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Amid national declines, local religious leaders urge faith in the future

Nathan Baker • Dec 22, 2019 at 8:00 AM

National polling over the past 20 years shows fewer and fewer people say they follow a particular religion, and more describe themselves as non-religious.

Religious leaders in Northeast Tennessee are aware of the country’s trend toward the secular, but, the Southern, rural area has traditionally been protected from the effects of dwindling followers and attendance. Some local churches have seen plateaus or slight declines in attendance of services, but most say their congregations are strong and their missions are pure.

The numbers are well-defined and stark.

Both Gallup polling and studies done by the Pew Research Center found significant changes in the country’s religious landscape.

According to Gallup’s data, church membership declined from 70% of the adult population in the 1970s to near 50% in 2018.

The decline sped up as the years progressed. Membership was an average of 68% through the 1970s, 80s and 90s, but fell 20 points after 1999.

At the same time, Gallup’s numbers show the proportion of adults with no religious affiliation grew from 8% in 1998 to 17% in 2018.

A Pew Research Center telephone poll shows similar trends.

According to its data, 65% of adults described themselves as Christian, down from 12 percentage points from a decade ago. In the same period, people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” increased 9 percentage points from 2009, up to 26%.

Looking at regions, the Pew data show traditional majority religions losing shares, while non-affiliated adults rise. In the Northeast U.S., followers of Catholicism fell from 36% to 27% over the past decade. In the South, Protestant declines were larger, as their proportion fell from 64% to 53%.

The Pew poll also shows a generational divide tied to religious identity and attendance of services.

Among members of the Silent Generation, born between 1928 and 1945,  84% identified as Christian in the 2018 poll. Seventy-six percent of Baby Boomers (1946-64) self identified as Christian, while 67% of Generation X-ers (1965-80) and 49% of Millennials (1981-96) said they were Christian.

Forty percent of Millennials identified as unaffiliated.

Local religious institutions can read the landscape, but they’re mostly positive about their futures.

Dr. Fereidoon Shafiei, the president of the Muslim Community of Northeast Tennessee, said growing diversity is helping his community. As education or jobs draw people of the Islamic faith from outside the region, attendance of services at the Islamic Center in Johnson City has grown.

Southern Baptists in the area, once insulated from falling number of worshipers concerning churches in the Northeast and West, have also begun reporting declines in attendance. Some pastors point to declining birth rates as the culprit.

Whatever is causing the decrease, they say their missions remain the same and their outreach in their communities is strong. 

All the religious leaders who spoke to the Press for this series said they must have faith in the future. 

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