Religion remains important part of region

Though, younger NWI faithful may be praying in different church than their elders
2008-02-23T00:00:00Z Religion remains important part of regionMOLLY WOULFE
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February 23, 2008 12:00 am  • 

About one in four Americans attends church regularly, two sociologists reported last year in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

But regionites are more likely to bow their heads in prayer.

In Lake County, 44.8 percent of the population attend weekly services, the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies reports.

In LaPorte County, 44.9 percent of residents attend services regularly, up from 44.1 percent in 1990. In fast-growing Porter County, 41.8 percent go to church, up from 37.4 percent in 1990. The same three flocks dominate: Catholics; Evangelical Protestants, such as many Baptist congregations; and mainline Protestants, including Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Methodists.

The data was collected in 2000 and is the most in-depth information available.

Pews are probably even fuller in the 100-some local churches, said Mark Chaves, co-author of the 2007 study. The county-by-county stats -- available at the Association of Religious Data Archives at www.thearda.com -- exclude traditionally black churches plus some Jewish synagogues, mosques and independent denominations.

So the rates "are most certainly understated," said Chaves, a professor of sociology, religion and divinity at Duke University.

Curiously attendance has dropped dramatically in Lake County. A whopping 72.8 percent attended services in 1990. The cause might be part of a nationwide demographic trend, said Marie Eisenstein, of Indiana University Northwest.

The population overall is aging, and "northern Lake Country is the oldest established part of Lake County," said the assistant professor of political study, author of the just-published book "Religion and the Politics of Tolerance: How Christianity Builds Democracy."

While some grandparents and parents remain faithful to their longtime churches, the third generation is moving on, said Eisenstein, who has studied Lake County churches. "The parents haven't been able to attract their children to their institution."

Geography is one factor driving the above-average attendance stastistics. The ranks of the churched in the Midwest are historically higher than they are on the East and West coasts, "more transient societies," Eisenstein said.

New housing is another. More than 100 subdivisions are under construction in Lake and Porter counties, a magnet for families that represent an expanding diversity of creeds.

Many congregations with Eastern and Central European ties remain devoted to churches steeped in their cultures. The region is a melting pot of houses of worship founded by Serbians, Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Greeks and Macedonians.

Relative newcomers include Hindus, who have celebrated their faith and culture since 2002 at the Indian-American Cultural Center in Merrillville. The Sikh community dedicated a $1.3 million gurudwara (temple) in Merrillville in 2005.

The fast-growing Muslim population had led to the proliferation of community and prayer sites like the Northwest Indiana Islamic Center in Crown Point, the Gary Muslim Center and the Islamic Center of Michigan City. The latter bills itself as the first incorporated mosque in the United States.

As The Times reported in 2006, churches themselves are in flux. Small ethnic ones beset by dwindling attendance are consolidating. Others have been absorbed into nondenominational "megachurches" that woo attendees with practical, secular programs like parenting workshops.

The trend is "intriguing," Eisenstein said. Despite their conservative reputation, megachurch attendees "are like the rest of America," she said.

"Half the people have been divorced. Thirty percent are single moms who bring their kids to church. ... They (ministers) work very hard at not being dry, not boring, if you will. They use all the technology available, whether it's upbeat music or technology."

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