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What ever happened to . . .: Our religious fervor?

By SHARON TUBBS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 9, 2002


In the weeks after the terrorist attacks, Americans packed churches, synagogues and mosques. Some wanted to find answers for evil. Others sought solace among family and friends. But experts say attendance quickly dwindled; pews thinned within two months.

In the weeks after the terrorist attacks, Americans packed churches, synagogues and mosques. Some wanted to find answers for evil. Others sought solace among family and friends. But experts say attendance quickly dwindled; pews thinned within two months.

For the most part today, it's worship as usual.

The increase "did not hold true," said Robert Wuthnow, director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. "It lasted for a few weeks and that was it."

Church attendance increased by about 25 percent nationwide after the attacks, according to Barna Research Group, a California company that tracks social, religious and political trends.

But two months later, attendance was back to normal levels. About 48 percent of 1,010 adults interviewed in a random Barna sample last November said they had attended a church service in the past week. That was only 6 percent more than the results from a summer 2001 study that Barna had conducted.

At First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks in Largo, worshipers packed the sanctuary last September.

"Definitely for those first two to three weeks, maybe even a month, attendance was higher," said senior associate pastor David Joseph. About 200 more people came to weekend services. Many wanted to be comforted, Joseph said.

"Once they get past that despair, that first shock," he said, they stop coming with regularity. Weekend church attendance fell back to a total of 3,200.

The Rev. Ken Shick at Hyde Park Presbyterian Church in Tampa saw fresh faces, too, but only for a few weeks. Shick said the attacks affected those who were already church members, perhaps more so than the newcomers. Members who came to weekly Bible studies sporadically before the attacks now come consistently, he said.

"The tragedy underscored the value of faith and family and country," Shick said.

Scholars say the shift follows historical trends, which show church attendance increasing after war and other national tragedies.

George Barna, the research company's president, said in a November study that religious leaders missed an opportunity to reach unbelievers.

"After the attack, millions of nominally churched or generally irreligious Americans were desperately seeking something that would restore stability and a sense of meaning to life," he said. "Unfortunately, few of them experienced anything that was sufficiently life-changing to capture their attention and their allegiance."

Some local congregations say they are bucking the national trend.

The Rev. Joyce Stone said increased attendance at Christ the Cornerstone in St. Petersburg has held steady. Her small congregation has doubled to about 50 people, she said.

Mohammad Sultan, director of the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area, said about 1,000 Muslims came to the Tampa mosque for Friday worship before the attacks. Today, about 1,500 attend.

The attacks drew Muslims who wanted to renew their commitments to God, he said. Also, misunderstandings about the Islamic faith and hate crimes against Muslims might have had an impact on attendance, he said. "It could be people unhappy with the misrepresentations," Sultan said.

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