THE NEW PIONEERS : Question of Beliefs : Pastors Say Low Attendance at Services May Be Testament to Area's Hectic Pace

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just around the corner from his small, neighborhood church in Rancho Santa Margarita lies a grassy field that Pastor Mike Beals tries hard not to resent.

It is here on Sunday mornings that Little League and youth soccer games draw hundreds of boisterous children and their parents--including a few of Beals' parishioners--away from services at Mission Hills Christian Center, a nondenominational, evangelical church.

"There's been a real shift in children's sports toward Sunday activities," Beals said. "The church is put in the position of competing directly with organized sports, especially in this area where other factors also make it tough to get people here on Sunday."

The growing popularity of youth sports may be one reason that The Times Poll of residents in Orange County's southern foothills shows a relatively low rate of attendance at religious services.

On three questions concerning religious issues--including the overall importance of religious matters, attendance at churches or synagogues, and the numbers of evangelical Christians--the results indicated residents of Rancho Santa Margarita, Coto de Caza, Dove Canyon, Portola Hills, Foothill Ranch and Robinson Ranch were generally less religious than Orange County as a whole. Countywide, 42% attended church or synagogue in the past seven days as opposed to 34% in the foothills.

"When people get busy, many just tend to put God on the back shelf," said Gary Kusunoki, senior pastor of Calvary Chapel in Rancho Santa Margarita. "And these people out here are certainly busy."

Rancho Santa Margarita resident Paul Sandner, 39, puts it another way: "In our case, I think you'd have to chalk it up to just plain being lazy."

On only one question related to religion--membership in a church or synagogue--did the answers of poll respondents concur with the county as a whole. Fifty percent of respondents to the new survey described themselves as members of a religious institution, virtually identical to the 51% who responded in kind to a countywide 1991 Times Orange County Poll.

Times pollster Mark Baldassare and others pointed to a variety of reasons, ranging from the region's many young adults struggling to balance the demands of children and careers to the seductive pull of the area's spectacular mountains, lakes and golf courses.

"This area is so family- and neighborhood-oriented and we tend to associate those characteristics with religion and church-going," said Baldassare, an urban sociologist at UC Irvine. "But so far, it appears to be a community where people spend more time outdoors on weekends than they do indoors in churches."

Still, the foothills area boasts numerous churches, including the huge Saddleback Valley Community Church in Foothill Ranch, with Sunday attendance of about 8,000 and San Francisco Solano Catholic Church in Rancho Santa Margarita, which has about 4,000 members.

And, given the exigencies of life for many residents, San Francisco Solano's Father Michael Pecharch says he finds it remarkable that his parishioners manage to be as active in the church as they are.

"We have many young families, with both parents working in order to buy out here, and often driving very long commutes," Pecharch said. "Given that, we have an amazing amount of young families involved."

Barbara Priestley knows well just how difficult it can be to make it to church each weekend.

Priestley, 41, of Rancho Santa Margarita said she doesn't attend services at the nearby Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because she works part time at Mervyn's on Sundays in addition to her full-time, weekday job as an office receptionist. She said her family, who moved from Utah in late 1990 and bought a house near the peak of the Southern California market, needs the income.

Nonetheless, her husband and two children are regulars at the Sunday services, she said.

The pastors interviewed said the challenges involved in bringing in worshipers also include the age of the residents. Rancho Santa Margarita, for instance, is made up largely of baby boomers, a generation that has tended to be suspicious of organized religion.

Also, many of the area's residents are forced to spend long hours commuting during the week, prompting a desire to stay very close to home on the weekends.

Said Beals: "They really just want to stay home and enjoy their quarter-acre."

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