WHEN the Rev. George Mann takes the pulpit at the First United Methodist Church in Pasadena, Calif., on Sunday, he will likely be facing an Easter congregation of close to 2,000. The Rev. Mr. Mann, who is senior minister there, says his average attendance is 600 to 700. And he attributes the predicted swell in the ranks on this particular Sunday to the special observance.
Still, the southern California clergyman sees ``something going on'' in terms of renewed interest in religion today that is more than seasonal. He talks about it in terms of a ``search'' for spiritual values. And he says it is drawing back to the church youth who had abandoned it a decade or two ago as irrelevant to their daily lives.
Others see the same trend: not so much a national surge to religion and church as a seeking for answers.
Bishop Philip R. Cousin talks about ``keener interests'' and ``sharper concerns,'' particularly in young people aged 25 to 35. Bishop Cousin of the African Methodist Episcopal Church is president of the National Council of Churches of Christ (NCCC), the largest umbrella group of Protestants in the United States.
``So many are seeking answers,'' he pointed out in a telephone interview from his Florida base. ``And they are finding out that the only lasting answer comes through an inner peace . . . the anchoring of life that religion gives,'' he says.
Bishop Cousin says a ``threatening world situation, domestic difficulties with economics, [disenchantment] with the drug culture, and various social concerns'' have prodded many people, including the young, to return to a belief in God and traditional religious values.
``The turning to absolutes helps us understand how to relate to all areas of life,'' he says. ``Religion cannot be isolated. It is necessary to have in the marketplace as well as the pew.''
The NCCC's top official also adds that while many of today's young people are accepting religion, they are not doing it without questions. ``Our young people are challenging what previous generations took for granted,'' he explains. ``They are peeling layers of hypocrisy from some of religion's activities and enterprises.''
Rabbi James Rudin, whose work with the American Jewish Committee is aimed at promoting understanding and cooperation among Roman Catholic, Protestants, and Jews, also perceives a renewed interest in religion over the past few years.
``There's a willingness to explore, recapture, reclaim . . . , and take religious values seriously,'' he says. ``It's real, and it's healthy,'' he insists. ``I get a sense, however, that it is part of a return to tradition. Religion is getting a serious look-see,'' Rabbi Rudin adds.
Polls appear to reinforce the view that religion is on the upswing in the US. But the picture is not all bright. For instance, George Gallup Jr. in his last report on ``Religion in America'' stressed a troubling paradox. ``Religion is growing in importance among Americans, but morality is losing ground,'' he stated.
Dr. Gallup explained: ``On the one hand, levels of religious involvement remain high. Nine in 10 [people surveyed] state a religious preference, seven in 10 are church members, and six in 10 attend religious services in a given month. A majority, furthermore, say they are more interested in religious and spiritual matters today than they were five years ago.''
``On the other hand,'' Gallup adds, ``widespread cheating is found on all levels of society, and two-thirds of Americans hold the view that the level of ethics in the US has declined during the past decade.''
He concludes that ``if the churches of America are able to move the populace to deeper levels of spiritual commitment in the years ahead, the effect upon society could be profoundly salutary.''
A recent Gallup survey shows that 42 percent of Americans say the influence of religion is increasing in American life, as opposed to 39 percent who believe that it is losing impact. Those who see a loss of influence, however, represent the smallest percentage since 1962, when 31 percent responded negatively.
Between 1970 and 1984, the percentage of those saying that religion is having an increasing influence on them jumped significantly among men and women, in all age categories, and among Protestants and Catholics. (See chart.)
Other studies also indicate a growing interest in reading the Bible, as well as more time spent in silent communion. Gallup says prayers include occasional petitions in emergencies, short prayers during the day, grace before meals, and deep and lengthy prayers in meditation.
Some estimates say that up to 95 percent of the population reads the Bible, at least occasionally. The American Bible Society, which distributes the Scriptures across the globe, reports a strong demand for all versions of the Bible.
There is an ongoing debate over just how that commitment should be manifested. Some groups see their roles as embracing political and social agendas. During last year's presidential campaign, the Moral Majority and other conservative church-related groups promoted a ``Christian nation'' philosophy, embracing controversial campaign issues such as school prayer.
On the other hand, religious liberals, including the Roman Catholic Bishops, National Council of Churches, and various Jewish organizations, pushed hard for social agendas in the name of morality and ethics. For instance, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops have warned of the dangers of nuclear armament and chided the nation for economic policies that ignore the problems of poverty.
George Rupp, dean of the Harvard Divinity School, calls the entrance of many church leaders into the political arena ``the single most important issue'' in the field of religion today. And he adds that despite a commitment in the US to separation of church and state, ``people's views on political issues are unavoidably shaped by their religious convictions.''
Further, more so than ever before, ``religious'' issues are spilling over into the courts. School prayer, public aid to parochial schools, and the right of workers to leave their jobs on certain religious holidays are all on the US Supreme Court's docket.
A relatively new controversy over sanctuary for foreigners fleeing oppressive governments abroad has pitted some churches and religious groups against the US government. Earlier this year, 16 Arizona church workers were indicted for smuggling Central Americans into the US. Those who have provided shelter for these refugees generally invoke a religious mandate and a Biblical command to help the poor, the hungry, and the suffering.
In addition, many black churches in America's inner cities are spurring a drive for better economic opportunities for minorities and more social justice for the nation's have-nots. They explain their positions in terms of Christian charity. The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, says the US has ignored its ``moral responsibility to the poor.''
Some hold that preoccupation with social and political issues has tended to divert churches and religion from their basic responsibility of spiritual nurturing. Others aver that this concern has added verve to religion and is making it more relevant to contemporary life. Religious historian Martin E. Marty recently suggested that Americans are more ``complex, diverse, and passionate'' about religion than most people had thought.
``The church must live out its ethic and and theology,'' holds Bishop Cousin. ``I must live what I preach and live what I believe,'' he says.