Each Sunday, Kristin and Keith Shepelwich go to church. This is not necessarily newsworthy. What is interesting is that the Shepelwiches would not be typical churchgoers in much of the United States. They’re young, in their late 20s, they attend a non-denominational church, and they were raised in a different faith.

“But in this neighborhood, they’re a lot like everybody else. Says Kristin, who attends the 1,000-member Watermark Church, which fills the auditorium at Lake Highlands High School twice on Sundays: “The community at Watermark is really what made it such a good church. They are real big on relationships.”

Her observation speaks volumes about what’s going on in Dallas and in our neighborhood. Religious life here is different – not just from the rest of the country, but even from other parts of the Bible Belt. Our religious institutions are thriving, both traditional and non-denominational. We have more churches, more people who attend church (more of whom are younger), more big churches, more church-related institutions such as seminaries, consultancies and foundations, and more churches that play key roles, both locally and nationally.

Says Cynthia Woolever of the Hartford Institute of Religious Research in Hartford Conn., who specializes in the sociology of religion: “Dallas is one of those cities that stands out for its religious vitality.”

So why is it different here? Are we just more religious? Does our faith mean more to us? Are our churches just better or more interesting? Or are there other, more subtle reasons? Do our churches fill some added need, aside from worship, that attracts congregants? Does our culture emphasize religion in a way that isn’t emphasized elsewhere, and for reasons that aren’t necessarily religious? And how does the Dallas mindset, with its emphasis on entrepreneurship, getting ahead, even our penchant for shopping, play into this? The answer, according to clergy, laypeople, and experts, is a little of each.

“It’s just part of the ethos here,” says John Holbert, a Methodist minister who teaches at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology. “There’s a need to go, and a long and hallowed tradition of church attendance. But it’s important to note there are all sorts of reasons. The church thing has changed elsewhere, but not here. Look at the obituaries in the newspaper, and see how many mention church membership. Then look at the New York Times, and it’s not like that at all.”

BY THE NUMBERS

Measuring religion is not easy. Trying to track down something as simple as churches per capita is a nearly impossible task, not unlike trying to find the source of an urban myth. There are no official, this-many-people-go-to-church-here or belong-to-this-religion statistics. The U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t track religious affiliation, and most of the major faiths can do little more than estimate membership. And who counts the members of non-denominational Christian churches, which aren’t affiliated with any national organization and have grown rapidly over the past decade?

But the biggest problem, say people who study these things, is that there is no standard to count by. Is someone a Baptist if they go to church every week? Or is it enough if they only go every other week or once a month? Is someone a Catholic only if they go to confession? Do you qualify as a member if you only attend church at just Christmas and Easter? Says Woolever: “We just don’t have any way to define faith.”

The best measure of religious participation, say the experts, is Religious Congregations and Membership in the United States, a survey taken every 10 years by Cincinnati’s Glenmary Research Center. Those results show Dallas to be one of the most religious cities in the United States.

The Glenmary survey measures numbers of congregations as well as levels of faith (from attendees to members to adherents), and Dallas County’s numbers rank with some of the highest in the country. But the survey’s most telling statistic is the “unclaimed percentage,” which it defines as anyone who doesn’t have a religious interest, be they atheists, agnostics, lapsed adherents, or people who just don’t go to church or synagogue. Dallas County’s unclaimed number in its most recent study, done in 2000, is an extraordinary low 45 percent. By comparison, the unclaimed number for Houston and Harris County is 49.6 percent; 60.3 percent for Phoenix and Maricopa County; and 55.5 percent for the Atlanta metropolitan area. The only places of comparable size with similar or lower numbers, such as Chicago at 42.4 percent and Minneapolis-St. Paul at 43.5 percent, tend to be more ethnic or identified with one religion.

“Dallas is just an unusual city, especially for its size, in this regard,” Holbert says. “Look at how so many churches are so close together. Look at how deeply churchgoing the city is. The numbers are extraordinarily high.”

FINDING FAITH

The unclaimed number helps to put the anecdotal evidence – of which there are ample examples – into perspective:

  • Big, bigger and biggest. Every part of the country has large houses of worship, but we have lots of them. Park Cities Baptist, Preston Hollow Presbyterian, Lovers Lane United Methodist, Temple Emanu-El and St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal are among the largest in their denominations. And that doesn’t even include the city and suburban megachurches, such as the 20,000-member Prestonwood Baptist; First Baptist downtown, credited as the country’s first megachurch; and the Potter’s House in southern Dallas County, with more than 20,000 worshippers every Sunday.
  • Something for everyone. Dallas – and especially our neighborhoods – not only has houses of worship that attract African-Americans, Asians, and Hispanics, but gay residents (who make up most of the members in several churches as well as a synagogue). In addition, the area is known for its assortment of small, unaffiliated churches – one reason, say many neighborhood clergy, why there seems to be a church on every corner.
  • National standing. A variety of neighborhood pastors, ministers, priests and rabbis play key roles in their denominations, helping to decide policy on the regional and national level. Local churches have also been heavily involved in the doctrinal disputes facing many mainline faiths, including Presbyterians, Southern Baptists and Episcopals.

