New faces may have crowded into neighborhood churches following the Sept. 11 attacks, but few have stuck around.
Gary Fenton, pastor at Dawson Memorial Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., told BCE that there was initially a general increase in attendance at all services and increased interest in spiritual issues in his church.
However, he said things have begun to dwindle slightly.
“On Sept. 11 we kept the church open for prayer all night,” Fenton said. “We have added a prayer time during every worship service to pray for our nation and for our world.”
Churches across the country reported surges in attendance immediately following the attacks, but the New York Times reported things are now back to “religion as usual.”
“Americans, who after the attacks turned to religion in an outpouring that some religious leaders hailed as a spiritual ‘great awakening,’ have now mostly returned to their former habits,” the Times reported.
Although some religious leaders predicted the short-lived surge in church attendance, others like Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson said the attacks would lead to a lasting revival, or turning to God.
Nov. 20, Robertson told CNN the attacks were “bringing about one of the greatest spiritual revivals in the history of America.”
But the numbers do not support Robertson’s claim.
“I just don’t see much indication that there has been a great awakening or a profound change in America’s religious practices,” Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll, told the Times. “It looks like people were treating this like a bereavement, a shorter-term funeral kind of thing, where they went to church or synagogue to grieve. But once past that their normal churchgoing behavior passed back to where it was.”
Gallup has reported church and synagogue attendance hovering somewhere between 39 and 43 percent for the last 30 years. Ten days after the terrorist attacks, the number rose to 47 percent. But by early November Gallup reported that the attendance had dropped back down to 42 percent.
Robert Wuthnow, director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, told the Times that the attacks did not upset America’s religious equilibrium: “one-quarter of the population devout, one-quarter secular and one-half mildly interested.”
What hasn’t changed for some congregations is the desire to get to know people of other faiths. Even as church attendance returns to normal, interfaith meetings remain steady.
David Wheeler, senior minister at First Baptist Church in Los Angeles, Calif., told BCE his church attendance jumped, but only briefly.
“What I have seen is more interfaith activities and more interest in other faith communities, particularly Islam,” said Wheeler, whose church is affiliated with American Baptist Churches, USA. “Here in Los Angeles, there have been a number of interfaith dialogues, teachings and worship events, including a series of Sunday afternoon events rotating from churches to temples to mosques.”
Jodi Mathews is BCE’s communications director.