Religious census: Study looks at the way we worship

In-Forum, Mar. 30, 2003
By Erin Hemme Froslie

Flip through the local yellow pages and see why Fargo-Moorhead stands out.

In a nation where Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists dominate the religious landscape, one-third of this community’s church listings fall under the heading “Lutheran.”

But North Dakota and Fargo-Moorhead’s religious identity is changing ever so slightly, according to a recent religious census.

The study, which is conducted nationally every 10 years, was compiled in 2000. It is published by the Nashville-based Glenmary Research Center.

The information was provided by 149 participating Christian and non-Christian faith communities and research groups.

The figures were adjusted by statisticians to make them comparable.

The survey is the only census to provide a county-by-county breakdown of religious participation.

The U.S. Census does not ask questions about religion.

Religious bodies may use the information to compare themselves to others and track growth and decline.

But like the U.S. Census, the Glenmary survey serves another purpose.

It helps communities capture a glimpse of who they are from a faith perspective.

Who is losing

Most of North Dakota’s oldest denominations — those that were among the first churches established when immigrants settled the state in the late 19th century — lost numbers from 1990 to 2000. Similar losses were seen between 1980 and 1990.

Closely following national trends, mainline Protestant denominations, such as Lutheran, Presbyterian (USA), United Methodist and Episcopalian, also lost numbers.

Much of the loss can be explained by the closing of churches — a side effect of population loss in rural North Dakota. Of the state’s 53 counties, 47 lost people during the 1990s.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — a denomination formed from the merging of three older Lutheran bodies — lost more than 5,000 members (3 percent) and closed 35 churches statewide in the past decade. But in the Fargo-Moorhead area — an area that saw significant growth and where one ELCA church closed — the denomination actually gained 3,000 members in the 1990s.

Likewise the Moravians and Mennonites, denominations that once thrived in rural areas, saw dramatic losses. In North Dakota, the Mennonites closed six churches and lost about 404 people, 70 percent of their membership.

The Roman Catholic Church was one of the few faith communities in North Dakota that closed places of worship but gained adherents. It closed 20 parishes, but grew by nearly 6,000 adherents or 3.4 percent.

Who is growing?

For religious bodies that gained adherents in the past decade, location was key.

“Denominations that were located in places with growth — urban centers and county seats — grew,” said Gary Goreham, a sociologist at North Dakota State University.

According to the recent census, the fastest-growing bodies in the state were Assemblies of God, Roman Catholic, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Evangelical Free Church, an association of 1,250 churches based out of Minneapolis. This mirrors what’s happening nationally as well.

Other than Roman Catholics, these are newer religious bodies to the state, typically established after the mid-20th century.

The Latter-day Saints, who had the largest percentage increase among larger religious bodies, added three congregations and gained 1,307 adherents in the 1990s, a 55.4 percent increase. The Evangelical Free Church gained 1,357 adherents, a 46.5 percent increase. Assemblies of God had a slightly smaller growth rate with 550 new adherents, a nearly 6 percent increase.

“These are young denominations that emphasize church growth,” Goreham said. “Any time you open a new church or add a wing, it sends a message that this is a place on the grow and you should join us. And they do.”

What’s this mean?

In North Dakota in 1990, about 76 percent of the population belonged to a church or religious body. Within a decade, that percentage dropped slightly to 73 percent.

To experts, that says the growth of one denomination often occurs at the expense of another.

“It looks like a circulation of saints to me,” Goreham said. “As we see changes in denominations, it comes from those who have left other bodies.”

Or have left organized religion for good.

The percentage of people claimed by religious groups appears to be declining slightly across the nation. In 1990, the groups surveyed claimed 51 percent of the population. In 2000, that dropped to 49 percent.

It’s not a major change, but it is a slight decrease that has been seen since the 1970s. But other surveys indicate that Americans overwhelmingly consider themselves to be Christian, said Dale Jones, chairman of the committee that published the census.

Those facts combined indicate to him that an American attitude of independence may now be applied to religion.

“Americans tend to believe that they are the best arbiters of how to worship and how to act,” he said. “When a community, such as a religious group, believes that it is directed by an authority beyond human determination, that understanding is contradictory to American themes.”

As a result, many Americans may feel they can be a good Christian based on their own understanding of religion, he said. For groups that believe participation is an important element in Christian development — and this includes most bodies in the Christian tradition — this can prove to be the biggest challenge in the next decade.

“They must find ways to persuade the ‘independent American Christian’ that involvement in a Christian community really is important,” Jones said.

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