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Cover Story

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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Southern Baptist church planters, however, say they bring a spirit of compassionate service rather than confrontation. One popular way they try to introduce a church: Pay a local gas station to drop its prices by 25 cents per gallon for two hours on a Saturday. During the promotion, church members wash windshields and hand out religious information about the new church.

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"People [getting gas] say, 'What in the world is going on?' " says Jim Wideman, executive director of the Baptist General Convention of New England. "So they'll have a little card that says, 'we're just trying to show the love of Jesus to you in a practical way.' "

Church activists, of course, ultimately want to impact more than gas prices. In secular areas such as the Northeast, they also strive to "influence the influencers," since the region shapes attitudes nationwide through such channels as education, policy, and media. The Southern Baptists' "Send North America" campaign says church planters "recognize the potential of harnessing the influence of the area" to help spread the Gospel.

While some might even hope the religious incursions in New England would foster a more GOP-friendly atmosphere, church leaders make no such promises. Many see Christians as increasingly willing to accept minority status in America.

"Most of those who believed in the '70s – the whole Moral Majority thing – that there was a chance that America really could become a Christian nation have given that up now," Mr. Wideman says. "They have said, 'We need to begin to think like Christians in the 1st century thought, when they were definitely a minority.' "

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Other churches are trying to keep politics as far away from the pulpit as possible – and are thriving. Stephen Um is the Korean-born pastor of the Citylife Church in Boston, a 10-year-old Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) congregation that meets in a hotel and attracts 800 weekly attendees. He ministers to Boston's youthful and professional elite: 35 percent of his half-white, half-Asian congregation has at least one postgraduate degree.

But his ministry focuses on empowering individuals to bear witness, challenge atheist assumptions, and do good works – not change public policy for Christ.

"This is not a political movement," Mr. Um says. "We want to be the best citizens that we can be.... I tell them that the best way for you to have a witness as a Christian in the workplace is to pursue the common good, to work with integrity ... to love your neighbor."

Churches that have equated faith with political activism, in fact, are watching their ranks thin. Lewis, the Bangor Seminary dean, sees emphasis on politics as one reason some mainline denominations have seen their membership decline accelerate in the past 10 years.

"In the mainline denominations, liberalism is dead, but they just don't know it yet," says Lewis, an ordained Methodist elder. "Liberalism has moved so far toward the social consciousness [agenda] that it's lost its spiritual roots. What they need [in the mainlines] is a passionate spirituality."

For their part, Roman Catholics haven't complained about religious opportunists encroaching on what's been largely their turf since the late 19th century. One reason is that the Catholic Church will remain the region's largest religious player for many years to come, Mr. Johnson notes. Catholic commitment might even be growing significantly in pockets, he adds, but the signs are hard to notice since they're overshadowed by declining regional numbers.

To fill more pews, Catholics are focusing on bringing inactive members back into the fold. In January, the Archdiocese of Boston kicks off "Disciples in Mission," an effort to reinvigorate parish life by encouraging Catholics to attend mass more regularly, receive the sacrament of reconciliation, and inspire boys to explore the priesthood.

"If we're doing our job of inviting Catholics back to church, [and] if we're being welcoming, praying about it and giving witness," says the Rev. Paul Soper, director of the Office of Pastoral Planning for the Archdiocese, "then that's going to have an effect on the broad religious landscape, including specifically people who traditionally have been Catholic but now are seeking other ways of worshiping and living."

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