Bahai News -- Iowa churches buck national trend Sunday, December 22, 2002

Iowa churches buck national trend

By Sue Davis Smith
The Gazette
Sunday, December 22, 2002, 12:35:37 PM

By Sue Davis Smith The Gazette In Iowa and across the nation, socially conservative churches are growing faster than others, liberal churches in general are losing members, and the Catholic Church is growing modestly. However, while mainline Protestant churches continue to shrink nationwide, in Iowa those denominations are growing, according to a national study of religious congregations.

Bucking the trend comes from mainline denominations realizing they have to help people in their walk with God, said Barrie Tritle, district superintendent for the United Methodist Church.

"It used to be churches would put their shingle out and like the Field of Dreams they would come. That was the '50s, and that doesn't work now," he said.

Considered the Bible of religious polls, the "Religious Congregations and Membership in the United States: 2000" survey provides a snapshot of American denominations. Its findings tell us which churches are growing, and which ones are losing people.

And for the first time, the survey noted Iowa's growing religious plurality. Estimates were included for Islam, Judaism, Baha'i and other Eastern religions.

The survey also points out the large number of people who have no religious preference. Nationally, 49 percent of the population claims no certain religion. In Iowa City, it's 62 percent of the population. Residents in Linn County are more churched, with 43 percent claiming no religion.

It's important to note that the report is based on self-reporting information provided by religious denominations. The people counted are those who are currently on the books as members. Not all denominations count members the same or chose to participate in the study. Some African-American denominations are not included. Neither are Jehovah's Witnesses, who decline to participate.

Still, the study is considered one of the more reliable looks at what is happening in American churches.

Some key findings:

Iowa's largest denominational group is mainline Protestants. In Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, Catholics top the list.

While mainline Protestant churches continue to decline nationwide, in Linn and Johnson counties the United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), Episcopal and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) are growing modestly. Presbyterian churches (USA) in Linn County reported losses; those in Johnson County gains.

For the first time ever, the study included Muslims. Of the 4,717 Muslims living in Iowa, nearly half reside in Linn County. Cedar Rapids' 2,300 Muslims puts the religion as the eighth largest in the city.

Who's growing? The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which grew rapidly across the country, added 455 people to its rosters in Johnson County, 312 in Linn County. Evangelical churches also posted sizable gains. The Evangelical Free churches in both counties are rapidly growing, as are independent, Bible-based and Assemblies of God churches.

Big and small
If there is a mega-church in Cedar Rapids, First Assembly of God Church, 3233 Blairs Ferry Rd. NE, fits that description. Reporting 2,899 adherents two years ago, Larry Sohn, senior pastor, said the number is closer to 3,800 now.

"I'm not bothered by this being a large church," said Sohn, who's going on his 12th year at the church. "It's really a group of small churches within one."

With a smorgasbord of programs and a coffee shop where you can get a latte as well as Scripture, First Assembly of God is more of a spiritual shopping mall than a church. It offers ministries for youth, young moms, singles, seniors and people with addictions and eating disorders. The full-size gymnasium is open for youth and adult basketball leagues.

Preaching the word, though, is the important thing here, said Sohn, who isn't too concerned about what the sign says in front of First Assembly of God's contemporary, concrete building. "What I want to know is that the spirit of God is here. That his presence is felt and experienced," he said.

The strength of Assemblies of God churches -- and which may account for much of the denomination's growth -- is that every church is independent. Each church elects its own pastors, boards and writes its own bylaws.

"Control of the church is local, and it allows each church to have autonomy, or what we call a cooperative fellowship," Sohn explained. "The main denominational tenets are there, but each church is allowed to incorporate the area culture."

The culture in his own church reflects the people who attend worship there. Only 4 percent of the congregation in Cedar Rapids has an Assembly of God background, Sohn said. "The majority come from other denominations. The largest attending are Catholics and Protestants. We even have a former Buddhist."

For that reason, services are contemporary, but not as charismatic as at other evangelical churches. Members are offered Communion every week, something not usually found in Assemblies of God churches. "People who came out of other denominations were used to it," Sohn said.

The people joining range from African immigrants, who listen to sermons translated into Swahili, to Melody Graham, who joined more than 14 years ago.

"People are wonderful here. It feels like a family. It's growing, yet it's responsive to our needs and vibrant. There's a sincerity to the faith," said Graham of Cedar Rapids.

The people who attend Ellis Park Church of God might say the same thing about their church. Now located in temporary quarters at 463 Northland Ave. NE, it is one of the smallest churches in Cedar Rapids.

The 50 people who call the church their spiritual home have a challenge ahead of them. In 1994 they bought about 10 acres of land on Edgewood Road NW, overlooking the Cedar Rapids school bus garage.

