As attendance dwindles nationally, local churches change strategies

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The number of people who consider themselves to be unaffiliated with any religion  is growing, according to the Religious Landscape Study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2014.

In North Carolina, the unaffiliated, or "nones" as identified by the survey, made up 20 percent of the 1,022 people who took part in the study - considerably higher than the 12 percent who identified themselves as nones in 2007.

The Rev. Scott Oxford of St. James Episcopal Church in Black Mountain sees these statistics as a sign of a cultural shift. Decades ago, he noted, blue laws restricted Sunday activities and kept people in church.

But times have changed, and churches have more to compete with in terms of time and commitment. Nonetheless,  at St. James attendance is up 20-25 percent over last year, Oxford said. He attributes part of the growth to the church's being in Black Mountain, a popular destination for retirees, a group not often associated with "nones."

People who identify as nones are sometimes seekers, Oxford said, who are interested in exploring spirituality even if they don't associate with a specific religion. St. James hopes to serve this group by being a “safe haven for people who have experienced spiritual abuse or or spiritual trauma,” he said. He said that prayer services like the church's Service of Public Healing on Wednesday evenings are meant to “meet people where they are.”

Most people's first introduction to a church is not by going to a worship service but by visiting its website, Oxford said. Whether they are seekers or are coming from a specific religious tradition, they will visit based on their feelings about the website.

The next thing they want to know, Oxford said, is how well a church uses its space and resources. St. James commits to serving the community, he said, by opening up to outside groups such as a Boy Scout troop and a 12-step program. The church is also an education and distribution site for Bounty & Soul, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a health and wellness movement in underserved Buncombe County communities. The church also supports the ministries of the Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women. 

St. James, he said, is challenged to “let people know we are Christians by the way we love one another.” If people are drawn to that, he said, “thanks be to God.”

James Myers, pastor of the Swannanoa campus  of Biltmore Baptist Church, has also seen his congregation grow in spite of the rising number of "nones."

The Swannanoa campus, which meets at Asheville Christian Academy, serves about 700 people in the Swannanoa Valley. That number, he said, is based on "transferred growth" (people coming from other churches) and evangelistic growth (reaching out to people with no church affiliation).

One way the Swannanoa church reached out to nones recently was by partnering with Harley-Davidson of Asheville, a Swannanoa business, to host Hoopla, the church’s festival that serves as a Halloween alternative. The event attracted 1,200 people last year, he said, two thirds of whom indicated they had no church home. After the event, the church reached out to them, Myers said.

The Swannanoa campus of Biltmore Baptist Church has studied attendance numbers and knows they spike in August and January, Myers said. So in hopes of appealing to people not already attending services, the church begins new lecture series in those months, choosing topics it believes will “bridge culture and gospel,” Myers said.

It also reaches out to the community for Christmas Eve and Easter services, traditional holy days that might attract those who have been away from church. The church  hopes to deliver an “unchanging message to an ever-changing world,” he said.

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