Says Edward Gilbreath, who works for Billy Graham’s Christianity Today media group and has written about Dallas and its role in modern evangelicalism: “As I was going into it, I was fascinated by the whole thing. It was so big, so widespread, so everywhere. What was going on? It looked like it was a planned and calculated thing, but the more I looked into it, it just seemed like the natural development of Texas culture.”

Or, in this case, Dallas culture.

“Dallas is not in the Rust Belt, so it’s certainly growing, and that’s one reason,” says Rev. E. Clifton Gardner, rector of the 850-member St. James Episcopal Church, which is about four times as big as any Episcopal church elsewhere in the U.S. “But I also think there is more vision about growth and expansion more than a lot of other places.”

UNDERSTANDING THE FOUNDATION

Almost everyone agrees that religious belief in the underpinning of the Dallas experience. We genuinely see religion as an important part of our lives. Says neighborhood resident Craig Williams, 28: “It’s a comfortable environment to learn. It is more inclusive and educational than evangelical. I’ve lived in a number of different cities – San Francisco, Chicago and Albuquerque – and I can say the church community is stronger here. It seems like there are more exposure and more opportunities to get involved in Dallas.”

But that is only the beginning of the explanation, which takes in Dallas history, the concept of the frontier, our sense of individualism and entrepreneurship, the area’s rapid growth over the past two decades, and the idea that so many of us want to accomplish something with our lives.

Boil it down, and it comes to this: Since so many of us are from so many different places, we’re united in Dallas by something other than a shared heritage. It’s a culture that includes many things, such as the Cowboys and shopping malls. But there is also a shared sense of religious community.

“If you look at popular culture, it’s so polished, so programmed, so superficial, almost virtual reality so to speak,” says Matthew St. John, pastor of the 850-member non-denominational Scofield Bible Church. “I think people here are looking for something more genuine. Church gives them that, addresses their need for something real.”

The neighborhood’s churches – big and small – do that in the way they project a sense of family. Want a program for young children? Many churches have one. Want a program for teens? Many churches have that, too. The list goes on and on: schools, young singles, divorced parents, seniors, golf tournaments, Cowboys watching parties, even events where unmarried men and women can meet. Says St. John, whose church has two youth pastors and almost 10 full-time staffers: “We almost take for granted our size and the services we offer. Most churches don’t offer what we do in Dallas.”

This is especially true in the approach toward young people. Typically, high school and college students and young adults (especially single men) don’t go to church, Woolever says. If they do, it’s after they marry and have kids. That’s not the case here (though the evidence is more anecdotal than statistical). Talk to clergy, especially those who’ve worked elsewhere, and they say they see more young faces in their Dallas audiences.

“There’s a momentum effect,” says Woolever. “Once you offer programming and worship services for young people, you’re going to attract other young people.”

NEW APPROACHES

That ties in to an expanding area of religious studies, pioneered by Indiana University researcher Daniel Olson. His theory: There is a religious marketplace, just like there is for cars and shoes. Churches and faiths that don’t meet consumer demand are left behind, but those with an entrepreneurial spirit are best positioned to gain members. This theory, say neighborhood clergy, stikes a special chord in Dallas, where shopping is more than a spectator sport, and entrepreneurs are the stuff of legend. It helps explain why megachurches, with their untraditional approaches to worship, programming and recruiting, take root here with more vigor than elsewhere. It also helps to explain why there are so many non-denominational churches, large and small. Congregants who don’t like it where they are can break away and start their own church, secure in their faith and unencumbered by any religious bureaucracy.

In short, residents seem to shop for churches the same way they shop for schools and restaurants, often choosing a church for its programs instead of its particular faith.

The other side to this, Gardener says, is something that concerns many clergy. If a church spends so much time meeting its members’ secular needs, is there a chance it might lose sight of their spiritual needs?

“You can measure a lot of things by numbers, but you can’t measure spirituality,” he says. “But there is a reason the numbers are there. Somebody is finding something worthwhile, a sense of spiritual health.”

For the time being, though, the focus is on that sense of spiritual health. It’s something we have here that probably doesn’t exist anywhere else in the country. It doesn’t even matter what we necessarily believe, since most of us agree on a belief in God.

“There’s a great smorgasbord of possibilities,” Holbert says. “You can visit any church within any denomination, and you’ll find what you want, multiple ways of expressing what you believe.”