As church attendance drops, experts divided over long-term religious impact of terrorist attacks

Posted: Friday, December 14, 2001

To the congregation at Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn., it must have seemed like their city had been born again.

Attendance at Sunday services swelled by 600 newcomers after the terrorist attacks (usually, about 2,000 believers filled the pews), a spiritual outpouring mirrored in houses of worship nationwide.

Some religious leaders predicted a spiritual revival across the country. Yet just six weeks later, attendance at Two Rivers and other congregations around the nation dropped back to near normal.

Clergy disagree over whether Americans experienced a permanent spiritual change in 2001, or just turned to religion in a moment of crisis. But as the war on terrorism continues, and the government remains on high alert for future attacks, many still see a chance to convince nonbelievers that faith should be part of their lives.

''There has been a great awareness of the whole concept of spirituality,'' said the Rev. Jerry Sutton, Two Rivers' pastor. ''People realize life is more fragile than they believed. That environment is here to stay for a while.''

The year began with religion playing a key role in the United States, as a new president professed his Christianity and sought to provide more federal funding for religious groups. Yet no one could have predicted the shift in America's spiritual life brought on by Sept. 11.

Members of Congress sang ''God Bless America'' on the Capitol steps. President Bush quoted the Bible and Quran and led a national day of prayer. Interfaith services were held in stadiums and public squares. In some areas, children were encouraged to pray at school.

In a Sept. 21-22 Gallup poll, 47 percent said they attended church or synagogue in the last seven days, a level rarely seen since the 1950s.

But by November, Gallup found church attendance had dropped back to 42 percent, roughly the same as it was for years before the attacks. A survey by Barna Research Group, which studies religion trends, found weekly Bible reading and prayer were unchanged since Sept. 11. A poll in November by the Pew Research Center found only 16 percent of Americans were attending worship services more frequently.

The reaction fits a pattern, according to a December report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Church and synagogue attendance increased after President Reagan was shot and during the Gulf War, and those jumps also were temporary.

''It's a tall order that people would go to church and find resolution, that the church really could provide answers to something that is so complex and may take time to sort through,'' said Duke University professor Kathleen Joyce, who researches American religious history. ''I suspect there was a lot of disappointment.''

Rabbi Perry Netter of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles agreed it was naive to think clergy could transform Americans' view of religion in a few weeks. He saw attendance at Sabbath services increase by a few hundred immediately after Sept. 11, then return to the average 500 within weeks.

''When you go through trauma where do you turn? Religion. Once the trauma has been assimilated, you return to the regular level of denial that we all live with, and then we go back to our habits,'' Netter said.

Yet, there are some signs of a sustained interest in faith.

Since Sept. 11, Alpha North America, which develops Christian classes to attract newcomers and church dropouts, has seen a 35 percent increase in sales of its books on how to run their courses.

Mosques are reporting an increase in inquiries about conversion to Islam. Masjid Saad, a Toledo, Ohio, mosque, said prayers were so unusually crowded the Friday after Thanksgiving, the 650 worshippers could not bow to the ground as required, but instead had to lean on each other's backs.

At the Roman Catholic Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago, the number of people enrolled in an education program for converts to Catholicism is about 55, compared with 42 last year.

''Three or four mentioned specifically that in light of Sept. 11, they were reordering their priorities,'' cathedral administrator Ann Klocke said.

Churches and synagogues in the cities that were attacked continue to see an increase in attendance.

Bill Knepper, 28, a New York Catholic who rarely went to church, said a friend persuaded him to attend a service at Saint Bartholomew's Episcopal Church three days after the attacks. He was so moved, he enrolled in an Alpha class and in December joined the church.

''I was just really impressed and taken by the spirit of warmth and welcome,'' Knepper said.

Americans are expressing spiritual concern in other ways, as well. The Bible and Christian book publisher Zondervan Corp. of Grand Rapids, Mich., said its customers are reporting weekly sales after Thanksgiving as much as 40 percent higher than last year.

The Gospel Music Association said sales of contemporary Christian and gospel music were on track to be significantly higher this year, partly due to a spike in sales after the attacks.

Some feel it's a mistake to use church attendance alone as a measure of religiosity.

Americans for decades have told pollsters faith was central to their lives, even as participation in organized religion declined. Clergy often lament that American individualism has made spiritual development a solitary, instead of communal, undertaking.

''The way that religion in America has been going in the last 20 to 30 years has not been toward increasing membership in the mainline traditions, as it has been seeking spiritual fulfillment through different kinds of private rituals -- gathering with friends, lighting candles, or through books or music,'' Joyce said. ''After Sept. 11, you'd expect to have more people tapping into these things.''


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