Bill Harrell compares what happened to Columbia County's churches immediately after Sept. 11 to the response that was seen nationwide during World War II.
"Just like the second World War, all of the churches were full," said Harrell, pastor of Abilene Baptist Church in Martinez. "And following September 11, I would say certainly our church saw a surge of energy for several weeks there."
But lately, more than three months after the attacks on New York and Washington, church attendance in Columbia County has begun to change again. Some pastors say they've seen declines with the passage of time. Others say they've noticed continued increases, based on a transformation of lives.
"Initially, right after September 11, we did see an increase of folks," said David Kenner, pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Evans. "That's kind of tapered back off again. I think it's because we got some distance" from Sept. 11.
Because of the war, Kenner said, his church has lost some members.
"For one thing, we do have Fort Gordon here," he said. "So, we've got people leaving because of September 11. We have members that are there, and that kind of elevates the concern among the congregation."
Bill Hilley, pastor of Grace Baptist Church, said attendance at his church also has dropped in the past few months.
"My perspective of it is that the folks that came out immediately following have not continued in their attendance for the most part," he said. "We had a big Sunday that week or two after. But it seems to have settled back down to pretty much our standard group."
At Baker Woods Baptist Church, however, some people who visited the church for the first time after Sept. 11 are still attending.
"We've had 15 to 20 new people," said Ellis Moore, the church's associate pastor. "We've had some people who were not regular who now have started coming regularly. It's just had an impact on our community."
Eric Taylor, pastor of Oakey Grove Baptist Church, said interest in his church has stayed high since the attacks.
"We are seeing more people come to church," he said. "And not just coming to church to say that they're in the church. They're coming with deep concerns of spirituality."
Taylor said the concern he has seen has been spurred by people looking for answers as to why the attacks occurred and a mechanism for coping in a changed world.
"I think the airplanes flying into the twin towers has kind of made people realize that America is not invincible," he said. "If the bombing did anything, it woke us up to make us aware that we do have to deal with our spirituality. Not just from a nation's perspective. We have to look at it globally and how other people are worshipping."
Abilene Baptist's Harrell said the problem is that people sometimes forget the church once their immediate concerns have been met.
"It's human nature that when you need God, you take him out of the little box, pop it open and take a dose of him to make it OK," he said. "Then, when everything gets OK, you don't mind putting him back in the box until you need him again."
This time, though, Harrell said he doesn't expect a return to complacency any time soon.
"I think as long as we have an aura of war, the possible terrorist attacks, boys going off to war, you're going to see people who will attend church more regularly," he said.
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