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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In Pictures The new face of faith
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What's emerging, it seems, is a religious shift whose wider meaning is best measured not so much in terms of political or cultural transformation, but in how faith is practiced. Adherents are flocking to churches where the difference faith makes is concrete and visible. Connections fostered in faith communities are enabling them to live in keeping with their aspirations and nurture freedoms they've come to discover.
Take the 40 newcomers to the Auburn Seventh-day Adventist Church in Maine. Interviews with many of them revealed a common theme: Each was enjoying some type of new freedom and felt the church could help keep them on the right path.
For Phil and Pat Webber of Lisbon, freedom has involved leaving a Jehovah's Witness community that they say restricted them from talking with family members or socializing with certain friends. Ben Dugas of Auburn, who has a condition diagnosed as cerebral palsy, finds he sleeps better and enjoys more time with his wife, Wendy, since adopting the church's guidance on vegan eating and Sabbath-keeping.
Debbie Giroux, from the town of Poland, found freedom from love addiction and codependency through a 12-step group, she says, and knew she needed to worship the God who had liberated her. "I was filled with shame, toxic shame; then with the 12-step program, I just woke up one day and that was gone," says Ms. Giroux. "It chokes me up. That built my relationship with God. And through that process, this little voice in my head kept saying, 'you need to go to church.' "
At Congregación León de Judá, Kelvin Carroll has found a path for continuing enrichment that began in Alabama. He'd long worshiped in emotional black Baptist churches, he says, but discovered more dimensions to faith when he joined a biracial church in Dothan, Ala., led by two pastors, one black and one white.
Now a transplant to Quincy, Mass., where he works 14-hour days at Wal-Mart and Home Depot, Mr. Carroll expects he'll learn even more about the Bible and discipleship through an English ministry hosted by a Spanish-speaking congregation. "I'm here because I wanted to see the Spanish part of it," says Carroll. "It helps me in the ministry to know each culture and how they serve God."
Even in some churches experiencing fewer people in the pews, activity in the name of God is thriving in other ways. The Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire saw average attendance drop 20 percent from 2000 to 2010.
"The churches and the pews have been emptying, but they're starting to come back," says the Right Rev. Robert Hirschfeld, who will become Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire in January. "Maybe not on Sunday morning, but I see people coming together for prayer groups, for Bible study, for partnering together to serve those who are most at risk in our society. When you look at those metrics, the church is very alive."
It is alive on Sunday mornings and afternoons, too, in buildings that don't look like churches. No steeple or stained glass adorns León de Judá, but that doesn't keep the people from rejoicing. "Where the Spirit of the Lord is," sings the hand-waving congregation as a projector displays lyrics on a wall, "there is freedom."
IN PICTURES: The new face of faith