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U.S. religious landscape is challenging mosaic, study shows

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The realities and challenges of America’s religious landscape abound as Southern Baptists and other evangelicals review the mid-September release of a county-by-county, once-a-decade study of denominations and their members.

Robert E. Reccord, president of the North American Mission Board, noted in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article on the “Religious Congregations and Membership: 2000” study that most Southern Baptist growth in the last few years has been among ethnic groups.

“We cannot stay white and southern,” Reccord added. “We have to look beyond our roots.”

Southern Baptists grew 5 percent during the 1990s nationally, according to the study, which was sponsored by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies; published by the Glenmary Research Center in Nashville, Tenn.; and largely financed by the Lilly Endowment, Inc.

“We have to turn the burners up even more,” Reccord said of a Southern Baptist growth rate that did not keep pace with 13.1 percent rise in the nation’s population.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., told the Lexington Herald-Leader that the growth gap is “a real challenge, and it could be an ominous sign.”

At the same time, Mohler noted, the SBC’s growing ethnic numbers “says something good about the Southern Baptist Convention [that it is] looking more like the kingdom of God and more like America as America is being transformed in the 21st century.”

In Tarrant County, Texas, encompassing Fort Worth and its metro area, Southern Baptist growth reached 13.1 percent during the decade, compared to the SBC 5 percent national average. In metro Atlanta, Southern Baptist growth surpassed 17 percent. In Nashville, Tenn., and surrounding counties, it was 12.5 percent.

“The denominations that start new congregations catch a vision and come alive,” said Daniel Sanchez, professor of missions and director of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Church Growth Institute in Fort Worth, Texas. “It can be in a new geographic location or around a new ethnic group. Also, [growth can occur when] there’s a good balance between meeting both physical and spiritual needs.”

The evangelistic challenge posed by Mormonism also is evident in the study: Latter-day Saints were among the nation’s fastest-growing faiths during the 1990s, up 19.3 percent to 4.2 million adherents in 11,500 congregations. (As defined in the study, “adherents” includes youth age 14 and above as a way of balancing totals both from churches that do not baptize infants as well as churches that do.)

Roman Catholics, the nation’s largest religious group, also posted an increase, 16.2 percent, for the decade, to 62 millions adherents in nearly 21,800 parishes.

Southern Baptists factored into numerous findings in the study, including:

— They encompass the largest number of adherents in 10 states, all in the South. Catholics have the largest number of adherents in 37 states and the District of Columbia. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has the most adherents in Utah and Idaho, while United Methodists have the most adherents in West Virginia.

— Southern Baptists are among the four largest religious groups in 28 states and the District of Columbia, while Catholics are among the top four in all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia. United Methodists are in the top four in 38 states. The Latter-day Saints and Evangelical Lutheran Church of America join the top four groups in 13 states, while Jewish adherents are in the top four in 10 states and the District of Columbia.

— Southern Baptists have a presence in 85 percent of the nation’s 3,141 counties or county equivalents, topped by United Methodists, the most widespread religious group in the study, in 96 percent and Catholics, at 95 percent. Percentages for other denominations’ presence by counties include Assemblies of God, 83 percent; Churches of Christ, 77 percent; Baha’i, 77 percent; and Presbyterian Church (USA), 76 percent.

— Of the 48 metro areas in the United States with 1 million or more people, Southern Baptists are the largest religious group in 10 of the areas, all in the South, while Catholics are the largest group in 37 and the Latter-day Saints are the largest in the Salt Lake City area.

— For all metropolitan areas in the study, Southern Baptists are largest in 32 percent, or 89 areas, while Catholics are the largest in 63 percent, or 173 areas.

Among other findings in the study:

— The 149 religious bodies which provided data encompass 140 million adherents, or 50.2 percent of all Americans.

— There is no significant difference between metro and non-metro areas in the percentage of religious adherents. In metro areas, the 149 religious bodies encompass 50 percent of the population and 51 percent in non-metro areas.

— Utah and North Dakota have the largest percent of people claimed by the 149 groups, at 74 and 73 percent, respectively, while the District of Columbia also measured at 73 percent.

— Oregon and Washington had the lowest percentage of people in the 149 groups, at 31 and 33 percent, respectively.

— Nevada has the highest ration of population to congregations. That is, there are 2,130 people for each congregation in the state. North Dakota and West Virginia have the lowest ratio of population to congregations — one for every 426 people in North Dakota and one for every 437 people in West Virginia. Surprisingly, West Virginia, with so many congregations, is one of the five least claimed states in the study, with only 36 percent of the population claimed by any of the 149 groups.

— In number of congregations by city, New York and Los Angeles rank first and second, with 9,586 and 7,079, respectively, while Washington, D.C., at 4,806, edges out Chicago, at 4,459, for third place.

— More than three-fourths of the population in six metro areas were claimed among the 149 groups: Provo, Utah, 90 percent; Lafayette, La., 80 percent; Bismarck, N.D., 79 percent; Dubuque, Iowa, 78 percent; Las Cruces, N.M., 77 percent; and Houma, La., 75 percent.

— Four metro areas in the report tallied less than one-fourth of the population among the 149 groups: Medford, Ore., 22 percent; Corvallis, Ore., 23 percent; Redding, Calif., 24 percent; and Eugene, Ore., 24 percent.

The survey data can be accessed at the www.thearda.com website of the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies in the “Interactive Maps and Reports” section.

The study is separate from than another Lilly-supported study also released in mid-September titled, “U.S. Congregational Life Survey,” which, concerning Southern Baptists, noted that compared with worshipers in other congregations nationwide, Southern Baptists generally are more involved in their congregations, spend more time in private devotional activities, are more likely to be tithers and much more likely to hold a strong view of biblical authority and interpretation. See Baptist Press from 9/23/02 at www.bpnews.net.
Erin Curry contributed to this article.