Three crosses and a sign tell people that someday this will be the new home to Ellis Park Church of God. Someday is the operative word.

"We don't judge ourselves by those numbers," said the Rev. Ernest Nicholas, the church's pastor. He points out that the average congregation size in the United States is 75 people. "The larger ones are great, but we're average size, and we hope to expand."

The congregation of 50 people must raise $1.7 million to expand their ministry. It requires a lot of faith, Nicholas said. "We think it will work."

Catholic tradition
Lynn and Jeff Kramer of Marion welcomed their second child, a son, Nov. 21. Not too long after that they took him to St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Marion to baptize Nicholas and to welcome him into the Catholic Church.

Catholicism is the largest denomination in Linn and Johnson counties. And while many Protestant and Evangelical churches grow because of new adult membership, most of the growth in the Catholic Church continues to come from families having children.

It was important to the Kramers to pass on their religion to their children, and they are not alone. Nationwide in 2001, 1,007,716 infants were baptized in the Catholic Church, compared to 79,892 adult baptisms and 81,240 converts, according to figures from the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops.

Loretta Ryan, head of catechismal services for the Archdiocese of Dubuque, said northeast Iowa has a strong enclave of Catholicism because of the heritage and traditions of the area. Germans and Irish settled into the northeast part of the state and raised families, and their religious traditions continue today.

"I hear people who work with these families say it's so ingrained in them. It's just what they do (raise their families as Catholics), and it's following what their parents did," she said.

Making a connection
The Rev. Dick Speight might warn people that his church, Christ Community United Methodist Church in Marion, is not your mother's Methodist church.

Speight hasn't worn a robe in years, the music is often old rock classics like "Jesus Is Just Alright," and he intermixes videos within his teaching message.

"We're not a traditional charismatic church, but nor are we mainline Methodist or traditional evangelical," he said, struggling for words to describe this 13-year-old church.

Labels may not be able to describe what happens at Christ Community, but it is among a half-dozen new churches started by the UMC in Eastern Iowa that has kept this denomination healthy and growing.

Statewide the UMC, the third largest U.S. denomination, lost 8 percent of its members. That hasn't happened in Linn and Johnson counties, where the denomination grew by more than 1,000 people in each county.

"Fifteen years ago this district started to develop a climate that said it was OK to talk about church growth," said Tritle, the district superintendent who overseas churches in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.

"Because of that, there's been an attitude to regain our priority to reach people. The churches have done a lot of visioning, clarifying what they are and who they're about. They've taken steps to welcome and reach people," he said.

"We took a lot for granted for many years. Our pinnacle of growth was in the '50s, but when it's not popular the church has to re-examine what it is, how it reaches people, and we're being called back to that," he said.

Changing culture
Every morning at 7:40 a one-minute devotional breaks up the happy talk of deejays Ric Swan and Scott Schulte. The radio station, 102.9 FM is known more for its top 40 format than religion. However, the daily devotional, sponsored by Westminster Presbyterian Church in Cedar Rapids, is helping to bring new faces into a denomination that's been slowly losing people for a decade.

Presbyterian churches in Iowa lost more than 15,000 people from 1990 to 2000. Still ranked in the top five denominations of Linn and Johnson counties, one Presbyterian church leader says it's time for a change.

"We've been asking the wrong questions," said Harry Olthoff, the general presbyter of the Presbytery of East Iowa. "The church is becoming irrelevant in the way we communicate. We continue to stress music by dead white men of hundreds of years ago. We're talking about what is it that will relate to our culture, and that's where churches should go but haven't."

An example of a Presbyterian church that has asked more pertinent questions can be found in Mediapolis in Des Moines County, Olthoff said. Using marketing information, they found many people in this town of 1,800 people couldn't get to church on Sundays because they worked. So the church began offering a Saturday night service.

"The first night they held it they had a 120 people there. They played jazz, blues and some traditional songs. Generally, what we see happen after the first service is you level off to maybe 60 people, but weeks later they still had 100 people, and 80 of them had no previous connection to the church. And it didn't affect their Sunday morning numbers," Olthoff said.

Not about numbers
Church leaders say the size of a church is no guarantee a church will survive or fail. A larger church will have more resources and a larger pool of volunteers, but what's more important, said Nancy Haley, is the connections people make with one another.

"People talk about numbers and about wanting larger or smaller congregations. It's not about numbers. It's about building relationships with each person who comes, whether you're a congregation of 50 or 500," said Haley, who is the pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Iowa City.

Haley isn't overly concerned that her own denomination nationally lost more than 7,000 people in 10 years. She gauges the success of her church by creating a place where people can explore the meaning and purpose in their lives in connection with the religious community.

"A growing congregation pays attention to every person. Churches that do that are growing," she said.

©Copyright 2002, The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA, USA)

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