Religious fervor waning

ALBANY — As stunned Americans watched in disbelief replay after replay of terrorist-hijacked airplanes crashing into the Twin Towers in New York City, viewed images of the damaged Pentagon in Washington and listened in awe to recountings of the heroic acts of the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 over rural Pennsylvania, most felt a desperate need for comfort.

In numbers too great to recount, droves of them sought that comfort in a house of worship.

Churches across the nation were filled to capacity in the days and weeks directly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, as hurt, confused and angry Americans turned to God in their search for answers.

“It’s not surprising that people would look to God in their time of need,” Leesburg United Methodist Church pastor Mike Lyons said. “If you look at the grieving process, that’s part of what most people do.”

As America prepares to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, statistics show that the religious fervor that gripped the nation in the immediate aftermath of the attacks has waned in the decade since. Some of the figures are startling in their contrast.

For instance, a report issued recently by the Pew Research Center shows that the number of people who said the influence of religion in America was on the increase rose to 78 percent in the month after the attacks. That number in 2011 has fallen by more than half, to 37 percent, a level about the same as pre-9-11 numbers.

A study by The Barna Group, a Christian research firm, shows that the number of unchurched in America — that is people who attend church only for special services like weddings or funerals — has actually increased from 24 percent in 1991 to 37 percent in 2011. That despite 95 percent of the population saying it believed in God or a higher power.

Oddly enough, research further shows the number of people attending church in the New York area has actually increased from 31 percent in 2000 to 46 percent in 2010.

“Our church was packed on 9/11 and the two or three weeks to a month after,” the Rev. Biff Coker, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Albany, said. “But after that, attendance pretty much returned to normal.

“I think that’s understandable because there was a lot of anxiety throughout America when this first happened. People’s initial response to the attacks was based on fear and anxiety, and when the fear subsided their lives returned to their normal pattern.”

Attendance also picked up dramatically at River Road Church of Christ in Albany in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, but the numbers gradually returned to their normal levels, according to the church’s pastor, the Rev. Robert L. Clemons.

“What we saw was that there were more ‘outside people’ — people who were not members of our church — in attendance,” Clemons said. “Most of those people soon returned to their normal routine, and our members continued their normal attendance.

“I think what you saw all over America was like what we saw here in Albany after the Flood of ‘94. Everyone pulled together for a while to help each other out, but once everyone was back on their feet it was business as usual. That’s a common human phenomenon: Our heart suffers until it is able to make adjustments. That’s nothing new; the hearts of men haven’t changed very much since Biblical times.”

There’s also the reality that, when it comes to people’s reaction to a tragedy — even one of such monumental proportions — their memory tends to decrease with each passing year.

“There was a great deal of concern here, just like there was all over America, when we first heard about the attacks,” the Rev. Bobby Harrell, senior pastor of First Baptist Church Leesburg, said. “But over the 10 years since the attacks, people have all but forgotten about the way they felt when they first heard the news.

“I think that’s reflected in the attendance at churches all over the nation.”

Lyons, who was pastor of another church during 9-11, said he saw an amazing outpouring of spiritualism and a compelling need for comfort from God in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks.

“I was serving a congregation at a church near Interstate 75 on 9/11, and we opened our church from dawn to dusk for a week or so,” Lyons said. “What was amazing to me was the number of people who were driving up I-75 who stopped in to pray. These people were just anxious to find a sacred spot where they could feel a closeness to God.

“That was a very meaningful memory I have from that time. And while the hand-wringing and spirituality waned within a month or so of the attacks, I think that’s a typical reaction to a traumatic event. People have a tendency to be hot for the moment, a desire to be close to God, but when that immediate need lessens they lose that urgency.”

First Baptist Leesburg and Covenant Presbyterian are among a number of area churches planning special services today to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the attacks. Coker said the day would also mark the beginning of contemporary services at Covenant, designed to attract younger worshippers.

“Some research shows that while more people are moving away from the church, people are not less religious,” he said. “The church is not seen as being as relevant as it was in the past. That doesn’t mean they won’t come back if we find new ways to get their attention.

“Change is inevitable; it’s part of life. There are those who don’t like change, but we can’t remain stagnant and remain relevant to younger generations.”