Public perception holds that Oregon is among the nation’s most unchurched states, a place where Sundays belong more to college football and brunch than they do to sermons and prayer.
That’s been fueled by the annual national Gallup Poll survey on religion, which consistently ranks Oregon among the least religious states in the country, alongside Washington, Alaska and Vermont.
But a new survey of 2,971 Oregonians conducted for Oregon Public Broadcasting tells a somewhat different story. It suggests that religion plays some role in the lives of 61 percent of the state’s residents, and that the number of Oregonians who identify as “spiritual,” though not with a particular denomination, is on the rise.
“Oregonians are very spiritual, but many do not belong to a faith community” said Thomas Gornick, director of evangelization at the Archdiocese of Portland. “They have a deep faith that wells up because of where we live. They have a connection to something greater than themselves, through the ocean and the mountains. You know within your inner core that there is something important here, and it guides your life at a certain level.”
Statewide, just 18 percent of Oregonians consider themselves to be “very religious,” according to the survey data — a far cry from the 58 percent of residents in Mississippi who told Gallup they fit that label in 2012, making it the nation’s most religious state.
Another 39 percent of Oregonians say they are “moderately” religious, and 4 percent overall say they are “spiritual.”
Oregon is home to a few megachurches, including the Pentecostal Foursquare churches, which have thousands of members who gather in Beaverton, Albany, Bend and Ashland, among other cities, as well as Evangelical leader Luis Palau of Beaverton, who regularly preaches to stadiums full of believers in Oregon and around the world.
Still, signs point to some declines in organized religion over the years in most of the state.
Once robust churches now struggle with dwindling and aging memberships, and many have turned to unconventional sources to raise money, from a Portland church that leased space to a community coffee shop to others that house tool sharing libraries and yoga classes. A church in Eugene even plans to lease space on its grounds to AT&T for a cellphone tower. Though the largest number of Oregonians who identify with a denomination say that they are Christian that still accounts for just 38 percent of residents statewide.
The brightest spot for organized religion is in Eastern Oregon, where 75 percent of survey respondents said they were either very or moderately religious, and another 68 percent said religion was important in their daily life. Survey results show that the nine Eastern Oregon counties — Baker, Grant, Harney, Lake, Malheur, Morrow, Umatilla, Union and Wallowa — are also the least mobile portion of the state, with an older population that’s likelier to have lived in Oregon for 20 years or more, enough time to put down roots in a faith-based community.
Karen Nettler, the board chair of the Oregon Center for Christian Voices, which advocates for social justice issues from a Christian perspective, said she thinks the twenty-somethings and young families who have flocked to the state’s metro areas over the last decade are changing the very definition of being religious.
“There is more the feeling of freedom (in Oregon), to not feel like you are abandoning your faith if you are not involved with your church,” Nettler said. “I am aware of alternative communities, people who gather together to find a place or a community where they can express their spirituality.”
Nettler also points out that organized religion has suffered in blue-leaning Oregon as Christianity has become more closely identified _fairly or not _ with conservative political ideology in the last 25 years nationwide. Such doctrines may have led to estrangement between the younger generation of Oregonians and organized religion, she said, while accounting for the rise in those who self-identify as “spiritual,” and retain a belief in a higher power.
To stay relevant, Gornick said, organized religion needs to be flexible and responsive to the changing communities around them, even if that means overcoming years of habit and tradition.
Gornick presides over a yearly “blessing of the bikes” at the Archdiocese in downtown Portland, which draws people from all faiths — and some who identify with no faith at all: some daily bike commuters, some weekend warriors, some who have lost family or friends to bicycle accidents in years gone by.
The church is open for people to look around, and Catholic parishioners are there to answer questions, but it’s not about the hard sell, Gornick said.
“We are not proselytizing, we are just showing that we are a part of their community and our lives are formed by the Gospel,” Gornick said. “Churches need to be a place where people feel welcome, where their immediate needs are being addressed, where there is a community that respects them for who they are. That is how they join.”