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Despite a national decline in attendance and membership, Gainesville religious organizations report stability, even growth

North Gainesville Baptist Church Pastor Marty Moon stands in the church ahead of Easter weekend Thursday, March 28, 2023.
(Alex Winn/WUFT News)
North Gainesville Baptist Church Pastor Marty Moon stands in the church ahead of Easter weekend Thursday, March 28, 2023.

Religion once held a prominent place in people’s lives. But that’s a thing of the past for many in the United States, and statistics show church affiliation continues to drop.

Since the late 1990s, church membership among U.S. adults has fallen steadily every five years. Seventy percent of adults in the U.S. were members of a religious organization around 2000, according to Gallup. In 2020, that number was 47% — the first time rates were below 50% in the 80 years Gallup has recorded them.

Yet, several Gainesville places of worship are defying these trends.

Trinity United Methodist Church, Holy Faith Catholic Church, Queen of Peace Catholic Community, CampusView Church, North Gainesville Baptist Church and Temple Shir Shalom all reported positive attendance and membership, with rates either at or above those before the COVID pandemic.

"We are really encouraged right now at the number of new people we are seeing, and particularly young people and young families," Trinity United Methodist Pastor Rev. Steve Price said. "There is something going on that is causing people to want to seek out communities or explore their spirituality."

North Gainesville Baptist Church is located at 6203 NW 39th Ave.
(Alex Winn/WUFT News)
North Gainesville Baptist Church is located at 6203 NW 39th Ave.

Price and his wife, Rev. Catherine Fluck Price, came to Trinity, located at 4000 NW 53rd Ave., as copastors in 2016. Before that, they were pastors at Harvest United Methodist Church in Bradenton, Florida, for 19 years.

In the four years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, Price reported slight declines in weekly church attendance. During the pandemic, Trinity, a large church with a weekly attendance of roughly 400 to 500, moved services entirely online for six months. When it returned to in-person services, it saw around 30% to 40% of the number of attendees it had seen before COVID.

However, 2023 and 2024 marked a change. In 2023, Trinity saw a 20% increase in in-person worship compared to 2020. This year, Trinity is continuing its positive attendance shifts, reporting a 5% to 10% increase in attendance over the year prior.

The Methodist denomination has faced the largest denominational schism in U.S. history, according to USA Today. The key component of churches leaving is the Methodist church’s views on sexuality. Janet Earls is the director of church vitality and leadership development for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, which oversees Methodist churches from the Keys to just west of Tallahassee. She said she has seen firsthand the mass exodus of churches leaving the denomination.

"The changes in the United Methodist Church, with regards to being more LGBTQ open, caused a loss of about 30% of our churches," Earls said.

Despite this, Trinity has found its footing in the wake of national commotion. Price said he believes that people are becoming more interested in exploring their connection to spirituality and thus are experimenting with new churches or organizations. Also, Trinity has a variety of programs and ministries for kids and adults, including support groups, after-school programs and neighborhood outreach programs.

Marty Moon, pastor of North Gainesville Baptist Church, points to Psalm 119, Thursday, March 28, 2024.
(Alex Winn/WUFT News)
Marty Moon, pastor of North Gainesville Baptist Church, points to Psalm 119, Thursday, March 28, 2024.

Like Trinity, two prominent Catholic churches in Gainesville are also seeing positive trends. Kathleen Bagg is the Director of Communications for the Diocese of St. Augustine, which oversees 17 Catholic churches in the northeast region of Florida, including Gainesville, Jacksonville and St. Augustine. Two large Catholic churches in Gainesville, Queen of Peace and Holy Faith, have told her congregation attendance is growing.

“Over the last two years, there has been an increase in people attending Mass and membership,” Bagg said of Holy Faith, located at 747 NW 43rd St.

Despite a 2021 Gallup report that found membership decline is steeper among Catholics (down from 76% to 58%) than among Protestants (down from 73% to 64%), Holy Faith and Queen of Peace do not reflect these drops.

