Staff Photo by Allison Kwesell Four-year-old Shauna Allen digs into her Bible at the Warren Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church on North Market Street during a Wednesday evening prayer and Bible study.
Dr. Bernie Miller
The sound of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" is not what most people would expect to hear in a religious setting.
But the musical arrangement of "Thriller," perhaps the most famous tune about zombies, filled the air at Brainerd's multiracial New Covenant Fellowship church recently. Instead of a thumping backbeat, it was wrapped around the words of Christian artist Michael W. Smith's hymn "You Are Holy."
Incorporating pop-culture music in church services is just one sign that worship for many Chattanoogans has changed.
For many local residents, religious services still mean brick-and-mortar buildings with traditional music. But for increasing numbers, that's no longer the model.
The current patchwork of services instead may feature contemporary music, meetings in movie theaters, congregations with related music clubs, gatherings of Eastern and Middle Eastern faiths, megachurches and a greater number of female pastors.
The city is not unusual in having congregations spring up in theaters, business parks, schools and in buildings where they share space with another congregation, according to Mark Love, lead pastor for Journey Chattanooga, a 2-year-old nondenominational church.
"A new generation of churchgoers are hungry for an active faith and growth but not in the typical trappings," said Mr. Love. "There's a need for new thinking and new types of churches to meet the need of others who are different."
Mr. Love, who has served in several denominational and nondenominational churches around the nation, said established churches must re-evaluate their approaches.
"Churches unwilling to make changes will drift into the background," he said. "Those with purpose and passion will come to the forefront."
But the Rev. Mark Gooden, senior pastor of Signal Crest United Methodist Church, said the conventional church still has something to offer.
"Younger adults and teenagers are turning to a more orthodox faith," he said. "They're looking for a tradition that's real and authentic -- the Communion elements, the mystery of worship, acts of service, something that has teeth. The traditional church has the opportunity to offer the creeds and those basic components of faith that have been there many, many years."
VARIETY OF TRADITIONS
Herb Cohn, 78, a member of the Jewish Mizpah Congregation and an area resident almost his entire life, said the variety of religious traditions is good for the city.
"As Chattanooga has grown and become something we're all very proud of, the religious (spectrum) has helped," he said.
Exactly how many religious congregations are part of that spectrum and who they represent is difficult to tell. Counting the number and members of such religious congregations is an inexact science, according to Dr. Charles Lippy, the former LeRoy A. Martin distinguished professor of Religious Studies at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
What is clear, he said, is that there is an increase in diversity among religious faiths, a rise in the number of people who don't feel compelled to join a congregation -- whether or not they're active in one -- and a decrease in cradle-to-grave loyalty to one denomination.
"We're much more individualistic in constructing our own personal religious (position)," Dr. Lippy said.
But the recent controversy about the use of Bible verses on signs made by cheerleaders at Georgia's Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School also shows that "we still like to wear it on our sleeves," he said.
While Baptists and Methodists dominate local Christian denominations, the Chattanooga area has a larger population of people who affiliate with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Church of Christ and Church of God than similar-size cities in the South, Dr. Lippy said.
STEEPLES NOT NECESSARY
When Dr. Darrell Henry became pastor of Oakwood Baptist Church in Chickamauga, Ga., in 1991, it was a traditional, medium-size church that drew 250 people a week.
Today, with about 3,000 members and 2,300 who attend weekly worship services, Oakwood is one of a handful of Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia megachurches, defined as a church that consistently attracts at least 2,000 people to weekly worship.
When Oakwood began to outgrow its campus earlier this decade, it expanded into satellite sites instead of building a larger worship center. Sites on Germantown Road in Chattanooga and the Gateway Mall in Ringgold, Ga., now have their own worship services but hear Dr. Henry's weekly message from Chickamauga in a remote broadcast.
"At times when the growth was occurring, I did a lot of praying," he said. "I said, 'Help me with this. Don't let me mess this up. OK, Lord, where are we going?'"
Stuart Heights and Olivet Baptist churches adopted similar growth models by opening separate campuses, but denominational and nondenominational startup congregations often turn to schools, offices, hotels and homes to hold their services.
The initial site for Journey Chattanooga was a Hixson movie theater. Now, the congregation meets in a Hixson warehouse and draws 60 to 120 people a week.
Mr. Love said the church chose to meet in a theater initially because people outside the faith "judge a book by its cover." A typical church building with a typical sign is bound to attract typical people whose worship experiences are tied to people in the same faith, he said. But Journey Chattanooga hoped to attract people who wanted something different, he said.
"(Meeting in a theater) communicates that uniqueness," he said. "It raises the curiosity. Sometimes, that's all we can do in the lives of the disconnected."
Dr. Bernie Miller, senior pastor of New Covenant Fellowship, said research by the United Methodist Church in the mid-1990s indicated the Woodmore community of Brainerd would support a multiracial congregation.
The same research in that community also indicated whites would attend a church with a black pastor, but blacks would not attend such a church with a white pastor.
"We took it at face value," said Dr. Miller, who is black. "We felt the marketing company did a good job -- gave us a good snapshot."
New Covenant began in 1996 in a former United Methodist church building, then became a nondenominational congregation in 2001. It has grown from its original 25 people to more than 900 families, the senior pastor said.
The church retained the multiracial focus, mission and mission statement it had earlier adopted under the United Methodist banner, Dr. Miller said.
