Filling the pews: Part I

Photo by Charly SHELTON Even cathedrals like Notre Dame in Paris that have been spiritual havens for centuries are having trouble filling their pews. .

By Brandon HENSLEY and Mary O’KEEFE

In times of trouble, especially during the holidays, people seem to turn to religion for help, whether it is guidance, comfort or shelter. And at this time of being thankful, turning to one’s faith and church can be a source of strength.

But what happens when a church itself is in need, specifically of followers?

According to a recent survey, 67% of La Cañada residents and those in surrounding zip codes are unaffiliated with any religion. Is this the “New Normal” of religion in America as the study suggests?

So in a world of every minute scheduled, how do church leaders get people to be as faithful to their church as they are to their Blackberries?

St. Luke’s of the Mountains Episcopal Church was in that position last year, following a contentious split with St. Luke’s Anglican Church that began in 2006. Due to theological differences members of the then Episcopal congregation chose to split with the church and align with the Uganda Anglican faith.  Some in the congregation stayed with the Anglican side, others searched for another Episcopal church.  There was a legal battle that eventually granted the old stone church to the Episcopal Diocese, thus leaving a historical building without a vicar or a congregation.

Ask Father Bryan Jones of St. Luke’s of the Mountains, though, and he’ll say it wasn’t hard to start anew last October.

“The first Sunday we had nine [people],” Jones said. “Pretty quickly 25 people were here, and they got building this thing, this new congregation.”

Jones said around 70 people would consider themselves members.

But getting people to go to church is an apparent problem for the Foothill area, not just for Jones or St. Luke’s Anglican, headed by Rev. Rob Holman.

Recent research including surveys done by the American Religious Identification Survey 2009, Pew Forum Survey of the Religious Landscape 2007 and Religious Knowledge, 2010 found that about one in four Americans (23%) did not attend a worship service in the last year. Sixty percent of that group described themselves as Christians.

In the last 20 years the number of Americans who identified themselves as Christians has fallen 10 percentage points. In 1990 it was 86%; 2010 was 76%, the study determined.

Jones spoke of a gradual decline in newer generations, the mindset ultimately ending up being where younger people are “just not aware” of what churches have to offer.

“Twenty or 30 years ago you had folks who were leaving churches,” said Jones. “Now you have increasing numbers of the population who have never been.”

More churches are catering toward the younger crowd. St. Luke’s of the Mountains has a band that plays more contemporary Christian music, and its Firehouse, situated just east of the church, serves as a place for teens to do homework, play foosball, or get in touch with their spiritual side.

Jones said he tries to answer the question, “Can you walk into a church service and not be lost?”

Holman sees the problem as a personal question.

“I think people need to have a personal encounter with God,” he said. “It’s not a philosophy to buy into; it’s actually a personal encounter with discovering that God and Jesus are real and that that encounter changes your life.”

Holman said churches haven’t done a good job helping people achieve that encounter. St. Luke’s Anglican will soon start monthly healing services, where there will be testimonies of encounters with God, instruction and prayer.

“The records we have of Jesus’ life, he was always going around and healing people, and much of the Church has forgotten this,” said Holman.

The number of Americans not affiliated with any religion in 1990 was eight percent, in 2010 that number had increased to 16 percent.

Of course, these days, those that shy away from religion are put off by ideological wars that some churches wage. The main line of thinking may be that religion is for conservative, judgmental people who make learning about God boring.

Jones touches on topical debates in his sermons, but he’s on the other side of the spectrum. “There are not a lot of progressive churches in this immediate area, so we probably fill some needs there,” he said, adding that the Church should be standing up for human rights.

Holman said he takes a different approach. “There are some churches that are very active in that area. We don’t feel called to do that.”

Nonetheless, Holman said his church’s mission is “to show [people] that Christianity is exciting, that it’s absolutely relevant to our lives and most of all it’s true.”

A house divided against it cannot stand, but a church? Well, in different ways, Jones and Holman are still here, ready to welcome in any who want to come. In keeping the spirit of the season, that’s something everyone can be thankful for.

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