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Americans, area residents hopping among religions

Many U.S. Roman Catholics and Protestants are leaving the churches of their childhood and either choosing other faiths or no religion at all, according to an extensive survey released Monday.

Many U.S. Roman Catholics and Protestants are leaving the churches of their childhood and either choosing other faiths or no religion at all, according to an extensive survey released Monday.

It's a phenomenon occurring in Douglas County, a fact which is exasperated by mobility, say local pastors.

The religion switch is a modern process spurned by younger generations who are looking for churches that suit their needs, they said.

Generation Xers are looking for a religion that fits their need. They're not necessarily attending the church of their parents like their ancestors tended to do, said the Rev. Dan Dahlberg of Cathedral of Christ the King, a Catholic parish in Superior.

More than a quarter, or 28 percent, of American adults said they have left the faith in which they were raised, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

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Some people switch denominations because they have young families and are looking for a church that is more focused on youth ministry, said the Rev. Darrell Nelson, of Mission Covenant Church, an Evangelical Covenant Church in Poplar.

"People nowadays in the metropolitan areas ... think nothing of hitting three or four churches," he said.

They may like one church for its music and another for its ministry style and bounce between them. They're less likely to join one particular church, he said.

"It's a real challenge ... to get them to commit to your local ministries," he said. "I think it's part of the whole ... post-modern mind set. We live in a culture where people are less likely to embrace or respect authority."

Due to a culture that teaches tolerance and respect for all religions, young people today are more likely to respect different religions equally and as a result not feel partial to one denomination's teachings, he said.

The Rev. Phil Terrill, of Bayside Baptist Church in Superior, said his church has experienced both people leaving and coming to the Baptist church.

Many people switching to Bayside Baptist are from mainline churches, he said.

Terrill himself switched denominations from the one he grew up serving. Terrill was raised Methodist but switched to Baptist because he felt the denomination had more of a Biblical message than what he had experienced as a young person. Evangelical churches, like Bayside Baptist, focus more on individuals establishing a relationship with Jesus Christ than on denominational beliefs of mainline churches, he said.

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About 16 percent of Americans say they are not members of any religious group, making the "unaffiliated" group the fourth largest religious tradition in the United States, rivaling the number of members in mainline Protestant churches.

This falling away from denominations likely results from people making priorities other than faith on Sunday mornings. More young people are participating in sporting events on Sunday and more people are working during the weekends and can't make it to church, Dahlberg said.

The three largest religious traditions are Protestant evangelical at 26 percent, Catholics at 24 percent and mainline Protestants at 18 percent.

The Catholic Church has lost more members than any other religious group, the survey found, with about 10 percent of all Americans reporting they have left.

Those losses, however, largely have been replaced by Catholic immigrants entering the country, Pew researchers said. As a result, the total percentage of the U.S. population that identifies as Catholic has remained fairly stable.

Catholic churches have been on a decline in Superior since the mid-'80s, said Dahlberg.

At that time the population of Superior was much larger and the city supported nine Catholic churches, now it's down to four. Much of the dwindling numbers is caused by the population decrease and young people leaving the city, he said.

In a shift that could significantly alter the nation's religious fabric, the study also found a sharp decline in American Protestantism -- that "the United States is on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country."

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The number of Americans who report they are members of Protestant denominations now stands at barely 51 percent. Moreover, that population is diverse and fragmented, encompassing hundreds of denominations. The three largest groups are evangelical churches, mainline churches and historically black Protestant churches.

"If these patterns persist, we are seeing that America is becoming a less Protestant and less Christian nation," said John Green, senior fellow with the Pew forum.

While there is much discouragement about parishioners leaving the faith of their parents, pastors in Douglas County are optimistic about the faith of younger generations, they said.

The same cultural dynamic that causes people to shy away from committing to a church at the same time is leading people back to religion, Nelson said.

Mission Covenant Church, has experienced a high rate of growth since the mid-'90s. Although much of that growth has now stabilized, the church continues to attract new members, he said.

It's growth is due in part from people switching denominations and others returning to church attendance after an absence, he said.

Mission Covenant targets its ministry to attract people who've fallen away from church or haven't experienced religion by studying demographics of the local population and targeting services and programs to their needs, he said.

The church looks at education levels and political standpoints in the area.

"We've been intentional that way," he said.

A number of people attending Mission Covenant were turned off religion for a variety of reasons but are now returning the faith and Mission Covenant offers several youth and small group ministry options to make them feel welcome, he said.

A number of college students too are remaining active in church activities. Even the ones who don't are working to develop a relationship with Jesus outside of church services, Dahlberg said.

He said he's optimistic that young people are still spiritually inspired in today's world and their service to their neighbors, he said.

The denomination switches also have lead to more collaboration between churches, Terrill said.

"We just try to maintain a good relationship between the churches. We're not in competition," he said.

Terrill participates in a group of pastors from different evangelical denominations in Superior who meet weekly to discuss what they're doing and pray together, he said.

Other major findings include:

The Midwest most closely resembles the religious makeup of the overall population. The South has the heaviest concentration of evangelical Protestants. The Northeast has the most Catholics, and the West has the largest proportion of unaffiliated people, including atheists and agnostics.

Mormons and Muslims are the groups with the largest families; more than one in five Mormon adults and 15 percent of Muslim adults in the U.S. have three or more children living at home.

Of all the major racial and ethnic groups in the United States, black Americans are the most likely to report a formal religious affiliation. Even among unaffiliated blacks, three in four belong to a "religious unaffiliated" category -- they say religion is either somewhat or very important in their lives. Slightly more than one-third of the unaffiliated population overall is in that category.

Hinduism exhibits the highest overall retention rate with 84 percent of adults who were raised as Hindus saying they were still Hindu.

Findings in the report came from a national survey of 35,000 adults conducted from May 8 to Aug. 13, 2007.

Daily Telegram staff writer Anna Kurth contributed to this story.

-- Copyright © 2008, Chicago

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