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Unique Pittsburgh-area ministry succeeds in area despite nationwide drop in church-going attendance

| Saturday, April 27, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Joe McCullough didn't always attend church regularly.

“There came a point when my wife said, ‘You better start setting an example for your kids,' ” said McCullough, 62, of Coraopolis.

These days, McCullough, president of the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Knights of Columbus, attends church every week, sometimes two Masses in a weekend.

He is among a growing minority of regular church-goers, despite a recent uptick in interest in religion, studies show.

More than 60 percent of Americans say they are members of a church or synagogue. “The Bible,” the History Channel's 10-part Easter miniseries, drew record audiences. The March 13 election of Pope Francis energized Roman Catholics around the world.

Yet few Americans actually sit in pews each week.

“Short-term, immediate events can generate interest but don't have long-term consequences,” said Mark Chaves, Duke University professor of sociology, religion and divinity and director of the National Congregations Study.

The dropping attendance rates stem from fundamental demographic changes and what Chaves calls “declining religious socialization.”

“The percentage of people who did not attend church as a child has been steadily increasing,” he said. “More of them grew up in religiously inactive households.”

Also climbing is the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. One-fifth of the U.S. public — and a third of adults under 30 — are religiously unaffiliated, the highest percentage ever in Pew Research polling.

Dwindling attendance led to the formation of a unique ministry in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh Lutheran Urban Ministries, founded in 2004 by the Rev. John Gropp and the Rev. Beth Siefert, enables small, struggling or pastor-less churches to pool financial support and offer joint worship, outreach and fellowship.

Three full-time and one part-time pastors perform two services each on Sundays at seven Lutheran churches stretched between East Liberty, the South Hills, Duquesne and Carnegie.

“Attendance has stabilized and we're seeing some growth,” said Siefert, pastor at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in East Carnegie.

Other churches are taking notice.

“We've been contacted by the national (Lutheran) church and the Methodists,” said Siefert. “It's a grand experiment and we're still experimenting.”

Over the past 40 years, self-reported church attendance declined among Catholics, though Protestants fared a little better.

The share of Catholics who say they attend Mass at least once a week dropped from 47 percent in 1974 to 24 percent in 2012; the number of Protestants attending church once a week went from 29 percent in 1974 to 38 percent last year.

Overall, 39 percent of Pennsylvanians said they attended church services at least once a week, Pew said. Fifty-six percent said they pray daily.

Other researchers put attendance even lower. Just 20.6 percent of Americans go to church every week, according to the 2012 General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

All Saints Parish in Masontown, Fayette County, is bucking that trend — for now, said the Rev. John Butler, pastor to the mainly blue-collar and older parishioners.

“The demographics here are not in our favor for the future,” he said. “No one is moving here.”

The parish's four weekend Masses draw about 1,200 people.

“It's not standing-room-only, but they're filled,” Butler said.

Craig Smith is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5646 or

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