South has more churches, less variety
September 29, 2002
The South has more churches per capita than other regions - 15 per every 10,000 residents - but the types of denominations available are often limited, according to a recent census of the American religious experience.
Only one Southern state, Florida, was among the top eight states in diversity of church group offerings, with 108. At the other end, Mississippi had 63 types of churches and South Carolina 65, according to data compiled by an arm of Glenmary Home Missions, a Roman Catholic organization based in Cincinnati.
The top five were Illinois (120), Michigan (118), Ohio (115), Pennsylvania (113) and California (111). Tennessee was 20th with 88.
"In the North, there was this mosaic of European groups that had strong churches, so that accounts for the wide range of denominations," said Robert Benne, director of the Center for Religion and Society at Roanoke College in Salem, Va. "In the West, you get all this creativity" in the formation of churches.
The survey found that Southern Baptists are the largest group in the region, with nearly 11.3 million followers from Oklahoma to the Atlantic Ocean, and their numbers grew slightly from 1990 to 2000. Methodists had nearly 3.7 million and Roman Catholics nearly 2.6 million.
The South's rate of churches of 15.4 per 10,000 residents was followed by the Mountain West at 14.2, the Midwest at 13.6, the Far West at 7.85 and the Northeast at 7.5.
Nationally, the Glenmary survey found that just over half the people in the country could be considered adherents of some kind of religion, be it Christianity, Judaism, Islam or an Eastern spirituality. Adherence was at 55 percent two decades ago.
The figures released this month have their limits, though, the survey's publisher said. Totals, in the millions, were not available for many black churches and a number of independent churches, particularly in Appalachia. According to the data, adherence figures for the 14 Southern states as a whole came in at 49.4 percent, and researchers said the number had to be low.
"The South is still the most-churched region of the country," said Kenneth Sanchagrin, director of the Glenmary Research Center and a sociology professor at Mars Hill College in North Carolina.
And those worshippers in the region are mostly Christian. Except for Southern urban centers, the numbers of Jews, Muslims and adherents of Eastern religions were very small. Sanchagrin said the Asheville, N.C., region had more than 220 members of the Bahai faith and nearly 300 Muslims, an anomaly for the region.
"Asheville is not Atlanta. It's not New York. It's not even Charlotte or Knoxville. The typical Southern county is not going to have that," he said.
For years, Methodists ran second to Southern Baptists throughout the region, but they have fallen to third or lower in many of the most-churched cities of the South, the survey found.
In West Virginia, the only state where Methodists were the largest denomination, their population was down 17.4 percent in the decade. Methodist numbers were off 9.1 percent in Arkansas and 8.1 percent in Kentucky.
It means more diversity, though only to a degree, Sanchagrin said.
In 1990, there were twice as many Methodists in the Bible Belt than Catholics; now there are only 42 percent more Methodists than Catholics. There are three times more Southern Baptists than Methodists in the region after the Baptist population grew by 4.8 percent between 1990 and 2000.
"The apparent move of Catholics from the Midwest and North to the South is giving the region greater diversity" in religious life and ethnicity, Sanchagrin said. "You do have the Hispanic influence in what is the new Sun Belt - Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas."
And it seems some people are more willing to experiment more than in the past, said Flavil Yeakley, director of Church Growth Studies at Harding University in Searcy, Ark.
"It is certain that denominational loyalties are not what they were 50 years ago," Yeakley said. "There are people who approach religion as consumers, not as members, saying, 'I'll go where I like it.'
"But if that's all churches are doing and they're not calling people to a higher standard, then those groups are not going to be the ones that will grow. Theologically, that is not what a church is supposed to be about." Yeakley said.
Researchers said key things to watch for before the 2010 religious census is whether mainline Protestants can reverse their declines, whether Hispanics in the region will remain Catholic and whether Southern Baptists and Lutherans can avoid schisms between moderate and conservative wings.
"There are independent agents all over the South. You either go along or you could start your own. We have so many independent Baptist churches started because someone didn't like what they were doing at the other Baptist church," Benne said.
Benne also said some so-called mega-churches are terribly overgrown, putting them into the precarious position of "grow or die." There was no specific "mega-church" category in the survey.
"Now they are more entertainment-oriented. Some people want something more meaty than that, but some don't move beyond that," Benne said. "As they get more theological, what will happen?"
Yeakley looked to how churches will address the large number of people who do not claim any religion - half the country.
"Americans believe in God, and most would say they believe in Christ, but when you get down to asking if they are a member of a local congregation, you're down to half the population," Yeakley said. "That number is down, even here in the Bible Belt."
The census, published by Glenmary Home Missions' research arm, Nashville-based Glenmary Research Center, is the latest in a series of every-10-year studies conducted concurrently with the U.S. Census.
The religious census reports that more than 140 million Americans are associated with one of the 149 religious bodies that participated in the study including Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Bahais and other religious bodies beyond the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Fifty-eight reporting groups with 419,653 adherents are present in the metropolitan Knoxville area, which includes Anderson, Blount, Knox, Loudon, Sevier and Union counties. The area has 960 of the state's 9,634 churches, synagogues, mosques and temples.
The Southern Baptist Convention ranked first among the numbers of churches, attendees, members and adherents in Knox County and in Tennessee. The United Methodist Church ranked second for the religious group in Tennessee with the largest number of churches, members and adherents. While it ranked third for the number of attendees in Tennessee, the denomination ranked second in Knox County for all four categories.
Muslims made the top 10 for number of adherents in Knox County.
©Copyright 2002, The Knoxville News-Sentinel