While a multiracial church wouldn't have been on the local religious radar screen more than 30 years ago, neither were many churches pastored by women.
A recent Pew Research Center survey indicated women are gaining in numbers as senior pastors of churches but not necessarily status as pastors of larger or more significant churches.
The Rev. Mary Baker Hendricks has served as pastor of three Chattanooga churches since 1987, two in the United Methodist denomination and one in the Christian Methodist Episcopal denomination.
"Starting off, it was difficult," she said. "As I have grown in my walk with God, the challenges are still there. But many churches are open to receiving women as pastors, some significantly more open."
Of people who state a religious preference, the overwhelming majority of Chattanooga area congregants say they are part of the Christian faith, according to all surveys. But just as the number of people not associated with churches has risen in recent years, so has the number of people who say they are Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist.
In the 1952 and 1971 listings of Hamilton County religious adherents -- essentially someone who is affiliated with a particular faith or denomination but not necessarily a member -- provided by Glenmary Research Institute, only Christian faiths were listed. Even Jews, who have had a significant presence in the Chattanooga area for more than 150 years, were not tabulated in the listings.
Estimates in 1990 put Jewish adherents at 1,446 and in 2000 at 1,510. No Muslim estimate was given for 1990, but Muslim adherents were listed at 2,000 in 2000.
Mr. Cohn said he believes the number of Jews in the community has varied little during his life.
"As we've lost older members," he said, "we've been able to replace them with younger families."
Mr. Cohn said he saw some anti-Semitism in Chattanooga when he was growing up but "not to any enormous amount."
Although "some still view their (religious) perspective as the correct way," he said, "it's important that we accept all religions. We're such a diverse community, it's important to include everyone."
As religious faith has become more diversified in Chattanooga, it also has become more common for different denominations and faiths to work together.
Mr. Cohn, who recently attended a program on domestic violence at Brainerd Baptist Church, said he has seen an increased emphasis on interfaith services and "getting together."
"I see common goals and groups working together to reach those goals," he said. "I like that. I think that's very good for the community."
Mr. Gooden said such combined efforts are a major attraction to younger worshippers.
"(Service) is very important to the younger generation," he said. "They're looking for commitment and discipline."
Churches also have taken a key from younger members in fostering a more casual worship atmosphere, several pastors said.
"You're not looked down upon if you're not wearing a jacket and tie," Mr. Miller said.
HOW MANY CONGREGATIONS
Though no statistics are definitive, the number of religious congregations in Chattanooga has risen over the last 70 years, according to various counts.
1938 -- 222
1942 -- 311
1980 -- 332
1990 -- 362
2000 -- 372
Sources: City directories, Hamilton County Guide to Church Vital Statistics, Glenmary Research Institute
According to the Glenmary Research Institute, Baptists and Methodists (now United Methodists) have had the most adherents among faith groups in Chattanooga for more than 50 years.
1952 -- 53,352 Southern Baptist; 18,938 Methodist; 6,077 Presbyterian (U.S.); 4,096 Catholic; 3,618 Episcopal.
1971 -- 60,993 Southern Baptist; 23,067 United Methodist; 10,009 Presbyterian (U.S.); 6,113 Catholic; 5,281 Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.).
1980 -- 61,957 Southern Baptist; 24,975 United Methodist; 8,245 Catholic; 7,589 Presbyterian (USA); 6,690 Churches of Christ.
1990 -- 66,257 Southern Baptist; 24,854 United Methodist; 9,130 Catholic; 8,167 Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.); 6,694 Churches of Christ.
2000 -- 66,439 Southern Baptist; 24,478 United Methodist; 9,979 Church of God; 9,911 Catholic; 7,011 Seventh-day Adventist.
Statistics for 2000 provided by Glenmary Research Institute indicated Hamilton County had a bigger percentage of Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.), Seventh-day Adventist and Church of Christ adherents than Southern counties with cities similar in size to Chattanooga.
* Hamilton (Chattanooga): Church of God (32.4 adherents per 1,000 people); Seventh-day Adventist (22.8); Churches of Christ (20.6).
* Knox (Knoxville): Church of God (13.3 adherents per 1,000 people); Seventh-day Adventist (1.6); Churches of Christ (8.9).
* Hinds (Jackson, Miss.): Church of God (1.9 adherents per 1,000 people); Seventh-day Adventist (7.1); Churches of Christ (14.8).
* Leon (Tallahassee, Fla.): Church of God (3.0 adherents per 1,000 people); Seventh-day Adventist (2.0); Churches of Christ (6.2).
Area counties and their number of churches per 10,000 people (in 2000), according to Glenmary Research Institute:
DeKalb, Ala. -- 30
Jackson, Ala. -- 27
Catoosa, Ga. -- 10
Chattooga, Ga. -- 29
Dade, Ga. -- 20
Fannin, Ga. -- 27
Gordon, Ga. -- 20
Murray, Ga. -- 10
Walker, Ga. -- 19
Whitfield, Ga. -- 12
Bledsoe, Tenn. -- 30
Bradley, Tenn. -- 16
Cumberland, Tenn. -- 20
Franklin, Tenn. -- 28
Grundy, Tenn. -- 34
Hamilton, Tenn. -- 12
McMinn, Tenn. -- 25
Marion, Tenn. -- 27
Meigs, Tenn. -- 28
Monroe, Tenn. -- 28
Polk, Tenn. -- 39
Rhea, Tenn. -- 23
Sequatchie, Tenn. -- 25
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...