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Local News

Fewer attending religious services

By Matthew Strozier
Staff Writer

December 2, 2002

STAMFORD -- A recent survey of lower Fairfield County found an apparent drop during the past 17 years in the percentage of people attending religious services.

The Interfaith Council of Southwestern Connecticut surveyed 237 congregations in Greenwich, Stamford, New Canaan, Darien and Norwalk and found that 26 percent of people "regularly participate" in religious services or events, defined as going once a month.

The methodology used in 1985 makes comparison with the current census difficult, but council officials said it is clear attendance at area congregations did not grow with the population, and likely dropped.

"I think the numbers are lower than I thought they would be," Interfaith Council President Gene Waggaman said.

Participation in organized religion may have surged after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but the census indicated it was not a long-term trend, Waggaman said.

"I think the council needs to spark conversation about how do we reach a diverse religious community," Waggaman said. "All these people who we sense are searching for deep spiritual connection but aren't coming to our houses."

Attendance was one part of the wide-ranging survey, which revealed a complex picture of religious participation and belief in the area. A total of 299 congregations were identified; the census had a 79 percent response rate.

Roman Catholics and Protestants accounted for 94 percent of respondents, 47 percent each, but new Sikh, Hindu, Muslim and Baha'i worshipers have sprouted in the area. The three major Muslim congregations in lower Fairfield County did not to respond to the survey.

The survey also revealed:

* 86 percent of responding congregations had 70 percent or more of one racial or ethnic group.

* The average congregation size was 331.

* Half of the congregations in New Canaan have a high youth-to-adult ratio.

* 18.5 percent of religious leadership is not paid a salary. The leadership is 87.5 percent male.

* 21.5 percent of responding congregations were organized before 1900.

* Congregations listed membership growth as a top priority, along with spiritual growth and added building and parking space.

The survey was funded through a grant from the Leonhardt Foundation and led by the Rev. Shannon White, interim coordinator for the council, who visited many congregations to collect information.

The census showed that 76 percent of respondents were not members of the council, a 65-year-old organization founded to promote ecumenism.

"It tells us that we have been to a larger segment of our target audience absolutely invisible," Waggaman said. "And we have to change that if we are going to be relevant in our work."

Dropping attendance at religious services in not unique to Fairfield County, said Rabbi Robert Lennick, president and chief executive officer of Stamford-based Religion in American Life, which promotes religious pluralism and participation.

Reasons for the national decline vary but include media saturation, Americans' rationalist bent, clergy scandals and rising religious extremism in many faiths, Lennick said. A national survey last year showed Americans turning more to private spiritual pursuits and away from traditional organized worship, he said.

"There are so many things popular America is responding to, which is in a sense causing them to question seriously the relevance and impact of organized religion," Lennick said. "And it's tragic and it's a serious challenge for national religious leadership."

Every congregation has not experienced a decline in attendance. Twenty-six percent of congregations, for example, reported growth of 10 percent or more. Growth was seen in several faith groups but was most common among nondenominational Christians and Roman Catholics.

In Stamford, the Community Tabernacle of Deliverance Church on Selleck Street is one of the nondenominational Christian groups that has grown. It averages 600 people at Sunday services on Sunday and is about to add a third Sunday morning service.

Bishop Michael Densmore, who founded the church, said he did not want to be affiliated with a national religious organization.

"I just don't want to be tied to a lot of rules and regulations," he said. "I just want to be free to worship God as God leads."

Growth was strong in Darien, where 75 percent of congregations reported rising membership. One of those was the First Congregational Church of Darien.

"We don't have trouble attracting new members," said Kay Armstrong, associate minister at the church. "In fact, our challenge in this church is assimilating new members."

The Darien Congregational Church gained 57 new members last year, including 20 through confirmations, and averages about 450 people at Sunday services. Nonetheless, Armstrong said members are constantly pressed for time and that young people must squeeze church around Sunday morning sports leagues.

Council officials cautioned it is difficult to determine the extent of the drop in religious attendance since 1985. A primary reason is that Norwalk was included in the 2001-02 survey but not covered by the council in 1985.

An optimistic interpretation of the findings indicates religious involvement is holding steady, not growing, officials said.

The council plans to hold a membership meeting today in Stamford. It plans to approve 20 new members to the council and talk about interfaith outreach efforts.

©Copyright 2002, The Advocate (CT, USA)

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