Like many Christians, Dominick Costantino spent much of the past week at church services preparing for today, the holiest of days celebrated in his faith — Easter Sunday.
“I grew up in a strong, faith-filled Roman Catholic family. We went to church as often as we could, especially on the holidays,” said Costantino, music director at Exaltation of the Holy Cross Church in Hanover Township.
But the 22-year-old senior at Wilkes University is among a decreasing segment of the population who regularly attends community worship and, for that matter, adheres to any particular religious denomination.
The numbers of those who don’t identify with any religion continue to rise, with one-fifth of the American public — and one-third of those under 30 — unaffiliated with any religion, according to the Pew Research Center.
Still, at least 56 percent of Luzerne County residents are adherents to the Christian faith. And Easter — the celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead — is tantamount among their beliefs.
So, how are they observing this holy day? By attending a religious service? Or perhaps just sharing a traditional family meal that includes hard-boiled eggs with dyed shells?
Has community worship become nothing more than a memory from their past, or something religious people do? Or is it an important and fulfilling part in their lives?
The way we worship in Luzerne County has changed in several ways over the years, for many people and for many reasons. For others, community worship has always been an intricate part of their lives, steadfast, unchanging and steeped in rich tradition.
And regardless of how we worship, the fact is that belonging to a religious group is more important to people here than it is in the rest of the state and across the country.
While 52 percent of Americans say they don’t adhere to any such group, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives, 41 percent of Luzerne County residents say they don’t subscribe to the tenets any one denomination.
Data also show the largest group by far locally identify themselves as Catholic — 42 percent, compared to 19 percent nationally and 28 percent statewide. Protestants make up a majority of the remainder of the faithful.
The Rev. Joseph Bambera, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Scranton, which encompasses Luzerne and 10 other northeastern and north central Pennsylvania counties, acknowledges church attendance is hardly what it used to be a few decades ago.
The number of parishioners in the diocese plummeted by 35 percent since 1970 and nearly half the church buildings in the diocese have closed, many in just the past five years. The bishop said that while necessary, consolidation of parishes has been difficult and challenging for both parishioners and clergy.
“Our number of parishes (120) is much more appropriate to the numbers of faithful who worship within them. It does appear that the number of parishioners has stabilized, for the most part. To make sense of such a statement, one needs to recognize that the closure of churches during that period of time was significantly influenced by the shifting demographics of northeastern and north central Pennsylvania,” Bambera said.
Recent surveys show that the overall population of our area continues to decline, even as the number of new immigrants increases, Bambera notes.
And church membership is no different.
“As a consequence of this reality, our churches are now more full for Sunday worship, our Masses are more vibrant, and our parishes are more capable of sustaining the overall mission and work of the church,” he said.
Bambera acknowledged the scandal surrounding the church’s past handling of sexual abuse by priests “has undoubtedly taken a toll on the church, its people, and its clergy. That being said, I am amazed at how resilient, tolerant and faithful the vast majority of our people have been and continue to be in the face of such brokenness.”
“It is obvious to me that our people, for as connected as they may be to particular members of the clergy and for as disappointed as such inappropriate actions may cause them to feel, most very clearly convey that their faith and the reason for which they worship is rooted not in personalities but the power and presence of God that they experience in their lives,” he said.
Bambera also said people occasionally indicate they stopped going to Mass because of their disappointment in some church teaching or discipline.
“More often than not, however, people seem to have stopped going to Mass less because they disagree with or have been disappointed by the Church and more because their lives are busy and our society places less value on traditional expressions of faith than on other aspects of life,” he said.
Costantino points to the busy lives of his college peers.
“People my age go to school all week and work all day Saturday and Sunday. That makes it really hard to get to Mass. But I still think a lot of them have faith and pray and try to get to get to Mass or some sort of worship … based on dialogue I hear between people,” Costantino said.
Bambera points to studies he said have shown that people today are no less spiritual than they were decades ago.
“They are, however, less likely to adhere to the tenets of organized religion than the generations that have preceded them. Young people, in particular, are still searching for meaning and purpose in their lives. They seem to be looking elsewhere for the fulfillment of such desires,” he said.
Clayton and Theresa Karambelas were married in Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Wilkes-Barre 46 years ago and have attended faithfully ever since. Clayton grew up in the church and Theresa converted from Roman Catholicism.
The Kingston couple acknowledge that young volunteers for the church’s popular Greek food festival are less plentiful and church membership also has declined as people move away.
“Years ago, people had a tendency to stay in the area. Now, they have the whole country available to them,” Clayton said.
Theresa notes that while the Catholic Church has “tried to modernize,” with things such as the introduction of guitar music and the switch from Latin to English-language Masses, “the Greek Church is more founded in tradition. There have been no changes since I’ve been there, just a little more English” in the predominantly Greek-language services.”
“As you get older, you like the tradition. It’s kind of like ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ You can count on it. It’s a comfort to you. But when you’re very young, you object to tradition because you want things more advanced,” she said.
The Rev. Rodney Murphy, pastor of Faith Assembly of God Church in Hazle Township, a Pentecostal denomination, said the church grew from a small number of people worshipping in a storefront on Broad Street in Hazleton in 1948 to more than 400 congregants today.
“Most people come to our church from a lot of different religions or from having no religion at all. People are searching for what’s going to fill a hole in their lives. It’s not career, it’s not religion, it’s not money, sex or addiction,” Murphy said. “It’s a relationship with God.”
Murphy describes religion as “a man-made experience usually made up of rituals, traditions, a going-through-the-motions kind of thing. I’m not saying tradition is not a good thing. But people need something spiritual that can be found in a relationship with God. And that’s what we’re celebrating this week.”
While membership at many area churches has fallen off, the Rev. Daniel Miller said attendance at Back Mountain Harvest Assembly, a Pentecostal church that opened in 1969, has “exploded” since he became pastor 22 years ago.
“We have more than 600 people attending every Sunday, and more than 1,000 people would call this their home church. We recently bought another 40 acres and added five buildings,” Miller said.
New members have come from “all different faiths, and many, no faiths, or haven’t practiced in a long time. Many felt the need to get God and religion back in their lives,” Miller said. “We try to reach out to the unchurched.”
So, what brought all these people to the Kingston Township congregation and kept them coming back?
Miller points to a study in which people were asked about belief in or appreciation for God, Jesus Christ, the Bible and the church. He said more than 90 percent of people appreciated or believed in the first three, but only 26 percent liked the church.
“That tells me you don’t have a product problem, you have a delivery service problem,” Miller said. “We have to re-invent the church so people will want to be part of it again.”
Miller said church leaders have tried to accomplish that in three major ways:
• Adding upbeat music with guitars, drums and other instruments to worship services. “People want to be uplifted. You need lively, singing worship. Without that, you’re sunk.”
• Delivering relevant messages with life applications. “Churches are answering questions that aren’t being asked. We need to answer questions that are being asked.”
• Inviting fellowship. “A lot of churches, you come and don’t know anybody. There has to be time to interact with one another. This has to be your family.”