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Faith by the numbers.

Byline: JEFF WRIGHT The Register-Guard

SEE YOU in church?

Not likely - at least not in Eugene-Springfield, one of the most unchurched urban areas in the most unchurched state in the nation, according to a comprehensive study of religious affiliations in the country.

Only 31 percent of Oregonians - compared with about half of all Americans - belong to any of the 149 religious denominations and groups surveyed by the Glenmary Research Center in Tennessee.

Eugene-Springfield ranks 273rd out of 276 metropolitan areas with only 24.5 percent of the population claiming religious affiliation. Only Redding, Calif., Corvallis and Medford (rock bottom at 22.2 percent) rank lower.

With percentages like that, churchgoers can feel like a quaint subculture.

"I have friends, they'll come visit here, and they don't realize people come to church," said Steve Overman, senior pastor at Eugene Faith Center. "They're like, `What are all these people doing here? You mean they want to be here?' '

For reasons ranging from greater mobility to the absence of a single dominant faith, Oregon has long ranked low in religious affiliation.

But it's wrong to dismiss area residents as nonreligious just because they don't fill the pews, says Marion Goldman, a professor of sociology and religion at the University of Oregon.

"We have a vital religious marketplace with lots of competition," she said. "People do a lot of shopping but don't necessarily join. We are equal or slightly above the norm in terms of people who say they believe in a higher power."

The survey, which compares religious affiliations in 1990 and 2000, found several distinct trends within the Eugene-Springfield populace. Among them:

The fastest-growing faith group, in terms of percentage growth, is the Jewish community. The survey reported 3,250 Jews, a 40 percent increase since 1990.

The Catholic Church remains the area's largest denomination, in part because of the growing number of Latino believers. The church grew 25 percent in the 1990s - exceeding the general population growth of 22 percent in Eugene and 18 percent in Springfield.

The International Church of the Foursquare Gospel - known locally as Faith Centers - grew 33 percent, and did so at the expense of the Assemblies of God, whose membership dropped 40 percent.

Mainstream Protestants are an increasingly endangered species, with membership drops among Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists and Nazarenes. Seventh-day Adventists also saw a decline.

Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Churches of Christ and Episcopalians all recorded gains, but at percentages lower than that of the general population.

The survey, compiled in conjunction with the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, asked denominations to furnish data for 2000. The survey attempts to count "adherents" rather than "members" to include those who may not regularly attend a house of worship.

Some large denominations chose not to participate in the study or aren't reflected in the data, including several African-American denominations, Jehovah's Witnesses and several independent evangelical Christian churches.

Eighty-five of the 149 denominations surveyed have a Eugene-Springfield presence, including such nonmainstream faiths as Baha'i, Buddhist, Friends (Quaker), Muslim, Sikh and Unitarian Universalist.

Jewish growth

To measure Judaism, the survey doesn't distinguish between conservative or more liberal branches and includes secular Jews who don't affiliate with any congregation.

In Eugene, Temple Beth Israel draws the largest number of Jews, who can also choose from a smaller, more orthodox congregation as well as a third group's "synagogue without walls."

The growing numbers help explain the current space situation at Temple Beth Israel, said Rabbi Yitzhak Husbands-Hankin.

"I was wondering why we need a thousand more seats each week," he said. "We are bursting at the seams. Our cup runneth over."

The synagogue, which claims about 425 households and 1,000 members, is in the midst of a capital campaign to build a larger temple - with about double the sanctuary size - in south Eugene. Last month, during the high holidays, the congregation moved its services to the McDonald Theatre in downtown Eugene.

Husbands-Hankin cites a growing population, a new Judaic Studies program at the UO and a revitalized Hillel student group at the UO as reasons for the growth among Jews.

Goldman, the UO professor, adds another reason: Temple Beth Israel is affiliated with the faith's more liberal Reconstructionist movement, "which is much more vital in attracting a wider range of people than conservative Judaism, for example."

Catholics top list

The survey was completed before most media coverage of the Catholic church's clergy scandal. But Goldman said she doubts charges of child abuse against some priests has had much effect on Catholic numbers.

Most Catholics, she said, are able to put the scandal in perspective: "Their own positive experience of the priesthood supersedes (their concerns about) renegade priests."

Immigration and higher birth rates are other factors in Catholic growth. Also, Catholics have "a more tribal sense than most Protestants," said Benton Johnson, a retired UO professor of sociology and religion.

"Most Protestants have no serious qualms moving from one denomination to another," he said. "That's not the case, traditionally, with Catholics."

At St. Mary Catholic Church, the area's largest parish, Father Mark Bachmeier said it's tempting for Catholics to harbor a "fortress mentality" of being in the minority - especially in a highly secular community such as Eugene.

"You figure 80 percent of the population is not going to church, and we're maybe one-fifth of the 20 percent who are," he said. "There's a sense that nothing is handed to us, there's no promise that this is going to be easy - in fact, it's going to take a lot of work to go against the tide."

At St. Mary, the congregation has grown by 300 to about 2,000 households since Bachmeier's arrival three years ago. About 250 of those 2,000 households are Latino, and many attend the Spanish-speaking Mass celebrated every Sunday afternoon by either Bachmeier or his assistant pastor, Victor Perez, both of whom speak Spanish. The parish also recently added a teen Mass.

Bachmeier said the church continues to grow because others take note of Catholics who live a life of faith, and want some of that serenity and commitment for themselves. Close to 60 adults attend the parish's introduction-to-Catholicism class each fall, he said.

"We're not much affected by the clergy scandal," he said. "We're shocked by it, but the day-to-day grind is really marked by a lot of folks who are remaining prayerful and filled with charity."

Denominations compete

Statewide, the third-largest denomination is the Assemblies of God, an old-line Pentecostal denomination. But in Eugene-Springfield, the Assemblies of God rank eighth, having lost nearly 1,400 members in the past decade.

At the same time, the Foursquare Gospel's four Faith Centers have grown by more than 1,600 believers.

It's probably no coincidence, Johnson said. "Foursquare is a direct competitor," he said. "They're in the same theological ballpark."

Johnson said Foursquare's growth - 50 percent statewide in the '90s - may be the result of "a dozen or so very effective pastors within the denomination."

With 4,500 members, the Eugene Faith Center may be the area's largest congregation. But there may be a distinctly Oregon explanation for its growth, according to head pastor Overman.

"Our congregation is made up of a lot of people dissatisfied with the traditional church experience," he said.

"From the beginning, our church has been for the unchurched. We're not institutionally oriented or highly programmatic, and that seems to fit for a lot of people in Eugene."

Nationally, the percentage of churchgoers dropped from 55 percent in 1990 to about 50 percent in 2000. From that perspective, you can argue that Eugene, Springfield and other Oregon residents are not so much behind the curve as ahead of it.

"We've got people saying, `I'll do my own prayer and meditation,' ' Johnson said.

"They're saying, `I don't like the doctrines that these available churches have and I don't want to get tied down to an organization that I can't put my full faith and trust in.' '

CAPTION(S):

Rabbi Yitzhak Husbands-Hankin (center) raises a prayer shawl over children from his Jewish congregation, whose ranks are growing. STEPHANIE BARROW / The Register-Guard MORE INFORMATION On the Web: Review survey data at www.glenmary.org/grc or ext.nazarene.org
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Title Annotation:Eugene-Springfield ranks near the bottom in religious affiliation; Religion
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Oct 3, 2002
Words:1363
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