In Puritan New England, Protestant and Catholic Churches Are Declining While Evangelical and Pentecostal Groups Are Rising
Religion in America is changing as is what it means to be religious. What that means may subject for debate, what isn’t is the nature of the change.
Established mainstream churches are giving way to smaller or less formal and structured ones. As Catholic and mainline Protestant are losing parishioners, evangelical churches are growing at a terrific pace.
The reasons for the change are many but it is clear the very nature of religious identity is driving that change. Blind obedience and dogma are not enough anymore. It their place good works and personal commitment to living a meaningful and religiously inspired.
New England is seeing much of these changes first hand. While what is happening there may well be a bellwether for the rest of the country, these changes prompt other questions. What is at the root of these changes? Are established churches stagnant or do these other churches offer something different? Are the changes the result of cultural shifts or the result of an aging and/or a growing non white demographic?
Are non Christian religions undergoing the same changes? For the same reasons?
While no one has a crystal ball, to be sure, the changes are real and the consequences, both intended and unintended are going to make some big differences in how the nation is defined.
On a snowy 20-degree day in December, the visitors shiver as they move among vestiges of a long-closed Pizza Hut on this city’s struggling main street. A salad bar teeters off kilter. Dust collects on the dismantled facade of a soda dispenser. A few bolted-down tables and chairs remain - usable, but only after a good cleaning.
Yet none of this bothers the three leaders from the Auburn Seventh-day Adventist Church, who seem warmed by holy fire to carry out their task: Help transform the pizza joint into something with a bit more piety. Their church has reached capacity, having doubled attendance in the past year. So they’ve crossed the Androscoggin River to plant a second church, the Ark, in the heart of one of the nation’s least religious states.
This won’t be worship as usual. Starting early in the new year, a smorgasbord of community services will be served where deep-dish pepperoni used to be the lure. Vegetarian cooking classes and health seminars, hydrotherapy treatments and massage instruction, marriage classes and smoking-cessation clinics - all will be free of charge and led by volunteers. A vegan restaurant will open to bring in revenue. Worship services will begin next spring.
“It’s almost like you have to use a place like a Pizza Hut,” says Tracy Vis, a new member of the Auburn church. “Some people are not going to be comfortable with [traditional church buildings] or traditions. But they’ll come here and listen to these different messages.”
The Ark is symbolic of a transforming religious landscape in New England. Long defined by dominant Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant institutions, the terrain is undergoing a fundamental shift as traditional denominations cope with steep declines in