Each Sunday, Hannah Lodwick goes to church. This is not necessarily newsworthy. What is interesting is that she would not be a typical church-goer in much of the United States. She is young, in her 20s, she attends a non-denominational church, and she was raised in a different faith.

But in this neighborhood, she’s a lot like everybody else. Says Hannah, who grew up in Oregon as a Baptist: “In Oregon, people don’t go to church because it’s cool, or because that’s what their parents do, or it’s fun. In Dallas, it’s a little bit of an institution. You do it just because you do. You don’t think about it. It’s not such a big part of the culture in Oregon.”

Her observation speaks volumes about what’s going on in Dallas and our neighborhood. Religious life here is different – not just from the rest of the country, but even from other parts of the Bible Belt. Our religious institutions are thriving, both traditional and non-denominational, Christian and Jewish. We have more churches, more people who attend church (more of whom are younger), more big churches, more church-related institutions like seminaries, consultancies, and foundations, and more churches that play key roles, both locally and nationally.

Says Cynthia Woolever of the Hartford Institute of Religious Research in Hartford Conn., who specializes in the sociology of religion: “Dallas is one of those cities that stands out for its religious vitality.”

So why is it different here? Are we just more religious? Does our faith mean more to us? Are our churches just better or more interesting? Or are there other, more subtle reasons? Do our churches fill some added need, aside from worship, that attracts congregants? Does our culture emphasize religion in a way that isn’t emphasized elsewhere, and for reasons that aren’t necessarily religious? And how does the Dallas mindset, with its emphasis on entrepreneurship, getting ahead, even our penchant for shopping, play into this?

The answer, say clergy, laypeople, and experts, is a little of each.

“It’s just part of the ethos here,” says John Holbert, a Methodist minister who teaches at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology. “There’s a need to go, and a long and hallowed tradition of church attendance.

“But it’s important to note there are all sorts of reasons. The church thing has changed elsewhere, but not here. Look at the obituaries in the newspaper, and see how many mention church membership. Then look at the New York Times, and it’s not like that all.”

BY THE NUMBERS

Measuring religion is not easy. Trying to track down something as simple as churches per capita is a nearly impossible task, not unlike trying to find the source of an urban myth.

There are no official, this-many-people-go-to-church-here or belong-to-this-religion statistics. The U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t track religious affiliation, and most of the major faiths can do little more than estimate membership. And who counts the members of non-denominational Christian churches, which aren’t affiliated with any national organization and have grown rapidly over the past decade?

But the biggest problem, say people who study these things, is that there is no standard to count by. Is someone a Baptist if they go to church every week? Or is it enough if they only go every other week or once a month? Is someone a Catholic only if they go to confession? Is it enough to attend church at just Christmas and Easter? Says Woolever: “We just don’t have any way to define faith.”

The best measure of religious participation, say the experts, is Religious Congregations and Membership in the United States, a survey taken every 10 years by Cincinnati’s Glenmary Research Center. Those results show Dallas to be one of the most religious cities in the United States.

The Glenmary survey measures numbers of congregations as well as levels of faith (from attendees to members to adherents), and Dallas County’s numbers rank with some of the highest in the country.

But the survey’s most telling statistic is the “unclaimed percentage,” which it defines as anyone who doesn’t have a religious interest, be they atheists, agnostics, lapsed adherents, or people who just don’t go to church or synagogue. Dallas County’s unclaimed number in its most recent study, done in 2000, is an extraordinary low 45 percent. By comparison, the unclaimed number for Houston and Harris County is 49.6 percent; 60.3 percent for Phoenix and Maricopa County; and 55.5 percent for the Atlanta metropolitan area. The only places of comparable size with similar or lower numbers, like Chicago at 42.4 percent and Minneapolis-St. Paul at 43.5 percent, tend to be more ethnic or identified with one religion.

“Dallas is just an unusual city, especially for its size, in this regard,” Holbert says. “Look at how so many churches are so close together. Look at how deeply churchgoing the city is. The numbers are extraordinarily high.”

FINDING FAITH

The unclaimed number helps to put the anecdotal evidence – of which there are ample examples – into perspective:

• Big, bigger and biggest. Every part of the country has large houses of worship, but we have lots of them. Park Cities Baptist, Preston Hollow Presbyterian, Lovers Lane United Methodist, Temple Emanu-El and St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal are among the largest in their denominations. And that doesn’t even include the city and suburban magechurches, like the 20,000-member Prestonwood Baptist; First Baptist downtown, credited as the country’s first megachurch; and the Potter’s House in southern Dallas County, with more than 20,000 worshippers every Sunday.
• Something for everyone. Dallas – and especially our neighborhoods – not only has houses of worship that attract African-Americans, Asians, and Hispanics, but gay residents (who make up most of the members in several churches as well as a synagogue). In addition, the area is well known for its assortment of small, unaffiliated churches – one reason, say many neighborhood clergy, why there seems to be a church on every corner.
• National standing. A variety of neighborhood pastors, ministers, priests and rabbis play key roles in their denominations, helping to decide policy on the regional and national level. Local churches have also been heavily involved in the doctrinal disputes facing many mainline faiths, including Presbyterians, Southern Baptists and Episcopals.

