Jun. 12—Is Chattanooga losing its religious groove?
For four of the five years in the 2010s in which the American Bible Society, based on information collected by The Barna Group, ranked the country's most "Bible-minded" cities, Chattanooga was No. 1. It also placed first in Barna's list of "most churched" cities in 2017.
Now, newly released aggregated Barna data collected between 2005 and 2021 shows the city is tied for ninth in Bible reading and tied for 11th in weekly prayer.
In a country that is far more secular and humanistic than even 20 years ago, news that fewer people in the U.S. are reading the Bible and are praying less is hardly surprising.
But the actions seem to have fallen off faster in Chattanooga than elsewhere. Or have they?
According to the aggregated data, 55% of its residents read the Bible at least once a week, which ties it with Little Rock/Pine Bluff, Ark. In the poll's No. 1 city for Bible reading, 64% of residents of Monroe, La., say they read the Bible at least weekly, which is roughly double the national average.
But in 2017, when the American Bible Society last released its list of the top "Bible-minded" cities, Chattanooga topped the list with 50% of its people tabbed as "Bible-minded," which was defined as as the number of people who reported reading the Bible in the past week, as well as the percentage who strongly assert the Bible is accurate in the principles it teaches.
In that designation, only 25% of the U.S. population was considered to be "Bible-minded."
Perhaps, it's Monroe, then (which is followed in the list by Montgomery, Ala., Tyler/Longview/Lufkin/Nacogdoches, Texas, Jackson, Miss., and Macon, Ga.). Perhaps a religious fervor recently has taken hold of the Louisiana city.
No, an internet search doesn't indicate the presence of such a fervor. Or that the city even knows that it leads the country in Bible reading.
For what's it's worth, a search does reveal a Reddit post with 70 comments titled "My fire-and-brimstone letter to the editor [of the Monroe News Star] rebuking local Christians."
So it's clear that even Monroe may have room to grow among Bible readers.
It's also evident most of the Louisiana city's residents pray, according to the Barna data.
It topped the list of U.S. cities who pray to God, with 94% of Monroe residents — Christians and non-Christians — saying they do so at least once a week. That mark is 30 percentage points higher than the 64% national average and eight points higher than Chattanooga's 86%.
However, the percentage of people who pray at least weekly across the U.S. has dropped 19 points from an average of 83% in 2012, according to Barna.
Chattanooga is tied for 11th on the list with Memphis, Jackson, Miss., and LaFayette, La. Behind Monroe in the top five are Evansville, Indiana; Augusta, Georgia; Tyler/Longview/Lufkin/Nacogdoches; Montgomery; and Florence/Myrtle Beach, S.C.
A small example of how faith matters actually have changed in the Scenic City came in the recent mayor's race. In every race in recent memory, the leading candidates would talk about their faith or at least mention a religious affiliation in their campaign advertising.
Of the two candidates in the Chattanooga runoff, advertising for Kim White mentioned a church affiliation, and she told Doug Daugherty of the conservative Hamilton Flourishing, who was interviewing all candidates, that "faith is an important part of who I am as a person." Tim Kelly, according to the organization, "wouldn't schedule an interview" and does not mention a religious affiliation on his campaign website, which is still available online.
Did voters care, the 23.4% of registered voters who cast a ballot? Evidently not. Kelly won the runoff with 60% of the votes.
Unquestionably, Chattanooga has suffered the same fate as the rest of the country with declining attendance in churches, fewer young people as interested in faith as their elders, and many more activities and technological devices to attract everyone's attention.
But despite Barna's national data being based on a representative sample of 49,835 interviews by phone or online with U.S. adults, ages 18 or older, over the course of 15 years (2005 to 2021), measuring Bible reading, prayer and church attendance is an inexact science at best.
Still, from the number of Chattanooga's thriving churches to its lofty charitable giving to its significant volunteerism, it's clear faith still plays a vital part in the lives of most city residents.