Faith in Iowa: How Churches Are Hoping to Put People Back in the Pews

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DES MOINES, Iowa -- It's a trend unsettling for the churchgoer.

Fewer Americans identify as Christian, according to the Pew Research Center's 2014 Religious Landscape Study. The study, identical to the first done by the research organization in 2007, found that the number of Christians in America are declining, both as a share of the population and in total number. In 2007, nearly 78.4 percent of Americans identified as Christian; in 2014, it's fallen to 70.6 percent. For Catholics and Mainline Protestants, the loss is largest, with a 3.1 and 3.4 percent drop, respectively.

"I'm not surprised," said Timothy Knepper, a professor in philosophy and religious studies at Drake University. "We have more and more of a market economy, so to speak, in regards to religion, where not only do people have a choice, but there are lots of choices out there. And there is also the choice not to be religious, which wasn't such a choice before say, World War II, or until quite recently."

That choice is being felt by the Catholic Diocese of Sioux City.

"We have too many churches, too few people attending Mass every Sunday, and we've got to do something," said Bishop R. Walker Nickless with the diocese.

The diocese recently announced plans to consolidate the number of parishes it oversees from 108 to 67 by summer 2017. Bishop Nickless hopes it can bring some energy back to the church.

"We want to make vibrant parishes where we bring people together, and when a millennial walks in - because, yes, they're drifting from their faith, but when they walk in, they find a vital, vibrant, alive, welcoming parish," he said.

It's a 'welcome' Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines rolled out years ago.

"We don't try to think about, 'What do people inside the church want?' But we think about, 'Who are the people that aren't coming to church?' And what are the things, what are the different activities that would resonate with them," said Pastor Jeremy Johnson with the church.

Lutheran Church of Hope says it isn't feeling a need to scale back - in fact, it can't seem to stop expanding. In the Metro, the church has five branches - the newest, in Waukee, just opening recently. Johnson says a downtown location makes it easy for the church to market to Millennials; posters promoting a parking lot party during the Des Moines Arts Festival provide just one example of how Hope is thinking outside the box to bring young people through its doors.

"We try to do everything we can to allow the Gospel of Jesus Christ to get into people's hands," he said. "So, whether it be an art festival, or whether it be a young adult worship service that's catered to the 20s and 30s."

For Catholics, efforts to bring those who may have drifted away from the church are underway. An advertising effort by Catholics Come Home hopes to catch some of these drifters through billboards and television commercials; at college campuses across the country, The Fellowship of Christian University Students - or, FOCUS - sends student missionaries to work on bringing Christ back into college culture.

"It takes a lot to break through, but I would say, once students realize that putting off a relationship with God isn't in their best interest, I think they really are receptive," said Brandon Miranda, a FOCUS missionary at Drake University.

Miranda says at first, his work seemed daunting; but at the end of the spring semester, he's reflecting on the growth he's seen in his efforts.

"At first it was kind of rough going on, you know, being my typical Millennial self, I like to focus on figures and numbers," he said. "And looking at the numbers, I was like, 'I'm a failure of a missionary!' But this year, actually, there's been a lot of growth."

For others, like Jason Benell, college was where faith began to fade.

"I was religious when I was younger. When I was in the military, religion was a pretty big part of it," he said. "And, honestly, as soon as I went to school here in Central Iowa - I went to DMACC and took a few classes...I kind of figured it out for myself, and realized not only was it not for me, a lot of the things in religion were simply untrue."

Benell is a member of the Iowa Atheists and Free Thinkers. He says the figures in Pew's study could possibly be a low estimate, considering the stigma there is with admitting publicly you don't believe in anything at all.

"It can hurt you socially if you were to come out as an Atheist, so a lot of people don't do that," he said. "But also, economically, if you're in a type of profession where you need those types of relationships to grow your business, or to have that type of clientele, coming out as non-religious could cut you out of that social group and you will no longer have a business - especially in small-town Iowa."

According to Bishop Richard Pates of the Des Moines Catholic Diocese, the church is experiencing growth, rather than the decline its Sioux City counterpart is seeing.

"A few years ago, we were listed at 97,000 Catholics," he said. "Today, because of the growth in the area, that we've grown about 10 to 15 percent, and so we're up to about 107,000 to 109,000 Catholics in the diocese today."

For Bishop Nickless, growth can only happen by downsizing, first. He says the future of the Catholic church may be a smaller one, but hopefully, with more quality.

"We can do something, and I think we just got to keep more focused on what we believe, trust in the Lord, know that we've got a future," he said. "The church is always going to be here, but it might be smaller - but it'll be, hopefully, better."