Says Edward Gilbreath, who works for Billy Graham’s Christianity Today media group and has written about Dallas and its role in modern evangelicalism: “As I was going into it, I was fascinated by the whole thing. It was so big, so widespread, so everywhere. What was going on? It looked like it was a planned and calculated thing, but the more I looked into it, it just seemed like the natural development of Texas culture.”

Or, in this case, Dallas culture.

“The fact that this is the buckle of the Bible Belt does play into it, but I think it’s more than that,” says Blair Monie, senior pastor at the 2,600-member Preston Hollow Presbyterian. “The culture is just different here than in the northeast or the northwest. Here, faith is an important part of people’s lives, part of the general culture.”

UNDERSTANDING THE CAUSES

Almost everyone agrees that religious belief is the underpinning of the Dallas experience. We genuinely see religion as an important part of our lives.

Says neighborhood resident Craig Williams, 28: “It’s a comfortable environment to learn. It is more inclusive and educational than evangelical. I’ve lived in a number of different cities – San Francisco, Chicago, and Albuquerque – and I can say the church community is stronger here. It seems like there are more exposure and more opportunities to get involved in Dallas.”

But that is only the beginning of the explanation, which takes in Dallas history, the concept of the frontier, our sense of individualism and entrepreneurship, the area’s rapid growth over the past two decades, and the idea that so many of us want to accomplish something with our lives.

Boil it down, and it comes to this: Since so many of us are from so many different places, we’re united in Dallas by something other than a shared heritage. It’s a culture that includes many things, like the Cowboys and shopping malls. But there is also a shared sense of religious community.

“I’ve noticed that you find people here who have a lot, who have accomplished a lot in their lives, and it raises questions of meaning for them,” Monie says. “They’re asking, ‘What’s it all for?’ They’re looking for a place where they can find a community of people asking the same questions.”

One way that the neighborhood’s churches and synagogues – big and small – deal with that question is in the way they project a sense of family. Want a program for young children? Many have one. Want a program for teens? Many have that, too. The list goes on and on: schools, young singles groups, divorced parents, seniors, golf tournaments, Cowboys watching parties, even events where unmarried men and women can meet.

Says David Glickman, an assistant rabbi at the 1,400-family Shearith Israel: “You have to have this stuff for the kids, for multiple generations. It has to be available for all ages. We make an active push to have programs for these people. You want to be as family friendly as possible.”

This is especially true in the approach toward young people. Typically, high school and college students and young adults (especially single men) don’t go to church or synagogue, Woolever says. If they do, it’s after they marry and have kids. That’s not the case here, where half of the new members at Preston Hollow Presbyterian are in their 20s and 30s. Talk to clergy, especially those who’ve worked elsewhere, and they say they see more young faces in their Dallas audiences.

“There’s a momentum effect,” Woolever says. “Once you offer programming and worship services for young people, you’re going to attract other young people.”

NEW APPROACHES

That ties into an expanding area of religious studies, pioneered by Indiana University researcher Daniel Olson. His theory: There is a religious marketplace, just like there is for cars and shoes. Churches and faiths that don’t meet consumer demand are left behind, but those with an entrepreneurial spirit are best positioned to gain members.

This theory, say neighborhood clergy, strikes a special chord in Dallas, where shopping is more than a spectator sport and entrepreneurs are the stuff of legend. It helps explain why megachurches, with their untraditional approaches to worship, programming and recruiting, take root here with more vigor than elsewhere. It also helps to explain why there are so many non-denominational churches, large and small.

Congregants who don’t like it where they are can break away and start their own church, secure in their faith and unencumbered by any religious bureaucracy.

In short, Monie says, “There is a consumer mentality. They shop for a church that meets their needs. They want good programming for them, they want something for their kids. They want something that meets their needs, rather than feeling any brand loyalty. They shop for churches the same way they shop for schools, malls and neighborhoods.”

There is another side to this, clergy says. Glickman notes that despite Dallas’ burgeoning Jewish population, membership and participation rates remain too low. Monie asks: If a church spends so much time meeting its members’ secular needs, is there a chance it might lose sight of their spiritual needs?

“You have to move people beyond, ‘What is in it for me?’ he says. “You have to move them to, ‘How can I make a difference?’”

For the time being, though, the focus is one that sense of spiritual health. It’s something we have here that probably doesn’t exist anywhere else in the country. It doesn’t even matter what we necessarily believe, since most of us agree on a belief in God.

“There’s a great smorgasbord of possibilities,” Holbert says. “You can visit any church within any denomination, and you’ll find what you want, multiple ways of expressing what you believe.”


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