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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, January 12, 2002

Churches make use of census data

By Rachel Zoll
Associated Press

The Rev. Richard Magnus, head of the outreach office of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is one of many religious leaders using census data to expand membership.

Associated Press

The Rev. Richard Magnus looks at the mountain of data gleaned by the Census Bureau and thinks about churches — where to build them, whether they need bilingual pastors, if they should offer daycare.

Magnus runs the national outreach office for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and is among many religious leaders who are using the 2000 Census to expand their denominations.

The bureau collects no information about religion. But the statistics the agency compiles on immigration, population shifts, income, and the age and ethnic makeup of states are critical to spreading the faith.

"It tells us where we ought to do some shifts in ministries," said Magnus, who works from the Lutheran headquarters in Chicago. "It tells us if this is a good place to do a congregational start."

Mainline Protestant churches that have been losing membership for years are hoping to reverse the trend, while majority white denominations are struggling to diversify. All see the census as helping them fulfill a mandate to identify spiritual needs and meet them.

Some denominations, such as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), have their own demographers who break down census data for individual churches.

Many more also have contracts with companies that use the census to create neighborhood profiles, with information ranging from residents' buying patterns to reading habits to income in areas surrounding a church.

"It's the same type of approach as any business — understanding who your customer is, what it is we can do to enhance our membership," said Diana Dean-Nau, a sales executive with Claritas Inc., a San Diego-based marketing company that serves churches along with corporations like the Lowe's home improvement chain.

Using demographics to market faith makes some religious leaders uncomfortable, but most feel a sophisticated approach is necessary to draw nonbelievers and dropouts to church.

"We've got a deep commitment to doing this outreach," Magnus said.

The nation's population increases in the West and South pose a particular challenge, since many denominations have their roots in the Northeast.

For example, Pennsylvania has historically been a stronghold for Lutherans. But the state's sluggish growth rate means Evangelical Lutherans have to establish a strong presence elsewhere, leaders say. At the same time, the census found the Hispanic population in Pennsylvania has increased by 70 percent in a decade, creating a need for Spanish-language worship and other ministries.

The Roman Catholic Church faces similar pressure. Mary Gautier, a senior researcher with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, said the census confirmed that the church needs to put more resources in the South and West, where Catholics historically have not had a large presence.

"The places where the Catholic institutions are is not where the Catholic population is," Gautier said.

Sam Vinall, a demographer for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, uses special software to develop the same kind of neighborhood reports that Claritas offers — but with all his efforts aimed at helping his state's 1,700 Southern Baptist churches.

In one study, he analyzed the lifestyles of the young families who were members of an Oklahoma City church, then identified other areas of the city where residents fit that same profile.

"The church used that as a basis for having block parties, home Bible studies and to start a satellite location," Vinall said.

Claritas even identifies how many churches are in a given area, to determine the level of competition among houses of worship. And some churches use census data in their hiring process, to match a pastor's skills to a community's needs.

"I feel that God gives us these tools to use and he allowed these tools to be developed and not just for business use but for reaching people for him also," Vinall said.