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Faith in Hawaii

A new survey provides a glimpse of religion in Hawaii -- what the church offers and how it's perceived

By Vicki Viotti


Churches deal with matters of faith, not an area that lends itself to measurements. But perceptions of the church from those on the receiving end of the religious outreach, that's another story. That can be measured, though it's rarely done in any comprehensive way in Hawaii.

"There are a lot of thoughts on how Christianity is doing, and how the state feels about the church, but we really didn't know for sure," Dan Chun said, making a recent presentation to a gathering of Hawaii pastors and church faithful.

Chun, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, also is president of Hawaiian Islands Ministries, a nonprofit Christian ministry that supports Hawaii church leadership through training programs and conferences. The organization commissioned a $60,000 survey, performed by The Barna Group, a national research company that specializes in such religious polling but also has the Disney Channel, ABC-TV, Visa and military entities on its client list.

Now that the research is done -- bound into a 104-page paperback the ministries has for sale to recoup some of its expenses -- Chun hopes the guidance will inform churches what they're doing right and where things may be slipping through the cracks.

Many points of interest to the general public, complimentary to churches and otherwise, are in the report, including:

» Values: Whether or not they're religious, the Hawaii respondents to the survey overwhelmingly ranked "family" first among their concerns, with "health" listed not far behind.

» Social service: Among nonmembers as well as regular parishioners, Hawaii residents seem aware of the various works churches do in the community, everything from preschools to addictions counseling.

» Perceptions: A small majority, 55 percent, give the church "very favorable" ratings, significantly below the 71 percent in that category in mainland averages.

» Practice: Only about one-third, 34 percent, say they attend church weekly, compared to 52 percent on the mainland as a whole. But 76 percent of the Hawaii worshippers say they prayed in the past week (20-minute phone interviews of 1,008 residents were conducted in February).

» Denominational loyalty: 34 percent said they're Protestant, 24 say Catholic.

» Orthodoxy: Hawaii's churchgoers and believers in general tend to be a little less "entrenched," according to the study's conclusions. Fewer following the orthodox practices of their mainland counterparts. For example, only 45 percent say they belong to a church, higher than the national norm, and there's less emphasis on Bible study here.

That kind of observation surprised some of those who have heard the presentation, including Edward Hill, commander of The Salvation Army Hawaiian and Pacific Islands Division.

"I had the impression that people of Hawaii were more spiritual, more Christian, that the church was growing in Hawaii ahead of the mainland," Hill said. "And many may not meet the standard criteria of an evangelical Christian."

What produced this looser interpretation of Christian practice is open to debate, but Chun highlighted some ideas about that. One is its culture of tolerance that arises from its demographics. In addition to ethnic variations, there is a diversity of faiths: About 14 percent reported being members of non-Christian religions, a segment that represents closer to 4 percent on the mainland.

But Chun and the other pastors are not taking the data about those missing from the pews as simple discouragement, because the survey drilled down to yield a few answers about why people are staying away.

People who are not attending services, or who more broadly are nonbelievers, are called the "unchurched" in this survey and many others like it. About 45 percent of people in this group have never been to church, Chun said, a segment that could include Buddhists or others whose spiritual practices are more individual than communal.

But some of the questions also sectioned off a subset called the "de-churched," which, compared to the mainland, is a large group. These are people who once went to worship services but who now -- using common parlance among lapsed Catholics and others -- have "fallen away." Understanding why they left regular worship, Chun said, provides hints about ways to reach them, in one way or another.

"The church let them down in some way, was impractical or irrelevant," he said. "So if we're going to try and reach those people, they have in a sense an inoculation, some 'antibodies' against the church."

The specific perceptions are a mixed bag of criticism and compliments, Chun said. While 62 percent said the church is "judgmental," 61 percent "hypocritical," 52 percent "too involved in politics," and 49 percent "anti-homosexual," the positives characterizations of the church included "caring" (75 percent), "good principles" (69 percent) and "trustworthy" (56 percent).

Almost a quarter of the de-churched are going to be tough customers, saying they don't attend now, "and they're just not interested in ever attending.

"And 24 percent really say, 'It's my only day off; I am NOT going to church,'" he added with a wry laugh.

The survey also identified that about 35 percent of the unchurched would be drawn to seminars about family and community.

"Remember, that was a high value, family, 92 percent," Chun said. "If we all want to reach the community, we've got to think of family seminars, maybe how to do parenting better, how to do marriage better. I mean, this is a huge cue from the unchurched."

When it comes to Hawaii's religious belief systems, 73 percent define themselves as Christians, including Catholics, Chun said, but it helps to understand what people mean when by "Christian." Largely, they don't mean they're evangelicals as defined in the report, even if many call themselves "born-again Christians" nonetheless. Barna listed the evangelical belief statements.

"If you say faith is very important in your life, you have responsibility to share your faith; that the Bible is accurate; that Satan exists; that there is eternal salvation in grace, not because of your efforts; that Jesus lived a sinless life, not just another man like us; and we keep an orthodox view of God, then that's what an evangelical is," Chun said. "And maybe many of you are saying, 'Yeah, that should be the basic, that should be the foundation of what a Christian is,' but we're going to see that's not what the Hawaii population thinks a Christian is." Only 4 percent of those surveyed said they hold all these beliefs, half the percentage on the mainland.

Then there are the "notional Christians," who ascribe to none of the listed points but still say they're Christian: They're 43 percent, according to the survey. On that score, Hawaii matches mainland trends.

"And then the agnostics, it's higher here than on the mainland," he added. "We have 11 percent agnostic or atheist, and the mainland is 7 percent."

In addition to polling the flock, Barna researchers also conducted a separate survey of 161 Christian pastors on their view from the pulpit. "High cost of living" also was seen as a heavy burden for the churches -- notable especially when paired with figures showing that Hawaii pastors were paid less, on the whole, than national averages.

But the biggest takeaway Chun cited was the 83 percent who said "the multicultural ethnic diversity, making sure you're reaching everybody with different styles and different approaches is a very, very big challenge."

Rojo Herrera, pastor of New Hope Leeward, agreed with that, although he added that it's not always so challenging. He recalled an encounter with a former classmate from the mainland who remarked on the range of people at the services.

"So she starts explaining to me how it's become more and more polarized," Herrera said. "If there's a way to carve out, they carve out."

It does take time to acclimate, he said, but it's often an attribute, too.

"I think it's one of our great strengths," Herrera added."

Others were willing to take some hints from the results as they returned to their ministry. Even if people don't come to worship, Hill said, there are other ways to reach out. And down the road: Who knows?

"There are human needs that church is ideally placed to fill," Hill said. "Family, health, use of my time, having friends ... any church that meets those needs has an opportunity to grow."

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