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Faith Counts

Though Baptists are biggest, survey shows other religious bodies are growing in East Tennessee

January 26, 2003

Yet, 75 percent of Tennessee's reported adherents of the Evangelical Free Church of America live in Knox County. And the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Roman Catholic Church and independent non-charismatic churches also are steadily thriving in the region, appearing among the Knoxville area's 15 top religious bodies.

These are some of the findings of "Religious Congregations and Membership: 2000," a census on religious affiliation that compares membership of most U.S. denominations between 1990 and 2000.

Working with other groups, particularly the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, Glenmary Research Center has published the interfaith study every 10 years since the 1950s. Nashville-based Glenmary is part of Glenmary Home Missions, a Roman Catholic agency. The data collected is considered to be the most comprehensive source in the nation for the numbers of people in churches, temples, synagogues and mosques. The U.S. Census does not include religious affiliation data.

Dr. Richard Dunn, 41, senior pastor of 16-year-old Fellowship Evangelical Free Church in West Knoxville had not seen the study but provided insight about how his denomination is growing in East Tennessee. At Fellowship, where Sunday average attendance is 2,000, the average age of its members is 38.

Commenting on the growth of his church, which spawned churches in Farragut and Maryville, Dunn said, "We are thankful for being blessed with being a big church but people long for being cared for and they long for small churches, so we recognize the foundation of the church is built on small group ministry."


The study found that the South has more churches per capita than other regions of the country - 15 per every 10,000 residents, yet the variety of denominations is more limited.

Glenmary compiled and analyzed attendance and membership figures from 149 religious groups nationwide. Statisticians also adjusted the figures to make them comparable. For example, denominations vary on whether they count members as adults only or all who are baptized.

Several religious groups were new to the study in 2000 including Sikh, the American Baptist Association, Tao, Vineyard USA, Bahai, Coptic Orthodox Church, Buddhism and Jain. Also new were the Eastern Association of Primitive Baptists and Independent Free Will Baptists Associations, which are prevalent in upper East Tennessee.

For the first time in the survey's 50-year history, researchers also attempted to count the number of Muslims in the United States. Until 1980, the only non-Christians counted in the study were Jews, said Kenneth Sanchagrin, Glenmary's research director and sociology professor at Baptist-affiliated Mars Hill College in western North Carolina.

While Islamic groups argue that the number of Muslims in this country is four times higher than the Glenmary figure, Glenmary's figure nearly matches results from surveys by the American Jewish Committee and the Graduate Center of City University. Glenmary's study only counted Muslims affiliated with a mosque.


Both in Tennessee and Knox County, Southern Baptist Convention ranked first for the religious group with the largest number of churches, attendees, members and adherents. The United Methodist Church ranked second for the religious group in the state with the largest number of churches, members and adherents and third for the number of attendees. In Knox County it ranked second for all four categories. And an estimated count for Muslims made the top 10 for number of adherents in Knox County.

Johnson City ranked third among the nation's metropolitan areas with the highest ratio of congregations to residents. It had 21 congregations per 10,000 people along with Florence, Ala., which trailed Provo, Utah where there are 27 congregations per 10,000 people.

The data on religious affiliation is provided by the religious communities themselves, hence the range in specificity. The last report, "Churches and Church Membership in the United States: 1990," included data on 133 church/congregational groupings. Some groups failed to submit information or only incomplete totals were available for religious bodies such as independent churches in Appalachia and many black church denominations.

While most of the nation's largest religious groups participate, 14 large groups did not participate in the 2000 study. They include Church of God in Christ, African Methodist Episcopal church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Jehovah's Witnesses and the National Baptist Convention.

Nationally, the Church of God, the Presbyterian Church in America and the Wesleyan Church were among the fastest growing religious groups during the past decade. Nationwide, Southern Baptists increased by 5 percent; the Assemblies of God, 18.5; the Roman Catholic Church, 16.2; the Churches of Christ, 18.6; the Church of God, 40.2; the Presbyterian Church in America, 42.4 and the Wesleyan Church, 46.9.The study found that in the six-county area surrounding Knoxville, Southern Baptist Convention churches rose from 435 congregations to 447 congregations between 1990 to 2000; Roman Catholic Church rose from 13 to 15; the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rose from 6 to 11 and Evangelical Presbyterian Church rose from 1 to 3 congregations in the same time period.

The number of families in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Knoxville, founded in 1988, has doubled since its formation. New churches have opened in more rural areas.

Nationwide, between 1990 and 2000, when the U.S. population grew by more than 13 percent, the United Methodist Church lost 6.7 percent of its membership; the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 11.6 percent; the Episcopal Church, 5.3 percent; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2.2 percent; the American Baptist Church, 5.7 percent; the Disciples of Christ, 1.9 percent and the United Church of Christ, 14.8 percent.

Locally, affiliate churches also experienced dips. While they had rises in the numbers of people who claim the faith but who may not attend a church, the United Methodist Church reported 149 congregations in 1990 and 139 in 2000; Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) reported 48 congregations in 1990 and 45 in 2000.

Shortly after the 2000 study's publication, Sanchagrin told The New York Times, "I was astounded to see that by and large the growing churches are those that we ordinarily call conservative."

The study also indicates that nearly half the country does not claim any religion.

Jeannine F. Hunter may be reached at 865-342-6324.

©Copyright 2003, Knoxville News-Sentinel (KY, USA)

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