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Sonoma County low on churchgoers, but rich in religious diversity

Sonoma County residents pursue dozens of paths to spiritual inspiration, salvation, forgiveness or a sense of community.

On any given weekend, they flock to about 240 congregations representing a smorgasbord of 51 faiths, as large as the Catholic and Mormon churches, with thousands of members, and as small as Protestant congregations with fewer than 100 followers.

It is an evolving and increasingly diverse religious landscape, expanding from 34 denominations in 1980 to 51 in 2000, a 50 percent increase over two decades.

Finding the way of faith plays a powerful and growing role in an area that prides itself on individual expression and innovative lifestyles.

"I think that's the richness of Sonoma County. You have a lot of seekers," said Rabbi George Gittleman of Santa Rosa's Congregation Shomrei Torah, with 425 member families.

While spiritual diversity is expanding, Sonoma County remains less fervent in its traditional church-going than than the country as a whole. About a third of residents are affiliated with established congregations, compared with a national average of about 50percent, according to a once-a-decade survey in 2000 by the Association of Religious Data Archives.

The county's religious profile has shifted over time, most notably with mainline Protestant membership slipping to 9percent of total churchgoers in 2000, down from 15 percent in the 1980s.

Evangelical Protestant churches gained 5,350 members in that period, while mainline Protestant numbers remained static.

Members of the category "other theology," including Mormons and Jews, have more than tripled - from 6,270 in 1980 to 19,055 in 2000 - and now represent 13 percent of churchgoers.

Edward Viljoen, senior pastor at the Center for Spiritual Living in Santa Rosa, said his congregation includes people who call themselves Catholics, Christians and Jews.

There is a universal human desire, Viljoen said, "to feel and explore the mystery of life." His congregation seeks truths from all traditions and espouses a unity of all life and divinity, as well.

Many people come to church for the "human connection," he said, seeking a circle of friends or even a like-minded mate, Viljoen said.

Catholicism is by far the county's dominant faith, with 90,020 members - 60 percent of all adherents - as reported in the 2000 survey.

Judaism ranked second, with an estimated 9,000 members in Sonoma County, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as Mormons, had 7,518 members.

But the numbers on church membership rolls and people in the pews on holy days are not necessarily a match.

The Santa Rosa Catholic Diocese reported last year that 25percent of the 160,000 Catholics in parishes from Petaluma to the Oregon border regularly attend Mass.

Most Catholics are born into the faith, but in an increasingly secular and materialistic society, those bonds are less solid.

"More people are making choices of their own," said the Rev. Thomas Diaz, director of vocations for the North Coast diocese and pastor at St. Joan of Arc Church in Yountville. "There is less taboo about changing faiths later on.

Nearly three out of 10 Americans who attend religious services at least once a week also go to services outside their own faith, according to a report last year by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Sonoma County Jews have an even lower rate of affiliation - about 10 percent - with established congregations, Gittleman said.

"Religion in general competes for people's spare time with everything else," he said.

Sonoma County's abundant natural landscape - mountains, forests, beaches - are both part of that competition, and another outlet for religion.

"Many people can be spiritually fulfilled without going to church," Gittleman said. The rabbi said he passes no judgment on those who are unaffiliated with his or any faith.

"It is a church or synagogue's job to be compelling," he said. "Few people feel the obligation to be part of a religious community."

The Pew survey found that 26 percent of adults nationwide find "spiritual energy" in physical things, such as mountains and trees. In the West, that number is 34 percent.

Americans are also mixing traditional theology with beliefs in New Age or Eastern concepts like astrology, reincarnation, yoga and crystals, the Pew survey said.

Diaz said there are Catholics in his congregation who wear a crystal that they believe "absorbs all the negativity," which turns the clear object gray.

They wash off the discoloration, he said, instead of going to confession.

News researcher Teresa Meikle contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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