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Report shows America's religious tapestry continues to change

| Saturday, May 19, 2012, 7:12 p.m.
Churchgoers face the altar at Holy Trinity Church in Robinson during noon Mass on Thursday, May 17, 2012.  Photo by Stephanie Strasburg
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Churchgoers face the altar at Holy Trinity Church in Robinson during noon Mass on Thursday, May 17, 2012. Photo by Stephanie Strasburg

Jason Oberdick grew up Baptist and married a Lutheran with whom he attended a Methodist Church. The couple now attend a nondenominational church.

"I was just really attracted to the teaching and preaching of this church," Oberdick, 35, a physician's assistant, said of the NorthBridge Community Church in Cranberry, which meets in a public elementary school and has doubled its membership since its founding in 2007.

Oberdick's lack of attachment to one denomination is not unusual. The days of sticking with the neighborhood parish seem to be over -- a trend reflected in sharply declining numbers of regular churchgoers at many Roman Catholic and mainstream Protestant churches across Western Pennsylvania.

From 2000 to 2010, church membership among Catholics in Allegheny County declined by 27.2 percent, according to the U.S. congregational membership report released this month by the State College-based Association of Religion Data Archives, which conducted a county-by-county survey of the country.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America lost 22 percent of its members in the county, while membership in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. declined nearly 29 percent.

Westmoreland County experienced declines, too, but not as steep: Catholic membership declined by 7.5 percent during the same period, according to the report. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America lost 12.4 percent of its members, while membership in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) declined by nearly 20.4 percent.

"Religion in America is very much in flux, very dynamic. Traditional churches have to learn to explain their beliefs in a more relevant way," said George Worgul, chairman of the theology department at Duquesne University.

The Rev. James Price, NorthBridge's pastor, said he set out to "create a church for people who do not like church." Members include a mix of traditional Protestants and Roman Catholics along with people with limited or no connection to any church.

"The culture has changed," Price said. "The challenge is how you can change your approach without taking the theology away."

Nationally, membership in Catholic churches declined 5 percent between 2000 and 2010. The far higher drops in the Pittsburgh region reflect the very few Latinos living here, Worgul said. Nationwide, the population of Latinos is increasing.

"Four out of 10 Catholics have left the church, and within a decade half of all American Catholics will be Hispanic," Worgul said.

In the United States and in the world, the most explosive growth is seen in Pentecostal and some evangelical churches, he said.

That has led to efforts like the national Catholics Come Home Campaign, an attempt to bring Catholics back to their roots. The Diocese of Greensburg, which oversees 85 parishes in four counties, plans to hire a director of evangelization, a new position that aims to bring people back to the church.

"There is less of a connection to the neighborhood parish. People move a lot," said Jerry Zufelt, a spokesman for the diocese. "In the 1950s, you went to church on Sunday. Now, some people might just be there on Christmas and Easter."

Faith and religion are not as important in people's lives as they used to be, and even attending church can be difficult for some, he said.

"It used to be that Sunday was just set aside for church, maybe a family dinner. The whole dynamic of peoples' lives has changed so much. There are more kids' activities. More people work on weekends, and that makes it harder to fit church into the schedule," Zufelt said.

Three years ago, a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that more than half of American adults have changed religions. The survey's researchers said there was no discernible pattern to the change, just "a free-for-all."

Such lack of attachment has made things difficult at small traditional churches like Apollo United Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Apollo, where the size of the congregation has declined and where even the concept of membership has changed, said the Rev. Lea Austin, the church's pastor.

"In the 1950s, you belonged to a church, period. Whether you attended was a different matter," she said. "If you didn't belong to a church, it could affect your standing in the community, and that's not all true today."

Apollo United has more than 150 members who pay a low annual fee and have the responsibility of governing the church.

For nearly two centuries, Lutheran churches tended to grow on the influx of immigrants from Europe, said the Rev. Blair Morgan, director for evangelical mission for the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, one of the country's largest Protestant denominations.

Morgan, a pastor for 30 years, echoed Austin, saying there is far less social pressure to attend church today.

"Up until the '60s, growth in church attendance just happened. People are now much more willing to go a church that their parents did not belong to or to not attend church at all. We have not done as good a job as other denominations in keeping members. It's a big challenge," Morgan said.

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