30 Years: Faith groups' numbers have dwindled but show more diversity

Part of the 30 Years, 30 Changes series on the Pittsburgh region

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Whether it's ashes worn in public, families walking to synagogue or visits from a steady stream of saffron-robed Buddhist retreat masters, Pittsburgh remains more traditionally religious than most northern cities, but with growing diversity. Long a stronghold for theological conservatives in liberal Protestant denominations, it has become an epicenter of schism.

According to an analysis by the Association of Religion Data Archives, the percentage of Allegheny County residents who belong to a religious group dropped from 75 in 1980 to 61 in 2010, with the national percentage at 48 percent.

The two largest local bodies suffered serious losses, partly due to an exodus of the young after the steel industry collapse. Since 1983 the six-county Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh shrunk by a third, dropping from 908,451 to 636,683 members and from 42 percent to 33 percent of the population. In Allegheny County, Pittsburgh Presbytery had a 54 percent loss.

Major denominations closed scores of churches; the Protestants through attrition while the Catholic diocese had a sweeping reorganization in 1992-1994.

Many historically black congregations were drained by an exodus to the suburbs, and now have part-time pastors. Across all races, Protestant congregations that kept 19th century music had trouble attracting new members. Mainline denominations have started successful contemporary churches such as Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community on the South Side and House of Manna in Homewood.

Other groups grew. The Assemblies of God tripled to more than 12,000. Independent evangelical churches aren't as large or numerous as in other regions, but gained presence and influence.

Pittsburgh is home to a rare, thriving urban Jewish community. Jewish households increased 10 percent to 20,900 between 1984 and 2002, when the last study was done. Two nationally acclaimed temples are magnets for 11,000 Hindus, while immigrants have raised the Muslim population to more than 5,000.

Protestant denominations considered liberal nationally have been conservative here, producing 21st century schisms. In 2008 a conservative majority in the Episcopal diocese left the Episcopal Church to help form the rival Anglican Church in North America, headquartered in Ambridge. Smaller but significant local splits occurred in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and United Church of Christ.

The splits centered on disputes over sexuality and biblical authority. In denominations that approve partnered gay clergy, local leaders remain divided or opposed. About 25 congregations have a track record of welcoming gay couples.


First Published October 6, 2013 4:00 AM


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