- Associated Press - Saturday, August 16, 2014

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - A new spire reaches toward the heavens in Auke Bay - Juneau’s newest church held its first services this month.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has added a second building to serve its burgeoning membership, but it’s the exception to a region-wide and nation-wide trend. Most churches in Juneau and across the nation are losing members - or are, at best, stagnant.

The newest church, in contrast, meets the needs of a population that grew by about 68 percent over the last decade. According to the Association of Religion Data Archives, the number of LDS worshippers swelled from just over a thousand in 2000 to more than 1,700 in 2010.

“It became apparent that our current meeting house, located at 5100 Glacier Highway, would no longer meet the capacity needs of our growing congregation here in Juneau. We will now have two functioning facilities to better serve our members,” said Keith Criddle, a congregant who handles public relations for the LDS church in Juneau. In his day job, he’s the director of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Fisheries Management program in Juneau.

The LDS church keeps its congregations between 300 and 600 people, Criddle said. Earlier this year, with the knowledge they would have access to a second facility, Juneau’s LDS worshippers divided into four units, mostly determined by geography.

Scheduling the four congregations in the original facility was a challenge, Criddle said. The chapel service is 70 minutes long and each has two 50-minute blocks for education and meetings of the church’s organizations. Now there are two congregations per building, though they may all find themselves crammed in together again when necessary renovations take place on the older building.

The new church sits on 3.62 acres of land purchased several years ago when they realized a need for more space, Criddle said, and the recently completed building is shiny and new - minus some crayon marks on classroom chairs from the first day of services.

Unlike many churches, which have professional clergy keeping the church open throughout the day, the LDS church is served by lay-clergy and the building is closed and empty when not in use. It can be used for non-church functions, though the standards are strict and there must be a “responsible member” present at all times. While the new church may seem empty in the middle of the day, it will be packed on Sundays and in use on many other days.

How and why has the LDS church seen such remarkable growth over the last decade, especially while many churches see a decline in numbers?

“In the world as a whole, membership growth is being driven by convert baptisms, especially in central and South America, Africa and Asia. In North America, births account for a larger portion of our membership growth,” Criddle said. “In Southeast Alaska, membership growth is driven by employment-related in-migration, births and convert baptisms but largely mirrors trends in the region’s population.”

Births can be a significant contributor since, Criddle explained, “we tend to marry earlier and to have larger families.”

This and other values and beliefs, he said, many people find appealing.

“We like talking about our families and beliefs, and such conversations spark interest in our neighbors, co-workers and acquaintances.”

When asked why the LDS church saw growth while many other denominations saw decline, Criddle responded speculatively and not as a representative of the LDS church.

He noted that other denominations have seen convert-driven membership growth in many of the same regions as the LDS church. It is in Europe and North America that many denominations have seen a decrease in affiliation and participation.

“One of our latter-day prophets, Joseph Smith Jr., taught ‘that a religion that does not require sacrifice of all earthly things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.’ I think that this is one reason why active membership continues to grow in the LDS church - we require much of our members and they, through obedience to God’s commandments and through serving one another, enjoy a growth of faith,” Criddle said.

The LDS church is not in competition with other denominations, he said, and “as a church, we honor those of all denominations who live their faith.”

According to the Association of Religion Data Archives, Catholicism saw a loss of 13.6 percent over that decade, though it is still Juneau’s most populous faith. The category for Southern Baptist Convention, which includes four congregations, remained steady, but with only 771 adherents, compared to Catholicism’s 1,900 or the LDS church’s 1,711. The category for non-denominational Protestant churches, which includes several congregations, offered no data on growth or decline. It stood at 675 adherents in 2010. Grouping together the different Lutheran denominations, there were 644 adherents in 2010, down 252 from 2000, according to the data.

Northern Light United Church Pastor Phil Campbell said many analysts now suggest that “participation is a better barometer than membership.”

Campbell noted a trend of participants who are not “joiners,” he said.

“Northern Light has grown in the four years I have been here. It has not been a dramatic increase, but not insignificant. Our average worship attendance has increased by around 20 a Sunday. This said, the official membership is smaller rather than larger,” Campbell said. “We have examined the membership roll and have contacted long-inactive members who have requested removal. We also had some long-departed members for whom we have no contact information and thus we have dropped from the roll.”

He said a growing segment of participants show up and are involved with the life of the congregation, but don’t show up on the membership rolls.

“Even among ‘non-joiners’ I think there is an appreciation of the value of vital congregations and the positive role they can play in the community,” he said.

The downward trend in church adherents also doesn’t necessarily mean hordes of people have given up on God, say some scholars.

“Americans have long been, and still remain, the most religious people among the peoples of the Western nations, both in faith and in practice, especially compared to Western nations that are predominantly Protestant, as the U.S. is,” said Professor Claude Fischer of the University of California Berkeley during an August 2013 event on religion trends in the U.S., organized by the PEW Research Center.

Church membership and religious activity has waxed and waned over the years, he explained, but there has been a net increase in both in the long run.

One reason for the decline may be that some Americans have been disappointed in their churches.

“When Americans are disappointed in their churches, they exit and usually look for another church. Recently, for many non-conservatives, it is organized religion as a whole that has disappointed them, and many of the disappointed now opt for labeling themselves as ‘spiritual, but not religious,’” Fischer said.

While separation of church and state might be part of our nation’s foundation, Fischer said “politics and religion have long mixed” and “typically, Americans’ religious identities drive their politics, but often it is the other way around.”

People who have become disillusioned with their church or its political stances might choose to no longer identify with that church, or religion in general, he said.

Data show the Catholic church’s number of adherents declining significantly over the last decade. Bishop Edward Burns, of Juneau’s Catholic Diocese, doesn’t think fewer people believe - he said in a phone interview that “people don’t participate as much as they used to.”

He’d like to get those people back into church.

“I think what we need to do is truly advance what we are looking at within the Church Universal as a new evangelization,” Burns said, explaining that starting with Pope John Paul II, there has been a goal to “really spark within the lives of people once again a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Can church leaders “reawaken (faith) in those who have become complacent … or drifted away,” as Burns puts it?

Only time will tell, and in that time, it may not come as a surprise if there’s another new LDS Church in town, though Criddle said that’s not expected in the near future.


Information from: Juneau (Alaska) Empire, https://www.juneauempire.com

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