Area Catholic numbers gaining
POSTED: Sept. 21, 2002 12:22 a.m.
While Southern Baptist and United Methodist churches still dominate the Bible Belt of Western North Carolina, Catholics have notched their place as the mountains' third-largest denomination in the past decade, according to a new study released this week.
In Buncombe County, Catholic adherents grew from 4,387 in 1990 to 8,470 in 2000.
To handle the explosive growth in the north end of the county, St. Eugene Catholic Church recently completed a $2.5 million renovation. From 1990, St. Eugene grew from 438 families to 925 families this year, or an estimated 2,775 members.
"Since January, we've added 90 families," said Jerry Bergeron, a pastoral associate for community life at St. Eugene. "In Asheville, we have people who are coming from all over - California, New York, New Jersey, Florida. They've been part of the Catholic tradition and when they come here, they look for a Catholic church to affiliate with."
Catholics are no longer bound by geographical restrictions on parishes, Bergeron said. "It's up to the individual to find the church where they feel comfortable and they're being enriched spiritually. That's what we have at St. Eugene. There's good liturgy and prayer, a lot of programs. People want to be a part of that."
Nationwide, the Catholic Church remained the largest denomination with 62 million members, but that population has shifted to other parts of the country, according to Ken Sanchagrin, a Mars Hill College sociologist who also directs the Glenmary Research Center in Nashville, Tenn., which released the study.
"Catholics are leveling off in the Midwest and in the North. They're moving to the South and to the West," said Sanchagrin.
The Glenmary Research Center is a Roman Catholic study group that works with analysts of different faiths to compile a religious profile of the nation down to the state and county level every 10 years.
Sanchagrin commutes electronically from Mars Hill, helping compile perhaps the most complete profile of religion in America. The U.S. Census Bureau does not ask about religious affiliation, so Glenmary researchers work from reports by 149 participating denominations and faiths.
"I was struck by the growth in those so-called conservative churches while the more mainline, liberal churches are the ones who are losing adherents," said Sanchagrin. "This is a continuing trend that has been going on for some time. Certain denominations have been losing members for generations."
Baptist stronghold remains
Southern Baptist churches still claim more churchgoers on a given Sunday across the mountains. Glenmary counted 57,532 Southern Baptists in Buncombe County, 26,159 in Haywood County and 24,567 in Henderson County.
Nationwide, the Southern Baptist Convention boasted 20 million members, making it the largest Christian group behind the Catholics, and making up a fourth of the nation's 62 million Protestants, according to Glenmary. But other studies show only 16 million Southern Baptists.
Ron Kiser, director of missions for the Buncombe Baptist Association, showed 42,010 resident members among its 95 member churches. Baptist membership numbers have been skewed, and some studies show a more realistic count of 16 million nationwide.
"The numbers are inflated, and it's difficult to get an accurate count," he said. "A lot of folks may attend two or three churches. There's church shopping."
A new diversity
Despite growth in members and even congregations, Southern Baptists and other denominations haven't kept up with the population increase across the region. Buncombe County grew by some 18 percent, according to the 2000 U.S. census, and Glenmary shows that 45 percent of those living in Buncombe do not claim any church allegiance.
"There's a lot more diversity," said Kiser. "In the association and on the state level, we're trying to find ways to help churches be more effective in evangelism. The challenge is we are losing market share in all our denominations."
While mainline denominations such as the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and the Episcopal Church continued decadeslong declines in national membership, they showed gains during the past 10 years on the local level. United Methodist showed 15,043 members or 3.7 percent more members in Buncombe, Presbyterian U.S.A. adherents numbered 5,092, up 5.6 percent and the Episcopal Church grew by 12.6 percent to 3,178 members.
Sanchagrin also warns that the study only looks at organized religious bodies, but does not count New Age or other spiritual paths.
"More and more people are saying, `I'm spiritual, but I'm not religious,'" said Sanchagrin. "Twenty-five years ago, people wouldn't have said that. If you were to survey spirituality in this country, spirituality would be increasing like mad, but if you take the membership in groups defined by belief in a personal God, the use of scriptures and liturgies and rituals, less people identify with that."
For the first year, the Glenmary study also counts non- Christian groups other than Jews, including Bahai's, Muslims and others.
In Buncombe County, Glenmary reported 244 Bahai's, 288 Muslims affiliated with the local Islamic Center, and an estimated 13,000 Jews, who are members of the two synagogues or simply identify themselves as Jewish.
Nationwide, the population of Jews was estimated at 6 million while Glenmary counted some 1.6 million Muslims, much lower than the 6 million reported in some studies last fall.
This year, the Glenmary figures also do not count African- American Baptist churches, which often don't have the resources for national membership counts, Sanchagrin explained. The 1990 Glenmary count showed an estimated 5,161 black Baptists in Buncombe County.
Other groups not participating in the survey include Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Greek Orthodox and many other churches.
"Some people may wonder why do we count," said Sanchagrin. "It's our conviction that religion and religious reality is important in the life of the society. Anything we can do to describe or analyze that reality makes the case to take religion seriously. We're not saying eliminate the separation of church and state, but religion should not be eliminated from the public square."
Contact Neal at 232-5970 or DNeal@CITIZEN- TIMES.com.
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