Bagg said she spoke with Holy Faith’s pastor Rev. Jose Kulathinal, who told her that a lot of new families have been attending the church, and that he’s seen an influx of non-members.

North Gainesville Baptist Church and the nondenominational CampusView Church report that attendance at their respective congregations is back to pre-COVID numbers along with some slight increases.

Temple Shir Shalom, located at 3855 NW Eighth Ave., is also seeing attendance post-COVID stabilizing in 2024. Ann Eisenstadt, the temple’s manager for roughly 10 years, said she is pleased with the attendance, which is usually 20-30 people per week.

Nationally, the most influential component of the dwindling numbers is the high rate of religious "nones" nationwide.

The Pew Research Center reported in October 2023 that 28% of U.S. adults say they are religiously unaffiliated. Atheists, agnostics, and those who describe themselves as "nothing in particular" fall under the continually rising category of "nones." That 28% ranks eight points above Catholics (20%) and other religions (9%), but still trails Protestants (40%). In 2007, "nones" represented only 16% of Americans.

The reasons why "nones" don't go to church differ from person to person. Pew found that most said they believe in a higher power, they just don't attend any regular service. Almost half say they don't attend services because they are critical of religious institutions or religious people, and 30% point to bad prior experiences with religious people for keeping them out of the church.

The Public Religion Research Institute found that criticism or negative experiences include churches' treatment or outlook on LGBTQ+ people.

In 2023, almost half (47%) of people surveyed who left their religion cited this as the primary reason for their departure. The Public Religion Research Institute also found that clergy sexual abuse scandals, primarily the Catholic church, prompted many adults to leave the religion they grew up in.

Attendance rates also continue to decline because religion is losing its influence in American culture, according to the Pew Research Center, which found that 8 in 10 Americans say they believe religion's role in American life is shrinking..

"I think the custom of going to church is certainly fading with many people," said Alan Henry, an elder at CampusView Church. "It's certainly something that we encounter and are trying to make sure that we're addressing."

The issues associated with declines in attendance and membership go deeper than pure religion. Churches play a significant role in communities. Almost every church has a plethora of ministries or community outreach programs they are involved in.

North Gainesville Baptist Church helps support single mothers, including those who were abused by spouses. Trinity and CampusView have thriving daycare centers and work with Bread of the Mighty with donations and on food drives. Temple Shir Shalom, a relatively small congregation, has an after-school program and a social actions committee that works with Bread of the Mighty.

Most of a religious organization’s finances come via donations and giving from members and attendees. If fewer people are showing up to places of worship, fewer people are giving. Without financial and physical support from members or attendees, the ability of religious organizations to support their ministries or programs weakens.

"When you don't have strong churches, you don't have strong communities; you don't have strong states or a strong country," Moon said.

Though the aforementioned Gainesville places of worship are seeing success, the overall future of churches across the nation is bleak, according to statistics.

In September 2022, Pew Research posted projections showing the number of Christians of all ages shrinking from 64% of the population to around 54% to 35% of Americans by 2070. During that period, “nones” would increase from roughly 30% to around 34% to 52%.

Earls pointed out that people are also attending church in different ways. She sees many young people going to churches with more energy and are outward-focused. Young people also go to a church because they participate in an organization in the church.

"I would say people come in this 'side door' rather than through the 11 a.m. Sunday morning service," Earls said. "They come into a church through serving or through their children being there rather than 'Oh, this is what we should do on a Sunday.”

Even the way churches are created is different. In the past, churches started with a pastor and a group of people coming together, pooling funds and raising money, and then constructing a church — a practice that is expensive and less realistic now, Earls said.

"We're looking for new models and ways of building new churches," Earls said. "Buildings are burdens, that's my saying."

Innovative solutions like new church models may be the catalyst for some resurgence of religion in America, according to Earls, but negative statistics on membership and attendance still loom.

Alex is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing