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Evangelicals Help Lead U.S. Growth In Church Attendance During 1990s

By David Cho
THE WASHINGTON POST -- Evangelical and charismatic churches drew larger numbers of believers in the United States during the 1990s, while mainline Protestant denominations struggled to stem an exodus from their pews, according to a new census compiled by a broad association of religious bodies.

The study, Religious Congregations & Membership: 2000, to be made public this week, also attempted -- for the first time in the 50 years that the census has been done -- to tally the number of Muslims in the United States. The figure it came up with -- 1.6 million -- is widely rejected by Islamic groups, which say the actual number is four times that.

Catholics, Mormons, the charismatic Assemblies of God and several small evangelical denominations were among the fastest growing nationwide, the study found, enjoying double-digit growth rates from 1990 to 2000. Scholars say the data also show the Pentecostal movement has established itself within mainstream Christianity, attracting middle-class churchgoers with so-called “manifestations of the Holy Spirit” such as speaking in tongues.

Meanwhile, the expansion of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, fell well below the pace of the nation’s population growth.

Major denominations such as the United Methodist Church, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Episcopal Church and Presbyterian Church (USA) declined across the country, the study showed. Researchers and church leaders note the average age of those congregations is rising, a sign that they are not attracting younger believers.

The study, which is conducted every 10 years, was compiled in 2000 by 149 denominations and research groups and is published by the Atlanta-based Glenmary Research Center. The information was provided by the denominations, and the figures were adjusted by statisticians to make them comparable. For example, some churches count everyone who is baptized, while others count only adults.

The survey is the only census to provide a county-by-county breakdown of religious participation (the U.S. Census does not ask questions about religion). However, several denominations, among them the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, declined to participate.

Several Islamic groups last week accused the researchers of trying to diminish their numbers and influence.

“They may claim whatever they want to claim, but we refuse to accept this report,” said Faiz Rehman, communications director for the American Muslim Council. The council says there are 7 million Muslims in the country, based on a study last year by a coalition of Islamic groups. “They are grossly wrong, and they are not serving the country well if they continue to marginalize Muslims,” Rehman said.