Houses of Worship Return to a Full-Service Concept : Religion: They are, increasingly, providing more than just weekend services, and not just for their congregants.
On Sundays, although there are more than a thousand people at Mass at St. Irenaeus Catholic Church in Cypress, Karen Barnes rarely feels lost among the pews.
That’s because throughout the week, activities draw the Barnes family to the church and draw church members to the Barnes home three blocks away.
“There isn’t ever a time that we go to church that we don’t recognize members of our parish,” she said. When Sunday comes, “you’re not just praying by yourself, you’re congregating. “
Like an increasing number of Orange County residents, the Barnes family--Karen, Bill and their three children--is using the church more broadly than previous generations of worshipers. The Barneses rely on St. Irenaeus for Scouting, the parish’s day school and a host of adult programs.
“Most of the things that draw Bill and me to the parish have to do with family or support for families,” Karen Barnes said.
The Barneses are typical of Orange County residents for whom the church has become an extended family, addressing a variety of needs once filled by relatives, neighbors, friends and even government.
More and more, churches in Orange County are becoming full-service religious centers, expanding what they do for their parishioners beyond weekend worship. It is partly a marketing device, reaching out to the community with new services in the hope of attracting potential members. But it is also a way to fulfill God’s calling as interpreted by vigorous pastors who want to fill the unmet needs of their congregations.
In an effort to gauge the role of religion in Orange County, The Times Orange County Poll interviewed 600 residents about their religious beliefs. The questions covered a broad range of topics from individual religious practices to the belief in a spiritual other world.
Increasingly, religious institutions in suburban areas of Southern California are offering a full range of services beyond the spiritual, and the poll found that this effort is bearing fruit: 91% of the Orange County residents who are church or synagogue members feel that their congregations are doing a good or excellent job of meeting their personal and family needs.
The same poll also found that 79% of county residents reported that religion is “very important” or “fairly important” in their lives.
As a concept, the full-service church is more of an old idea rediscovered than a new one: It is the church returning to its roots, say religious leaders and experts.
Before suburbs and cars and sprawl, there was the neighborhood church in America, with congregations drawn from rural villages, small towns and urban neighborhoods. Members helped each other during illnesses, birth, death. Together with schools and local political organizations, churches were one of the main pillars of daily life.
In the urban ghettos of America in the early decades of this century, the Protestant variety were called “institutional churches"--Catholics called them “immigrant churches,” according to Martin J. Marty, who teaches the history of American religion at the University of Chicago. “It really was a taking care of others.”
The concept bloomed again briefly in the 1950s, Marty said, when young families fanned out into suburban tracts in the East and Midwest. Churches and synagogues representing mainline denominations tried to respond by replicating various aspects of the urban culture under a single roof: social hall, gymnasium, book club, etc. But as the baby boomers went off to college in the 1960s and their parents retired to warmer climates, such facilities were left with shrinking, aging memberships.
These days, Marty said, the full-service church is thriving most “wherever the mall dominates,” while more narrowly focused houses of worship have sprung up in gentrified cities. The full-service church represents a combination of caring and competitiveness, he said, while, at the same time, offering an ally to families who see the larger culture as too secular or pluralistic.
People who once lived in homogeneous communities--urban ghettos, small towns, ethnic suburbs--came to Southern California, where they were scattered into vast tracts, which lacked an ethnic or religious locus. The town square was usurped by the mall. Neighborhood public schools were replaced by larger, impersonal institutions at the end of bus routes. Neighbors were often strangers, with much moving in and out.
Today, in much of Orange County, needs once met by friends who went to the church up the street cannot always be met by neighbors, and fellow congregants may be separated by miles. In addition, there are new and unanticipated demands in this unanchored place, in our stressful times, as the government’s “safety net” has frayed. There are fresh pressures on children, married couples, families, the aged--all of whom need fellowship, sharing, counseling, education.
A look at three county congregations, each about average in size for their denominations, suggests a number of ways in which churches and synagogues are reaching out to their co-religionists, many of whom are not formally affiliated with any congregation. A number of these programs--especially schools, preschools and day-care centers--are open to non-members, and this is done, congregation leaders said, even though such services are frequently operated at a deficit.
St. Irenaeus Catholic Church in Cypress is considered a cutting-edge parish within the Diocese of Orange, which is responsible for the county’s 550,000 Catholics. The church, with about 4,500 families and four priests, is a multicultural parish with significant Latino and Asian membership.
