The Ventnor Community Church seats about 250 people, but Board of Trustees treasurer Beverley Gill says only a fraction of the pews are needed to seat the approximately 25 people who attend weekly services.
“I’d say attendance is down about two-thirds,” Gill said. “One reason is obviously death. Two ... is some people leave if they don’t like a new minister. Three is that young families are hard to get a hold of. There are not too many young families coming to church.”
Many local churches, temples, mosques and synagogues are facing the same issue, as regular attendance at services tends to be less today than in the past, religious leaders said.
The reasons are many, especially in a region with as much seasonal fluctuation as South Jersey’s island towns, where year-round populations have decreased dramatically since 2000.
Congregations have aged and kids have grown up and moved away, or signed up for Sunday morning sports. But the houses of worship with the best chances of thriving are the ones actively trying to draw youths and families to their services.
The last major Pew poll showed New Jersey lagging nationally in terms of weekly attendance of religious services, with only 36 percent of state residents doing so, as opposed to 39 percent nationally.
In addition, the number of U.S. adults with no religious affiliation has grown “at a rapid pace,” according to the Pew Research Center, whose latest report, in October, showed that one-fifth of Americans and one-third of adults younger than 30 are religiously unaffiliated, “the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling,” the group states.
As difficult as those numbers may seem for local congregations, many say they’re finding a way to hold steady.
“I don’t think I’ve seen a drastic drop in attendance,” said Pastor David Fleming of the Margate Community Church, which held a pancake breakfast for police, fire and city workers Sunday before its 10 a.m. service. “My attendance seems to be pretty even year-round. It seems to have dropped off a little in the last year or so, but summer folks tend to take the place of families who take vacations.”
The attendance pattern, Fleming said, “is about two weeks on, two weeks off. It’s pretty consistent. There are other things that fill lives on weekends, and unfortunately sporting events are also played Sunday mornings. High school crew events are Sunday mornings. As kids grow older, there are more conflicts. And churches have to live with it.”
Gill said the Ventnor church has a consultant to help reverse declining attendance numbers.
“We want to come up with a strategic plan to increase membership and get more families into the church,” Gill said. “We want to try to be more proactive in the community.”
At Congregation Beth El in Margate, “I would say the general trend is to have attendance a little bit smaller,” Rabbi Aaron Krause said. “But this is true across the board. Locally, we’re holding our own. We try very hard to have everyone participate, to find out what people’s needs are and try to make services as relevant as possible.”
Rabbi Aaron Gaber of Congregation Beth Judah in Ventnor said he’s also seen a drop in regular Saturday morning attendance, “mainly because young people don’t attend regularly. And we’ve had deaths in members of the congregation who did come regularly. In the 12 years I’ve been here, these are the two pieces I see.”
The problem is one common to all congregations, Gaber said.
“Young people don’t have a culture of attending synagogue on a regular basis,” he said. “It’s not something they grow up with.”
Beth Judah is trying a variety of ideas, Gaber said, including services in a mainland town once a month and special programs. But the result of what would happen if the congregation doesn’t grow or get younger is a difficult one to conceive.
“I can’t begin to imagine what that would be like,” Gaber said. “We’re just working hard to let people learn the joy of coming to services. That’s my focus.”
For newer houses of worship, serving smaller but fast-growing demographics, attendance is mostly steady. At the Vaikunth Hindu Jain Temple of South Jersey in Galloway Township, built more than 10 years ago, attendance averages about 400 people, temple priest Renuji Veidya said.
In Vineland, Hardip Singh, director of the board of the South Jersey Sikh Society, said the congregation is growing along with the Sikh community.
“I moved here from New York back in 1994, and there were a couple of families in the area,” Singh said. “Now there’s been 45, 50, 60 families in Vineland. At Sunday and Friday (services), there’s 75 to 100 people on a regular basis, and any kind of special days, we probably get much more.”
Recently, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, people have turned to religion in a time of crisis, said Kaleem Shabazz, president of the Masjid Muhammad mosque in Atlantic City and a member of the interfaith group Bridge of Faith.
I have talked to (others) and, especially in light of the storm, most attendance has been up. The only glitch is that some congregations have to double up. We’re out of our building because our building has been completely devastated. We’ve had to move around, and our attendance has taken a dip.”
Since the storm, Shabazz said, “There’s been a slew of great, faith-based groups offering services, cleaning up people’s houses, taking out the drywalls for free, contributing food. ... I think as conditions get tighter, people find they need to reaffirm their faith and reconnect. That’s what I’ve found.”
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