Fifty years ago, Richmond's religious makeup was mainly Protestant, Catholic and Jewish. Shifting demographics from an evolving, increasingly global culture has changed all of that.
Today, just about every major faith in the world is present in the region, says Douglas A. Hicks, a professor of leadership studies and religion at the University of Richmond and parish associate at Second Presbyterian Church downtown. There are more than 800 houses of worship — including Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism as well as various Christian denominations.
Membership in mainline Christian denominations has been in decline in recent decades. But when a denomination has millions of members, it can lose substantial numbers for a while before being noticed, says David G. Bromley, a religious studies and sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's School of World Studies.
Meanwhile, growth seems to be occurring in some of the more socially conservative denominations. According to the 2011 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, published by the National Council of Churches, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints increased 1.42 percent from 2010 for a total membership of more than 6 million, and Assemblies of God grew by about half of 1 percent, to more than 2.9 million. In contrast, the Episcopal Church dropped 2.48 percent to about 2 million members, and the Presbyterian Church was down 2.61 percent to 2.8 million.
The appeal of Assemblies of God includes visual aids during worship and the use of small groups to keep members connected and help people "experience Christ in a way that is relevant to the culture, which is what Jesus did. We focus on world missions and carrying the gospel to the ends of the earth," says H. Robert Rhoden, founder of West End Assembly of God on North Parham Road.
"Diversity — in gender, age and ethnicity — is a big part of our churches," says Rhoden, a Richmond resident who represents the denomination's northeast area. "We have a strong emphasis on reaching out to young people and making our church relevant. Preaching and music are very much a part of that."
Some Christians are reacting to controversies such as abortion, prayer in public schools and homosexuality by forsaking mainline denominations for those that embrace a more traditional stance, Bromley says.
"Denominations don't have the attraction they once did. Some people are joining nondenominational congregations," Hicks adds. "There seems to be an increase in individualizing religion. So many people are anti-institutional. There is a suspicion of government and business leadership to some extent."
Nondenominational churches attract people who don't like doctrine, says Mike Abbamonte, pastor of the West End campus of Atlee Community Church, which started in 1996 in Mechanicsville. Churches such as Atlee Community, which incorporates drama and Christian rock music in its services, also are more contemporary, he adds.
"People can come in and there are no preconceived notions. They want to come in with a blank slate. They want to come in and experience God and Jesus in their own way," Abbamonte says. "Nondenominational churches are so cutting edge, so culturally relevant."
The West End campus, added two years ago, meets at Short Pump Middle School and attracts 60 to 80 people on Sundays, while the Mechanicsville church averages 800 to 1,000 worshippers.
If congregations want to grow, they must be willing to change, says Kenneth J. McFayden, dean of the Center for Ministry and Leadership Development at Union Presbyterian Seminary in North Richmond.
Hicks suggests that churches might consider a Saturday evening service rather than one on Sunday morning, or a contemporary service rather than traditional worship. Some congregations may have to merge to survive. Workplace ministries could replace traditional Sunday morning worship. Churches need to be family friendly, focused on children as well as adults, he say To keep growing, the almost 60-year-old Bon Air Baptist Church in Chesterfield County has added two new sites where it holds worship services, as well as various types of services and different times, says Travis Collins, senior pastor.
The original church building is on Buford Road, and traditional worship services are held there on Sunday at 8 and 11 a.m., with a contemporary service at 9:30 a.m. Five years ago, the church began holding contemporary services at 9:30 and 11 a.m. on Sunday at James River High School. Two years ago, a third location was started at Robious Hall Shopping Center (10014 Robious Road). That campus has a Sunday service in Spanish at 11 a.m. and another in English at 6 p.m. Classes in English as a Second Language also are offered.
In 1999, Bon Air Baptist reached out to people in 12-step programs and those trying to recover from grief, loss or loneliness. The initiative, started as Celebrate Recovery and now called Northstar Community, has a worship service on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. at the Buford Road campus.
Attendence at the 2,500-member church has risen by about 500 in the last dozen years, Collins says.
"When the church was planted, we were in the middle of a booming housing development," he says. "But it takes more than demographics to grow. A congregation has to be intentional. … And there must be a strategy for growing. We have grown by doing new things."
The region's increasing Hispanic population is reflected in attendance at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in South Richmond. Of the 4,500 parishioners, all but about 200 are Hispanic, says Father Shay Auerbach, a Jesuit priest who serves as pastor there. Sacred Heart had 200 to 300 members before it began a Spanish Mass in the 1950s.
At Richmond's Congregation Beth Ahabah, the sixth-oldest synagogue in the United States, membership has stayed constant for the last 25 years, says Russell M. Finer, executive director. The congregation, which has more than 700 families, gains 25 or 30 families a year and also loses about that number.
The Richmond region began seeing a rise in non-Christian faiths around 1965, when immigration laws were changed, Bromley says. Restrictions were eased for Asians entering the United States, and the arrival of immigrants from Asia, Vietnam and Cambodia gave rise to local Hindu and Buddhist temples. Refugees and converts also add to the numbers of non-Christian faith groups, leaders of those traditions say.
The region's Muslim population is growing, says Imam Ammar Amonette of the Islamic Center of Virginia, south of Richmond. He adds that the center is running out of space and will have to build an addition in the next few years. Area Muslims also are looking at building two mosques in the West End and one in Chester. Amonette estimates there are between 12,000 and 20,000 Muslims in greater Richmond.
The number of Hindus in the region has also increased significantly in the last 15 years as Indians moved to Richmond for work, says Rajagopal Thuppal, a priest at the Hindu Center of Virginia in Glen Allen. He says there are about 10,000 local Hindu families, but only about 300 families are members at the Hindu Center, which is open for worship every day. People frequently come and go, Thuppal says.
But even with all the expansion of nondenominational churches and non-Christian faith groups, Hicks says, "Don't write an obit on mainline religion. It is alive and well."