Unlike the years leading up to Vatican II, when Catholics were assigned to the parishes where they lived, Father Rod Keller said, “people are allowed--encouraged--to seek out parishes they can relate to,” and that has created a kind of competition. “People are encouraged to find places that will nourish them,” he said.
Like other mainline churches and temples, St. Irenaeus actively seeks out people in the county who were raised as Catholics or belonged to churches, but for one reason or another stopped going. Keller calls his program “Coming Home.” He advertises it in the secular press and includes in his target audience Catholics with non-Catholic partners.
St. Irenaeus has developed a number of innovative services dealing with family life. One, involving couples contemplating marriage, links young people--who Keller said “may not have had the best of role models in their own families"--with a couple who can provide such examples and advice. It is, he said, “a very nurturing, beneficial experience” for the prospective couples.
In the face of the frequency of divorces, Keller described this counseling program as improving the odds for a successful marriage. The Barneses, who are among the most active members of the program, have counseled about 30 couples in the past 10 years.
“They recognize that they live in a world where (not all marriages) make it,” Karen Barnes said. “They come to us strangers and leave as friends.”
The church operates--with an entirely lay faculty--a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade day school for 600 children. About a quarter of those attending the school are non-Catholics or come from other parishes, and they may ultimately join St. Irenaeus.
In another innovative program, one of the parish’s four priests specializes in connecting parishioners with Alcoholics Anonymous programs, as well as others that deal with addiction. In addition to the four priests and a full-time business manager, St. Irenaeus has a part-time Christian Service coordinator, Fred Navarro.
Such a position has become necessary, church officials said, because of the reduction in social services once provided by government and nonprofit agencies and because of the deepening economic slowdown. With a membership that spans the economic spectrum ranging from affluent to destitute, Navarro is kept busy trying to match the needs of some in the parish with those who are able to help by volunteering their time or providing in-kind donations.
Each morning Navarro meets with people from the parish who are in need, offering them social service referrals, counseling them on problems with their medical and utility bills or answering questions about the Social Security system.
“Sometimes, it’s just listening to people,” said Navarro, a retired engineer for Rockwell. Navarro also oversees a monthly food, clothing and furniture bank, which operates out of a convent garage on the grounds.
There are an estimated 90,000 to 100,000 Jews in Orange County, although a majority are not affiliated with any of the 20 congregations stretching from Fullerton to Mission Viejo. Thus, attracting non-members to temple activities is a priority for most congregations.
Temple Beth Tikvah in Fullerton, a Reform congregation of about 350 families, operates a day-care and preschool facility. It also provides a monthly sack lunch for seniors and--for younger families--a monthly “Parents’ Night Out” when children can be dropped off at the synagogue for an evening of activities. As in many synagogues, a death in the family brings a visit from the temple’s Sisterhood members to assist at the home of the survivors.
Many of these services, including visits from Rabbi Haim Asa, are provided to non-members.
“We serve because we’re here to serve,” Asa said. He noted that 80% of the children in the temple’s day-care and preschool program are not affiliated with--that is, their families are not members of--the temple.
As another way to reach out for members or to serve the larger Jewish community, Beth Tikvah is surveying Jews in North Orange County to determine what additional needs they may have. Of the nearly 50 questions asked, only a handful deal with strictly religious activities. Others query interest on such activities as athletics, travel, theater and programs for the developmentally disabled.
Beth Tikvah member Joe Amsterdam said he checked off almost everything on the questionnaire, saying: “Our feelings are that the temple should be all the things that are in the survey, if it were possible to do that.”
For the Amsterdam family, the synagogue became a central, anchoring institution when they moved back to California in 1983 after four years in Chicago. They consider themselves fortunate to have connected with Temple Beth Tikvah. Through the synagogue, Amsterdam said, he and his wife have made some very close friends who function as a “surrogate family. . . . We depend on each other. I don’t think we would have found these folks without Temple Beth Tikvah.”
