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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, September 21, 2002

Survey shows partial picture

By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Religion & Ethics Writer

While many findings of a national survey on church membership hold true in Hawai'i, such as a rise in evangelical Protestantism and in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, George Tanabe knows that the Islands' faith landscape has never been well-mapped.

"We're very understudied," said Tanabe, a longtime University of Hawai'i religion professor and former department chairman.

The census by the Glenmary Research Center, a Roman Catholic research and social service organization in Nashville, Tenn., covered 149 faith organizations but has virtually no information about Buddhist churches, the second-largest faith group in Hawai'i.

Most major religion surveys in the United States don't include Hawai'i or Alaska. The 2000 State Data Book, meanwhile, estimates there are 100,000 Buddhists in Hawai'i.

Data show that the Roman Catholic Church remains the largest faith organization in the Islands, with an increase of 3.5 percent in parishioners, though the number of churches fell by seven.

The Catholic Church had 240,813 adherents in Hawai'i in 2000, the survey said.

Churchgoing here is on the rise, according to the survey. While population, according to the U.S. Census, rose 9.3 percent in the past decade, the survey found that total church membership is up 13.5 percent, twice the Mainland increase.

"My guess is, the Asian-Pacific Islander outlook is more inclined to a spiritual viewpoint than would be the case for Mainland communities," Tanabe said. "Hawai'i is more attuned to nature, and that translates easily into religious affiliation."

As for overall trends, "We already were aware of the decline in mainline Protestant churches," said Tanabe. "What's surprising is that the drops here are not always that big."

The United Church of Christ is holding steady in Hawai'i, though nationally posting a 14.8 percent decline in membership. Locally, it could have something to do with the steady congregations that go back to the days of the early Hawaiian missionaries, Tanabe speculated.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints posted a 19.3 growth rate nationally and 11.6 percent in Hawai'i.

"We're pretty satisfied with the 11 percent growth rate," said Jack Hoag, director of public affairs for LDS. "We might be slightly behind the national average because we have such a high influx of immigrants here and transitory population."

Glenmary coordinates the study with analysts from several faiths and calculated its census based on data submitted by faith organizations.

Different studies and denominations use varying methodology. For example, in 2001 the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches survey stated that the LDS church had 5.2 million members; a year earlier the Glenmary survey said the LDS church had 4.2 million adherents.

Tanabe said immigration may be a factor in the showing of gains made by small conservative, evangelical churches.

"Is it because we're still a state in which there are a lot of immigrants coming in, therefore we don't have a population already settled into established religious groups?" Tanabe asked. "We may have a larger proportion of people willing to establish new affiliations. But that's just a wild, wild guess."

Dramatic increases were seen in the Evangelical Free Church of America denomination here. It reported growing from 40 members in 1990 to 1,649 in 2000 — a 4,022 percent increase — though nationally it saw only a 57 percent increase.

Another evangelical Protestant group, the International Foursquare Denomination, showed a 219 percent increase in Hawai'i, though nationally the growth was 36 percent.

What this shows is that "for some of these groups, Hawai'i is fertile ground," Tanabe said.

But the overall picture, he said, remains hazy.

"The message is, we need to do our own survey," Tanabe said. "We know our community best. We just haven't done it. We have to go out and do our own research to get a more accurate view of religion in our own back yard. ... What this shows us is the religious landscape across the nation as well as across the state has become dramatically more diverse."

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