State of Faith
“A lot of what you read or see on television suggests a distancing from God. But this suggests the distancing is overstated — at least in Central Texas.”
By DAVID STONE, Our Town Temple
America’s religious landscape is changing — fewer people describe themselves as Christians, more are identifying as atheist or agnostic, and church attendance is dwindling. But, according to an Our Town Temple poll, the local area is bucking that trend.
More than 2,600 Temple-area residents participated in a poll through Our Town Temple’s e-newspaper and a dozen social media sites, and the results show strong religious bonds not only still exist in the Temple area — they thrive.
Seventy-five percent of those polled described themselves as Christians, 91.1 percent say they believe in God and 87.2 percent say they pray at least once a week. Three out of four Temple-area residents pray daily, and 46.8 percent attend a religious service or meeting at least once a week, including worship services, prayer groups or Bible studies.
“These numbers are amazing and inspire hope,” said Dr. Timothy Crawford, dean of the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor’s College of Christian Studies.
“A lot of what you read or see on television suggests a distancing from God,” Dr. Crawford said. “But this suggests the distancing is overstated — at least in Central Texas.”
While three-quarters of those polled identified as Christian, there were nine other options: agnostic, atheist, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, spiritualist, wiccan/pagan, Islamic and other.
Just over 8 percent of poll participants said they were agnostic and 5.2 percent selected the ‘other’ category, which means they do not identify as any of the other nine choices.
“I think this shows the majority of our local population finds value in religious beliefs and activities,” Dr. Crawford said. “There may have been more people going to church 50 years ago, but there are a lot of things competing with church time that didn’t exist when I was a kid. A lot of people are still making prayer and church attendance a major part of their lives.”
According to a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 65 percent of Americans describe themselves as Christians — 10 percent fewer than in the Temple area. The national number reflects a 12 percent drop from a similar Pew survey conducted a decade earlier.
Nationwide, the ‘religiously unaffiliated’ share of the population — primarily atheists and agnostics — now stands at 26 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s about 16 percent more than the 10.2 percent in the Temple area who identify as being either atheist or agnostic.
While faith remains strong overall in the Temple area, not everyone is a believer. More than a quarter of those polled never attend worship or other religious services, 8.9 percent don’t believe in God and 7.3 percent say they never pray.
When churches and just about everything else shut down in March 2020, streaming, televised and online services became the norm. Now that churches are again open, the number of those attending online — as expected — has dropped. But, so have the numbers of those attending in person.
“We offered recorded services online and via the Zoom platform during the pandemic,” said Mike Snell, senior minister at First Christian Church in Temple. “Now that the situation has improved, we are back to live services. But, we are not near our normal pre-COVID worship attendance. We have, however, seen attendance spikes as of late.”
Austin Fischer, lead pastor at Vista Community Church, said the effects of COVID have been tremendous.
“COVID appears to me to have caused a reshuffling of membership at churches,” he said. “Many people left a church during COVID because they were unhappy with the way the pandemic was being handled.”
“Seeing as how opinions about COVID mainly broke along ideological lines, this meant COVID pushed many to leave their church and go to a church that fit better with their ideological preferences,” Fischer said. “It’s a complicated situation, but I tend to grieve at anything that increases ideological sameness, especially in the church.”
According to Fischer, Vista continues to stream worship services so people can watch them online.
“We think there are some good reasons for streaming services, but we are careful to make it clear that while there can be a place for digital worship, there is, strictly speaking, no such thing as online church,” he said.
Local religious leaders and experts say the pandemic has strengthened America spiritually.
“It’s easy to get complacent when things are going well,” Dr. Crawford said. “The pandemic has people looking for spiritual answers. They don’t ask spiritual questions unless they have a need.”
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