Today, the synagogue is “like a second home to us,” said Amsterdam, who lives in Fullerton. The Amsterdams, including their two children, take advantage of many of the temple’s programs, with at least one family member at Beth Tikvah four or five days a week. The Amsterdams either teach or attend the religious school, participate in youth groups or go as a family weekly to Friday night services.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints considers the church to be “the scaffolding of the home and family,” according to Russell N. Greiner, spiritual leader of a congregation of 481 members covering north San Clemente and Capistrano Beach. And as such, the church is dedicated to playing a dynamic and broad-based role in the lives of its congregants, who are among the estimated 50,000 Mormons in the county.
Greiner’s San Clemente II Ward shares the San Clemente Chapel with four other area Mormon wards, as the church’s congregations are known. Once a Mormon congregation grows beyond 600 members, it is usually divided into two, enabling each group to retain intimacy and interpersonal contact.
Each month, families in the ward are visited separately by two men and two women, “to assist with their temporal and spiritual needs,” Greiner said. These visitors then report back to Greiner the needs the families might have, including health problems, financial difficulties, or any need for additional counseling. The congregation operates its own self-help and welfare system, called “the Bishop’s Storehouse,” which provides for parishioners in need. “No one in our church goes hungry,” Greiner said. Unemployed members “work for sustenance” in the program.
Another means of providing Mormon fellowship for congregants comes through athletic competitions and cultural events. Members of the San Clemente II Ward play basketball and volleyball with members of the other Mormon congregations who use the San Clemente Chapel, which is a multipurpose facility. The chapel also has a full-size stage and cultural hall for music, dance and drama programs. Church sponsors and its members lead an extensive Scouting program.
The church’s organization for women, the Relief Society, offers monthly, midweek meetings that focus on home-making skills such as cooking, sewing, arts and crafts. There is no day school, but from 6:30 to 7:30 a.m. every weekday there is religious instruction for those of high school age.
Gregg Wall of San Clemente teaches one of the early morning classes, called seminary, and the oldest of his four children attends another. His wife is active in church activities, including the Relief Society, and one of his sons goes to Boy Scout meetings at the chapel Tuesdays. On the same nights, Wall accompanies two young missionaries on their rounds in South County.
His church, Wall said, “is not just a religion to us, it’s a way of life. We try to live that religion to the best of our ability. We try to carry those values seven days a week, 365 days a year.”
The non-worship programs offered by these three congregations are referred to as “bridge activities,” according to Carl F. George, director of the Charles Fuller Institute in Pasadena.
Such activities “construct a variety of entry points into the church,” and they enable people to relate to the church according to their needs, George said. At the same time, church leaders approach people as consumers and get “them on your premises so they don’t feel threatened.”
Father Keller puts it another way. Non-worship activities at St. Irenaeus represent “teachable moments. A profound sense of hospitality is central to our understanding of the purpose of church. The great command is one of love, not lassoing people to come into the church. Of course, if they come, so much the better.”
Full-service churches are especially important in a place such as Orange County, George said. As in much of Southern California, many people from the East and Midwest have come here, leaving behind their extended families.
“They have lost their emotional support system,” he said, adding that at the same time, they have to deal with such stresses as lengthy commutes, two-career families and houses they can barely afford.
By providing “surrogate or artificial families” that enable people to “spiritually reconnect,” George said, full-service churches offer a “huge potential for good.”
A Look at the Series
Sunday: Religion and beliefs--a Times Orange County poll.
Monday: A look at full-service churches.
Today: Rejecting the religious mainstream.
Wednesday: The challenge for parents.
Thursday: The super-churches.
Friday: Mixing church and state.
How the Poll Was Conducted
The Times Orange County Poll, the most comprehensive poll ever taken on religious beliefs and practices in Orange County, was conducted by Mark Baldassare & Associates. The telephone survey of 600 Orange County adult residents was conducted Oct. 4-7 on weekend days and weekday nights using a computer-generated random sample of telephone numbers. The margin of error is plus or minus 4%. For subgroups, such as church members, the margin would be larger.
Importance of Religion
“How important would you say religion is in your own life?”
Very Fairly Not Important Important Important Orange County 51% 28% 21% U.S. (1991) 57% 30% 13%
“Compared to five years ago, how would you describe the importance of religion in your life today?”
Orange County O.C. Church-goers Increased 30% 49% Same 62% 47% Declined 8% 4%
(Asked of Orange County church members)
“How good a job is your church or synagogue doing in meeting your own personal and family needs?”
Only Fair: 8%
Source: 1991 Times Orange County Poll, the Gallup Poll