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In hard times, church attendance up
Local ministers agree with national poll
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A 2010 Gallup poll shows more Americans are filling church pews than did two or three years ago. Liberty County, with its myriad of churches, appears to be following this national trend even with the transient nature of its military population.
The poll concluded more Americans attended churches, synagogues, mosques and temples in 2010 than in the previous two years, according to www.gallup.com.
Gallup reported 43.1 percent of Americans attended worship services weekly or almost weekly in 2010, compared to 42.8 percent in 2009 and 42.1 percent in 2008. The poll also suggested the increase was due to a rise in Americans’ “economic confidence.” This, Gallup reported, was opposite the theory that church attendance improves when the economy is bad. 
The poll also correlated church attendance with worshippers’ political leanings, showing conservatives were more likely to attend church regularly than people with less conservative views.  In addition, Gallup reported African-Americans were more likely to attend religious services than other races; seniors were more likely to go to church than younger people; married couples were more likely to attend worship services than singles; and more women than men attend church. The Southeast also had the highest rate of church attendance compared with other regions in the U.S., Gallup reported.
“Our numbers are up,” said Dora Sprinkel, church secretary for the First Baptist Church in Hinesville. “I think it has something to do with our troops being back. We have a lot of soldiers who are attendees.”
Attendance at St. Stephen Catholic Church also seems to “ebb and flow” with the 3rd Infantry Division’s deployment cycle, said administrative secretary Judy McGonagle.
She said St. Stephen has about 513 families and estimated 25 percent of church members are longtime Liberty County residents.
“The rest of them come and go,” she said, explaining that some of St. Stephen’s military members who recently redeployed went home on block leave during the Christmas holiday. McGonagle added some Catholic soldiers and their families choose to attend mass on Fort Stewart rather than off post.
“We will have a better idea of church attendance in the next few months,” she said, referring to 3rd ID soldiers’ dwell time.
Area churches also seem to draw people of all ages, including married couples with children, singles and seniors.
“We always have a big group of young families,” Sprinkel said. “We have a lot of really good children’s programs. We have an awesome youth group, too, and offer a lot of music (with services).”
Sprinkel estimated First Baptist welcomes between 350-400 worshippers on average each week.
Hinesville First United Methodist Church also is experiencing an increase in church attendance, the Rev. Rich Wright said.
“In 2009, our membership roll was actually down. And that’s due to the transient nature of our community,” Wright said.
“However, our attendance is indeed up. We have two Sunday morning worship services and our attendance is up 3.6 percent from 2009. And then we implemented an evening service in 2010 and we’re averaging 25 people each Sunday night for that. That is a 100 percent increase since there was not an evening service in 2009.”
Twenty-five years ago, First Methodist had as many as 400 people attending church regularly each week, the reverend said.
“Then we had a drastic decline; we dropped to 170 (worshippers) on average in 2007,” he said. Membership remained stagnate in 2008, Wright added.
“I came in June of 2009 and we increased our average Sunday morning worship from 133 to 179 (attendees) in six months,” he said.
Sunday School numbers at First Methodist also fluctuated, from 85 participants in 2008, to 81 in 2009, and to 83 today, Wright said.
Like First Baptist and St. Stephen, First Methodist’s membership is varied, the reverend said.
 “We have young married couples in their 20s to seniors in their 80s and 90s,” he said. “For the most part, church membership is slanted toward women. But we’re starting to see generation Xs and Ys having families and they are starting to see how the church plays a role in married life and in helping with families as well.”

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