Evangelicals Help Pace U.S. Growth in Church Attendance

Tally of Muslims Rejected as Low By Islamic Groups
Washington Post, Sep. 17, 2002
By David Cho

Religious Congregations & Membership: 2000,” to be made public this week, also attempted — for the first time in the 50 years that the census has been done — to tally the number of Muslims in the United States. But the figure it came up with — 1.6 million — is Glenmary Research Center. The information was provided by the denominations, and the figures were adjusted by statisticians to make them comparable. For example, some churches count everyone who is baptized, while others count only adults.

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). However, several denominations, among them the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, declined to participate.

The study’s most controversial finding is its count of Muslims. Several Islamic groups last week accused the researchers of trying to diminish their numbers and influence.

“They may claim whatever they want to claim, but we refuse to accept this report,” said Faiz Rehman, communications director for the American Muslim Council. The council says there are 7 million Muslims in the country, based on a study last year by a coalition of Islamic groups. “They are grossly wrong, and they are not serving the country well if they continue to marginalize Muslims,” Rehman said.

But Kenneth M. Sanchagrin, director of the Glenmary Research Center, dismissed the complaint. “There was no intention, desire, question of trying to distort or fudge the data at all,” said Sanchagrin, who provided a copy of the study to The Washington Post.

Mosques typically do not keep membership rolls. The Muslim estimate was based on a self-reported count from about a third of the country’s 1,209 mosques, he said, and the results were carefully compared with statistics on immigration and conversion rates to Islam.

Other research compiled last year by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and by the American Jewish Committee put the population of Muslims at 1.1 million and 2.8 million, respectively. The CUNY study was limited to adults; if children were added, the total would be about 1.8 million, a study director said.

Sulayman S. Nyang, a Howard University professor who co-directs an Islamic research center at Georgetown University, said the actual number is likely higher than either of these tallies, but that “demographic jealousy” has made it difficult to obtain an accurate count.

“The whole question is a statistical game,” Nyang said. “And it’s played on both sides. There are Jewish reports that have made the number very small, and some Muslims like to exaggerate the number.”

Among Christian denominations, the Glenmary study shows that those identified by most scholars as “moderate or liberal” are on the decline, Sanchagrin said.

“The churches that are demanding in some way — that expect you to come two or three times a week, or not wear lipstick, or dress in a certain way — but at the same time offer you great rewards — community, a salvation that is exclusive of other faiths — those are the churches that are growing,” he said.

As an example, experts point to the ” “javascript:void(0);” onmouseover=”return overlib(‘Click for research resources on this subject’, CAPTION, ‘Link Info…’, HAUTO, VAUTO, SNAPX, ‘5’);” onmouseout=”return nd();”>New Age religions, said David Roozen, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

“They are never going to out-conservative the conservatives,” he said. “But if they start emphasizing ‘religion is your own choice — feel it if you feel it,’ then people start asking why they need church at all.”

Roozen added that his institute’s studies show that today’s churchgoers seek services that give them a sense of purpose and offer emotional intimacy with God, rather than those that only emphasize liturgy or volunteerism among the needy. For some ministers, that has meant updating services with contemporary music — hymns that Roozen describes as “touchy-feely” — or preaching on a more personal level.

The Rev. John Yates of The Falls Church, an Episcopal congregation located in its namesake city, said his staff was able to revitalize the parish by letting go of empty traditions.

“We have made the mistake of worshiping our liturgical practices instead of engaging in the living God,” he said. “People want worship that is dignified and transcendent, but they don’t want to feel it is so dignified and formal that they can’t relate to it.”

That approach isn’t confined to Protestant churches. When the Rev. Jose Eugenio Hoyos came to St. Anthony of Padua parish in Falls Church in 1993, he drew thousands of Hispanic immigrants to the church by providing a more familiar atmosphere during Mass. Now, although Hoyos has left for another parish, music at the two Spanish services is led by mandolins, guitars and maracas. People are free to call out and clap their hands. Pentecostal prayer meetings, where people pray in tongues, are held before Mass.

The result: attendance on Sundays grew from about 300 in the early 1990s to 6,000 in 2000.

But ministry isn’t always about numbers, notes the Rev. Ron Christian, who heads a Lutheran group that builds housing for the elderly and the disabled in the Washington area.

“Maybe we are declining a little or we are maintaining,” said Christian, “But if you look in terms of ministry and helping those in need, my opinion is that we are doing that well for God and our neighbors.”


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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday September 18, 2002.
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