More students are attending church

Published: Thursday, January 24, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 24, 2008 at 6:26 a.m.

More students from the University of Florida and Santa Fe Community College are looking toward religion than in previous years. At least that's the feeling of representatives from several churches in Gainesville.

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Andrea Puente, a 19-year-old first-year journalism major at UF, attends the 5:30 French Mass at St. Augustine's Catholic Church.

EMELY ELUGARDO/Campus correspondent

Some of the churches in Gainesville credit the increase in attendance among students to services being held Sunday evenings. The late services allow students to sleep in and still make it to church on Sunday. All the churches agreed that word-of-mouth is most influential when it comes to gaining new members

Meantime, elsewhere the trends may be distinctly different for college students.

The University of California, Los Angeles conducted a study that followed college students from 2004 to 2007. That study found that, of the 14,000 students from 136 campuses nationwide, 43.7 percent of them attended a weekly service during their freshman year of college. Only 25.3 percent of the same students still attended church services by the end of their junior year.

Michael Bell, the president of Chapel House Student Organization at the Episcopal University Center credits the increase of students to its unique style of worship.

He said over the last three years he has seen his congregation grow from five college students to over 40 who attend regularly.

Bell credited the less traditional aspects of the church to its growth. He said instead of pews the church has couches.

"You can't put a church up and ring a bell and get flocks of people to come," Bell said. The goal is to build a community within the church that makes people feel welcomed and comfortable. He said this is a process that could take years and varies upon each individual. "People don't look up and see a cross on top of a pointy building and decide to pray to God," Bell said. "You have to find the right church you are comfortable at."

He said most people have to church hop and experience different churches to find one that suits their spiritual needs.

He said he is glad to hear his church is increasing in size compared to churches nationwide. He said it motivates him to keep doing what seems to be working.

Sister Margaret Harig, with St. Augustine's Catholic Church, said she believes students have found alternate ways to express their faith. Rather than going to mass every Sunday students are getting involved in campus ministries and Bible studies.

She said students have found ways to show spirituality without going to an established service.

She estimated around 1,500 students are attending one of the seven Masses held on Sundays. She said Masses at 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. have the most student participation.

St. Augustine offers a Spanish Mass at 1:30 for anyone who is interested. She said a lot of the students who grew up going to a Spanish mass like to go to it.

Sister Harig said Jan. 27 to Feb. 2 is Catholic Awareness Week. During this week St. Augustine's sponsors nightly events to try to gain new members.

She said the purpose of Catholic Awareness Week is to inform the students of the church and to encourage them to join.

Mass on the Grass is an event during Catholic Awareness Week, where the church holds Mass on campus. She said the purpose of this event is to get the attention of students who are already on campus who might not have known about the church.

She said she is happy with the student participation on Sundays but would be glad to see more students coming to Mass.

The First Lutheran Church of Gainesville has also seen an increase of members. Vicar Jake Sletten, who runs the church's Anti-Gravity Campus Ministry said between 250 to 300 members attend the services held on Sundays.

Sletten said the church has its own contemporary rock band, called "In the Light," that performs weekly on Sundays. He said this ceremony caters to college students.

Sletten said the church is looking to expand the campus ministry. The Anti-Gravity Campus Ministry also offers mission trips, socials and other special events to keep the students involved. Sletten said he believes student interaction keeps students interested.

Lizette Crosson, office assistant of Christ Community Church, has seen a slight increase of college students over the last three years.

Crosson said there is a noticeable difference in attendance when the students are away for the holidays or summer vacation. She said roughly one-third of the church's 250 member congregation are college students.

She said that they used to advertise in The Independent Florida Alligator but the church wasn't sure how effective the ads were. She said the church now relies on word-of-mouth from existing members.

Crosson said that as her church is expanding, so is the student population.

Eddie Gilley, the Director of the Baptist Collegiate Ministries said he hasn't seen an increase or a decrease in student attendance.

He said at the beginning of every semester the church hands out fliers, puts ads in the Alligator, and in student dorm boxes.

Chantele Martin said she started going to church during her last semester of college.

She said she decided to start doing things that were important to her. That's when she decided to go back to church.

She was nervous to go by herself for the first time, but was surprised by how many people she knew.

"There's a big sense of love and friendship," she said. "Even the strangers I sit beside I feel close to."

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