Chattanooga has notched another loop in its reputation as the buckle of the Bible Belt: most churchgoing city in the U.S.
The latest study by the Barna Group, a California-based research group that focuses on faith issues, ranked Chattanooga as No. 1 on its list of Most Churched Cities.
The study, based on polling results, showed 59 percent of Chattanoogans reported attending church services at least once a week, compared to 38 percent nationwide.
Salt Lake City, Utah, came in second, also with 59 percent; Birmingham, Ala., was fifth, with 56 percent; and seven of the top 10 cities in the Barna survey are in the South.
Chattanooga's top spot shouldn't be a surprise, local faith leaders say. The city scored No. 1 in Barna's 2014 survey as "most Bible-minded city," up from No. 3 the prior year.
"One reason we're always at or near the top is the great heritage of evangelical Christian work in this city," said Dennis Culbreth, director of missions for the Hamilton County Baptist Association, ticking off a few examples: Tennessee Temple, which left Chattanooga in 2015 after 70 years in the city; ministries such as AMG International and Precept, and the half-dozen religiously affiliated colleges and universities in the region.
There are some "great Christian influencers" in the city's pulpits, Culbreth said. "They live a godly life, they're leaders of men and women and they they have influence."
Ronnie Phillips Jr., co-pastor of Abba's House in Hixson, cites Chattanooga's "pillar churches that have been here and have been able to stand the test of time," along with a strong cadre of senior pastors with deep biblical roots.
But the city isn't immune from a nationwide trend toward shrinking numbers in the pews. Barna figures show the number of "Bible-minded" Chattanoogans, those who read the Bible outside of church and consider its teachings accurate, shrank from 55 percent in 2011 to 50 percent this year.
POLL: Do you go to church on a regular basis?
The number who attended a church service other than an event such as a wedding or funeral dropped from 66 percent to 59 percent in that period, and the share of "practicing Christians," those who attended church at least once in the past month and say their faith is very important to them, fell 10 percentage points, from 66 percent to 56 percent.
These local leaders acknowledge the fall-off but see hope in a changing church and demographic destiny.
"When I grew up it was assumed you went to church, it was expected, to be a part of the community. It's not that way so much anymore; there's been an erosion," Culbreth said.
"We didn't see a drop in members or people leaving the church or being disillusioned, what we saw was a gradual busyness that keeps people away."
Church, once the center of the community, competes with work, travel, entertainment, children's after-school sports and a host of other daily activities for people's time.
"Church is no longer the best show in town," wrote David Murrow in his Six Seeds blog. "For centuries, Sunday morning was an entertainment desert. Shops were closed. Sports commenced at noon. There was no cable TV or video games. Church was literally the only thing happening on Sunday morning — so people went. Sunday now presents lots of attractive options and everyone — including Christians — is taking advantage."
There are generational differences, too. Today's young adults are far less likely than their elders to attend or join churches — and Phillips said that's sometimes the churches' fault.
"Many millennials have been hurt by the church, been pushed away, maybe because they had a different gift, a different talent," he said.
"Where the church has gone wrong in the past, they've given truth without love, truth without spirit," Phillips said. "You can hit somebody over the head with a Bible and tell them how bad they are or you can speak God's word with love" to bridge social and cultural divides.
Don Holwerda, administrator at First Presbyterian, Chattanooga's oldest church, said the church hasn't always done a good job responding to millennials' concerns for social justice, such as LGBT issues.
And Culbreth says a more secular society means millennials have "faced adversity and more open contempt for Christian faith."
But all three leaders said they see several reasons for hope. It's almost a rite of passage to drift away from church, or to church-hop, as young adults go through college and set out on careers. They believe that, given a church that fits their needs, millennials will come back as they begin raising raising their own families.
"When you're responsible for a child or a wife or a husband, you want moral values taught," Holwerda said.
The three agreed as well that such a church might not be a church the dedicated parishioners of today are accustomed to attend each week, sitting in pews and dressed in their Sunday best.
"I don't see the church moving away from scriptural denominational doctrine, but I do think they'll change their style of worship," Holwerda said.
Churches have to have a social media presence. They need to schedule services at times when and places where busy people can come, and use the technology, music and preaching style that attracts younger members. They are expected to embrace diversity. And they have to act, not just preach.
Holwerda said churches need to "step up to the front again" and take back missions they've ceded to the government.
Leaders must "get out of the church building and make it not just a head matter but a heart matter and a hand matter" if they want to attract millennials, he said.
Phillips added, "My generation doesn't care what the pastor looks like or what he's dressed like as long as he gives a word that's challenging and engaging."
Abba's House ministers to the homeless locally and to impoverished villagers in Central America, he said, and some of their problems are the same.
"You can preach to someone all day long, but if they don't have the nourishment they need to learn, you're not making a difference," Phillips said.
"My generation wants to know what you're doing to help others, what you're doing with the gospel, what you're doing with the money they're giving on Sunday."
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416.
The number of Chattanoogans who are “Bible-minded” — they read from the Bible outside of church within the past week and believe the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches — has shrunk since 2011. So has the number who attended a church service in the past week and those who attend church at least once a month and say their Christian faith is very important in their lives.
Year, Bible-minded, Attended church, Practicing Christian
2017, 50, 59, 56
2015, 50 63, 64
2013, 52, 64, 65
2011, 55, 66, 66
Source: Barna Group study
Top 10 most churched cities
The cities where largest share of the population attended a church service in the past seven days, not counting a special event such as a wedding or funeral.
1. Chattanooga: 59 percent
2. Salt Lake City: 59 percent
3. Augusta/Aiken, Ga.: 57 percent
4. Baton Rouge, La.: 57 percent
5. Birmingham/Anniston/Tuscaloosa: 56 percent
6. Jackson, Miss: 55 percent
7. Paducah, Ky.-Cape Girardeau, Mo.-Harrisburg-Mt. Vernon, Ill.: 54 percent
8. Montgomery-Selma, Ala.: 53 percent
9. Greenville-New Bern-Washington, N.C.: 52 percent
10: South Bend-Elkhart, Ind.: 52 percent
Source: Barna Group
About the study
The Barna Group said its study is based on telephone and online interviews with nationwide random samples of 76,505 adults conducted over a seven-year period ending in April 2016. The maximum margin of error is plus or minus 0.4 percent.