated from Barbados 30 years ago, and William Leslie from Dominica (both English-speaking countries), the church's Hispanic roots were no barrier. They like being part of a dynamic congregation that provides outlets for compassion and immigrants' hopes.Skip to next paragraph
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"We want to be part of a church that is growing," says Mr. Leslie, who does outreach work for León de Judá, from visiting hospitals to sharing information in subways. "We want to touch the community for Jesus, and this church has advanced that cause."
Much of the church growth in secular New England stems from immigrants and the cultures they create in pursuit of spiritual grounding. Researchers at the Emmanuel Gospel Center (EGC), a Boston-based Christian organization that studies urban ministries, call it a "quiet revival." It is often overlooked because the Religion Census tracks only denominations, yet nondenominational churches account for some of the fastest-filling pews, or folding chairs, as the case may more often be.
EGC data show that Boston has spawned more than 100 Hispanic evangelical churches in the past 40 years, up from just a handful in the 1970s. EGC's census also found 65 Haitian churches in greater Boston, including at least one with more than 500 members.
"A storefront church might not look that big, but they have 100 to 200 people coming each week," says Rudy Mitchell, a senior researcher at EGC. "A big old church might only have 50 people attending even though they have a big building."
Where growth is happening inside traditional denominations, such as at León de Judá, immigrant connections often play a central role. Half of the Southern Baptists' 325 churches in New England are non-English speaking. They worship instead in Spanish, Portuguese, or Haitian Creole.
What's more, internationally minded denominations are benefitting from having built churches, schools, and hospitals abroad for decades. Seventh-day Adventists operate more than 7,800 schools around the world. Thus, Brazilians who immigrate to Massachusetts often plug into a local Seventh-day Adventist church led by an immigrant pastor who knows their homeland and speaks their native language, according to Edwin Hernandez of the Center for the Study of Latino Religion at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind.
Immigrant vitality is driving growth in other more secular regions as well. Steve Lewis, academic dean at Bangor Theological Seminary, spent most of his career in Oregon, the sixth least religious state.
"The growth in churches in areas that are generally in decline are coming from ethnic congregations," says Mr. Lewis. "In Portland, Ore., there are churches with Romanians, Ukrainians, Eastern Europeans, and thousands of people go to them. You have churches in decline in that region, but these [ethnic] churches are buying warehouses and remodeling them."
Many of the religious groups with international ties investing in steeples and schools in New England are reaping quick returns. Since relocating from Rhode Island to a long-vacant campus in Haverhill, Mass., in 2008, the Assemblies of God's Zion Bible College has doubled enrollment, from 200 to 400.
"People don't like the aura of past religions in many cases, where the church looks like it's a club," says Charles Crabtree, president of Zion, which will be renamed Northpoint Bible College on Jan. 1. "But when we go out, build churches, and are in the neighborhoods expressing the love of Christ, it's amazing how many people respond."