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Perhaps Religious Groups Can Learn From 'Pockets Of Vitality'

Susan Campbell

September 22, 2009

In April 1966, Time magazine ran a provocative cover with the headline: "Is God Dead?"

The article was thoughtful and scholarly, and when the author, religion editor John T. Elson, died recently, headline writers had a field day. The man who asked the question in print may now be asking the question of the Real Deal.

But that's only if you believe in God. As a culture, we seem predisposed to question that. Stories about God's demise are forgive me resurrected with the same frequency as are stories about the end of Christianity. It's as if it's expected that both deity and religion will eventually run their courses.

A new study, "Faith Communities Today 2008," to be released next month from Hartford Seminary's Hartford Institute for Religion Research, says that while some religious bodies are struggling, they're far from dead.

But first, as the study says, the bad news: Compiling information from 2,527 congregations around the country, the study shows what author David A. Roozen, the institute's director and professor of religion and society at the seminary, calls a "persistent and broad-based downward drift in congregational vitality." That's a dip in, among other categories, worship attendance, a sense of mission and financial health among old-line Protestantism, Evangelicalism, Catholic and Orthodox, and other world religions.

With so much bleak news, one element held steady, says Roozen. Conflict within the memberships be it discussions about changes in the worship service or debate over hot-button social issues didn't fluctuate, and the more heated the conflict, the harder it was on the faith group.

A Trinity College study out today says the 34 million Americans who claim no religious affiliation (the so-called Nones) crosses all demographic lines. But before you hang a funeral wreath for American religion, Roozen suggests a comparison with the American auto industry and old-line Protestant churches. Both sell an older product to an aging clientele with large amounts of cash going to personnel (more cash than goes to, say, most evangelical or Catholic clergy, and yes, there are exceptions).

Whether they're too big to fail is another question.

For all the bleak news, Roozen says, there are "pockets of vitality" in the country's religious landscape, and membership can be revitalized by something as small as welcoming new members to lead worship services or providing training for lay leaders.

Smaller, less active faith groups are not necessarily a fait accompli. As an illustration, Roozen likes to point to the Rev. James L. Kidd, who until he retired in '98 as pastor of Hartford's historic Asylum Hill Congregational Church, managed rather spectacularly to avoid the fate of other shrinking urban churches. Rather than move operations to the more financially secure suburbs, Kidd built a strong urban church that continues to grow under the leadership of the Rev. Gary Miller, current senior minister.

"Before Jim Kidd came, all mainline Protestant pastors were in the same boat," says Roozen. "They would get together and kind of commiserate. And then Jim came and suddenly there was a counter-example, and boy, that was hard on the other pastors. They were suspicious of any one who could grow, who broke the illusion that there was nothing a church could do."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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