PACKED PEWS Church growth study finds more local worshippers; prefer evangelical, conservative congregations
Churches throughout the Inland Northwest, and in the Spokane Valley in particular, are expanding their buildings to make room for new members. New churches, primarily evangelical, have begun meeting in schools and other temporary quarters until they, too, can build.
Church growth in our region appears to match results found in a recent study completed by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. The study gathered information from more than 14,000 churches from 41 different denominations.
Researchers found that evangelical Protestant churches accounted for 59 percent of all new church development. Substantial new development was also found among Mormans, Muslims, Jews and Bahai's. Liberal Protestant, moderate Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic churches all posted new church development numbers under 8 percent apiece.
In the Inland Northwest, church membership has grown during the past decade in evangelical denominations such as the Church of the Nazarene and the Southern Baptists. Membership was down in more moderate denominations, including the Lutherans, Episcopalians, United Methodists and Presbyterians.
"Denominations settle into old age like people do," says the Rev. Ian Robertson of the Valley Church of the Nazarene. "Generally, denominations that started in Europe are having a hard time. Older ones are just not adapting to cultural changes."
His church is the latest to build on Sullivan Road south of Interstate 90, with construction expected to be complete by September. The Spokane Valley appears to be a focal point of church growth as the area's population grows.
"We have been at maximum capacity for the last five years" says Robertson. The old church on Broadway has only 80 parking spots to serve more than 500 people who attend Sunday worship."We'd watch people come in, not find a spot on a Sunday morning and then leave again."
One reason may be because evangelical churches are seen as new and fresh, says Robertson.
Also, he says, "There's a greater interest in (religion in general) now than in all my years of ministry, and I've been at this for 40 years."
Membership in Inland Northwest Catholic churches rose significantly in the last decade, but the last new Catholic church was founded in 1958. Still, new buildings have continued to be constructed, with the latest being built by Our Lady of Fatima Church on the South Hill.
Work has already begun and will be completed in three phases, says the Rev. Jim Kuhns. The congregation is starting with new boilers and a ventilation system for the church's school, and the actual church is expected to be complete by 2004.
"Our worship space right now was built in 1959 as a gym to be used only temporarily as a church," says Kuhns. "It has never been used as a gym. It has carpeting and pews."
The congregation added banners and potted plants in an effort to spruce up the converted gym. "It was just a gym with a stage. Parishioners did not find it an inspiring place to worship."
Church membership at Our Lady of Fatima has remained steady at 800 families for many years, says Kuhns. "Now we're getting young families moving into the neighborhood," he says.
Recent cultural trends include an interest in worship that is more energetic, says Kuhns. "I think the nontraditional worship service of the evangelicals appeals very much to young families today," he says. "The high energy level is very attractive to people in their 20s and 30s. I think their performance style of music is very attractive. Their mode of participation is different than in mainline churches."
Membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has also grown, prompting the creation of several new stakes and wards in the past decade. Each stake includes about 3,000 members and at least five wards, which are worship groups of between 300 and 600 people.
Ron McIntire is an elder in the Hayden Lake Stake, which was created in 1999. The increase in members in North Idaho has been steady. "It's been running 10 to 12 percent a year for the past five or six years," he says.
"I think people are just becoming more attuned to family and religious activities," McIntire says. "I think they're looking more to Christ than in the past."
Another reason for the steady growth is the completion of the new temple in the Valley in 1999. A temple is the only place certain Morman ceremonies like baptisms and marriages can take place. Previously, members had to travel to Seattle to attend a temple. The new temple has also led retired church members to move to the area.
Despite an overall downturn in Presbyterian membership, some congregations are booming. In 1997 Whitworth Presbyterian Church planted a daughter church known as Colbert Presbyterian. The church began meeting in the Mt. Spokane High School with a core group of about 50. By the time the congregation was chartered in the fall of 1998, says the Rev. Eric Peterson, the church had 125 members.
The congregation, now with an average Sunday attendance of 180, is finalizing plans to build a church along Highway 2 near Colbert Road. The financing is ready to go, and all that is lacking is a permit.
"We grow about 5 percent a year," says Peterson. "We think that may change a bit once we get in our new building."
What makes a good church cannot be written down in a formula, says Peterson. "It varies from place to place," he says. "What people are looking for is something that's meaningful and lasting."
Entirely new churches may have an edge because of their very newness. There are no traditions to break, and everyone shares the experience of being a new member. It can be less intimidating, says Peterson. "There's something about a new church," he says. "(People say,) `There's room for me, they need me.'"
Peterson agrees that many churches have been suffering. "Most of the mainline Protestant denominations have been decreasing over the past 15-20 years," he says. "I think everyone would admit we (Presbyterians) are not doing new church development very well. We've just not been paying attention to the cultural trends."
One new church that already has a new building is the nondenominational Real Life Ministries in Post Falls. Led by the Rev. Jim Putman, the church began meeting in the River City Cinemas in the fall of 1998 with two families. The new building was completed in March, and attendance at the church's three Sunday services now runs about 1,450.
"We ran over 1,500 in May," says Putman. "We've come down a little bit because summer started."
Even though the church is so new that the landscaping isn't complete, Putman is already making plans to expand the building. Materials have been ordered, and an additional 96 feet will be added in the fall.
The church has been so busy dealing with its explosive growth that its leaders haven't even taken the time to advertise. "It's by word of mouth," says Putman. "We're getting about 150 new people a week.
"It's kind of been like taking a sip from a fire hydrant."
The pastors agree that certain qualities attract new members. It can all be boiled down to having an active, involved congregation. Successful churches reach out and give newcomers a sense of belonging. "People feel they're welcome, and it's not a clique of people," Robertson says.
Having a coherent vision is also important, says Putman. "Everyone on our team is going the same way and has the same goal," he says. "At our church, we're very intentional."
People forming relationships with each other is also key, he says. "The purpose of the church is to love each other and care for each other. It happens from person to person. It doesn't happen from some guy preaching up there."
Putman, who leads a nondenominational church, has a bit of a different theory about why mainline denominations are losing membership. Simply put, they have lost their way. "When you don't do what the word of God says, you lose the blessing of God," he says. "I think they struggle because the Holy Spirit is not there.
"Much of the mainline denominations have become dry and traditional. The mainline denominations are dying. Not all the mainline churches, but certainly many of them."
Evangelical churches tend to focus on worship rather than tradition, he says. "People don't want to hear about what happened 2,000 years ago, they want to experience God right now," Putman says. "They want a relationship with God, not religion."
The Rev. Rick Melin, executive of the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest, admits that the Presbyterian Church hasn't been growing as much as other denominations, but doesn't see a loss of God's blessing as the reason.
"I would disagree with that," says Melin. "There are things we could be doing differently and more effectively. We're doing the best we can, trying to be faithful. I don't think we've lost our way."
The local synod only lost about 300 members in the last 10 years, but there's still room for improvement, he says. "We've been holding pretty steady," he says. "We've not been attracting as many people as we should. There's no excuse to make that all right."
Melin meets regularly with the leaders of the local Roman Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran, United Methodist, Episcopal, and United Church of Christ churches along with the Christ Holy Sanctified Church of America. He sees the work his contemporaries do to further their mission.
"It seems to me there's a strong and deep commitment to God and Christ and a desire to be effective in ministry. I don't think folks are sitting back on their hands."
©Copyright 2001, Spokesman Review