Churches reach out to 'shoppers'

June 22, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, churches across the country reported an increase in attendance as people sought spiritual solace during troubling times.

Local religious leaders say if there was a boost here it was only temporary.

Attendance has remained steady at many area houses of worship, but only a few are experiencing substantial growth.

"My colleagues and I are seeing a boom in housing, but I'm not sure anyone is reporting a direct effect in the pews," said Ed Heim, pastor at St. John's Lutheran Church in Hagerstown.

Churches that are growing, they say, are those that are reaching out to the unchurched or doing new things to draw worshippers on Sunday.


In short, they're appealing to church shoppers.

"People have church shopped ever since there were two in a community," said Janice Dorsey, president of the Washington County Council of Churches.

Recent research suggests the practice is becoming more common as younger people seek churches that fill a need in their busy lives.

David Hein, professor of religion at Hood College in Frederick, Md., said the new generation of churchgoers is less loyal to the denomination in which they were raised.

"What's more important to people is theological families," Hein said.

That trend is being felt locally.

"Brand loyalty is changing. Today it's more difficult to say, 'Once a Lutheran, always a Lutheran,'" Heim said.

New parishioners

First Christian Church in Hagerstown is growing due to an influx of new parishioners from various denominations who are finding what they need there, said Cindy Reeder, program director.

Since 1994, the average attendance at King Street Ministries in Chambersburg, Pa., has grown from 800 to 1,500, said the Rev. Pat Jones.

"Our emphasis is to try to reach people who are seeking," he said.

The church also tries to involve its members in leading new programs.

"We believe everyone ought to be using their gifts in ministry in some way," he said.

Tri-State Fellowship near Hagerstown represents another growing church and one that focuses on a contemporary style of worship.

The church recently added a Video Cafe, where Sunday morning's live sermon is piped in but the setting is smaller to allow more participation and sharing. While the main auditorium seats 800, the Video Cafe seats 125 to 150.

Meanwhile, some ministers in the mainline Protestant churches find themselves struggling to fill the pews on Sunday.

"We are not as exciting to the group that's looking for need-based worship," said Don Stevenson, pastor at Christ's Reformed Church in Hagerstown. "That's not our focus, to meet your needs. To worship God, that's our purpose."

Stevenson's church has lost membership over the past two decades, going from 1,300 to 700.

Now it is starting to inch back up, he said.

'Stodgy' image

The perception of mainline Protestant churches is that they're stodgy and stiff, said Stephen D. Robison, pastor of Otterbein United Methodist Church in Hagerstown.

Robison is walking a fine line. He's trying to break that stereotype while remaining true to the faith and long traditions of the church.

He believes young people today are looking for the kind of security and stability they'll find in a 213-year-old church like his.

"There's a new appreciation of tradition," he said.

Otterbein, for example, still elects a "Woman of the Year" following a long-standing practice.

At the same time, Robison adds new variations to his worship services to keep younger people interested.

So far it has worked. The congregation is growing and embarking on a major renovation project at the Franklin Street church.

Robison believes some churches place too much emphasis on entertaining parishioners and making them feel good.

"Good worship involves a whole lot more than that, both head and heart, something you can latch onto with your head and feel in your heart," he said.

Church consumers

Hein, the professor, said church shoppers need to be careful that there is substance behind the church that is seeking to have them as members. Some people believe a selfish attitude toward choosing a church can be harmful.

"The whole goal of religion is to get out of ourselves and turn our attention to God and neighbor," he said.

To some extent, this church shopping trend is due to the trend toward commoditization in American life, Hein said.

"Everybody's a consumer now. People walk down the street looking for a church like they would walk down a supermarket aisle and pull things off the shelves," he said.

As a result, mainline Protestant and Catholic churches, which represent the majority of Christians, are reaching out to potential parishioners in a way they haven't since the 1960s, Hein said.

Washington County's religious culture reflects its history.

The single largest denominations are Methodist and Lutheran, which were the preferred churches of the Germans who settled the area, Heim said.

But the area is slowly becoming more diverse, with Muslims showing a greater presence, Heim said.

A recent national study showed that churches that are growing tend to have a few things in common, Heim said. They are:

  • Pastors who have been at the church for a long time.

  • Members who are excited about being involved in the world and the community.

  • Church leaders who are committed to being adaptable and changeable, offering, for example, contemporary-style worship services.

Dorsey, who visits a different church nearly every Sunday, said she can usually tell when she walks in how the congregation feels about its church.

"There's just something in the atmosphere," she said.

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