By Brent Schanding
Landmark News Service
What nearly started in a barn is now a way of life for Leon Tracy.
Tracy, 66, is pastor and co-founder of Kentucky Cowboy Church, a non-conventional, non-denominational church near Pleasureville, where its not unusual to see denim-clad parishioners in Wranglers and Western hats. The "cowboys for Christ" were forced to gather at a Gest Road worship site, after insurance agents cited liabilities with holding services in a barn.
"A lot of folks are horse people, they like to ride," Tracy said. "We're very relaxed."
On Friday nights, as many as 30 churchgoers - most of them in their upper 40s or older - gather to pray and worship. The church's irregular meeting time not only keeps the traditional Sabbath holy, Tracy said, it also allows followers to attend Sunday services elsewhere, if they choose.
"I didn't want to contend for other people's congregation," Tracy said. "I like to help people. I don't want to sell anything. I won't give you rocks out of the Jordan River or prayer handkerchiefs."
The non-provincial pastor's methods seem to stray far from his Baptist upbringings - but the trend of bucking birth beliefs is becoming increasingly common for evangelicals everywhere.
A national survey of tens of thousands of Americans found that more than 40 percent have switched from the faith they were raised in.
According to the study, conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 28 percent of American adults have abandoned the faiths of their fathers, in favor of another religion - or none at all. When intradenominational changes between Protestants are calculated, 44 percent of adults have either swapped faiths or dropped religious convictions altogether.
That surprises Tracy, who believes most youths embedded with a particular faith from an early age, will remain devout followers into adulthood.
"I haven't found that many crossover types," he said. A lot of people remain in places where their grandmother said that was right," or mama found that was right."
Those who do swap faiths have likely dismissed dogma altogether in favor of a more tailored form of spirituality, Tracy believes. That's exactly what he did.
"I've always been a Bible nut," the ordained minister said. "But I am what I am now, because of my own study."
The survey further revealed that the United States is gradually slipping from its Protestant roots. By the next decade the narrowing 51 percent majority likely wont be able to claim America as a "Christian country."
Mainline Protestantism - which groups Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians and Methodists together with most evangelicals - has seen the greatest losses in membership.
Immigration trends are now tipping the religious majority towards Catholicism.
Although many Catholics also have left the church, an influx of Hispanics are keeping the church's percentage steady, according to the report.
At St. John's Catholic Church in Eminence, Father Bill Bowling's cell phone message now includes two greetings: one in English, another in Spanish. While the church does not hold a Spanish Mass, its sister parish, Church of the Annunciation in nearby Shelbyville does. About a quarter of the church membership there is Hispanic, Bowling said.
Bowling said the new data, which suggests Americans are likely to convert to other religions, doesn't surprise him. Americans are increasingly becoming more comfortable with change in all areas of their lives, he said.
"We don't hold jobs for a lifetime. We don't live in the same house for a life time," he said. "Everything's very fluid."
Even though he's been a lifelong Catholic, Bowling said he once explored different faiths as a teenager.
"By my sophomore year in college I realized I wanted to remain Catholic," he said. "I prayed about the decision."
While Bowling said it's rejuvenating to find young people who yearn to learn more about his religion, the Pew survey found that margin may represent a faithful few.
"Unaffiliated" Americans comprise one of the only groups that's gaining more members than it's losing, the study found. One-in-four Americans ages 18 to 29 said they are not affiliated with any religion.
That's because today's churches are often caught in a crossfire between the younger congregation and older congregation, said Terry Johnson, of First Presbyterian Church of Eminence. Before he was named primary pastor of the small congregation, Johnson served as youth minister and saw firsthand, the struggles between youth and adults.
While many of the church's younger followers preferred contemporary worship services, Johnson said most of the long-term members preferred a more traditional approach to worshipping.
"Youth don't feel like they get the support from church they want," Johnson said. "They feel they can accomplish what they need on their own."
So many of them leave.
While many of those "unaffiliated" in the survey identified as atheists or agnostics, the group also includes "spiritual" Americans, who reject any organized form of religion.
In fact, a large number of unaffiliated people said religion remains somewhat important to them.
Johnson said those lost sheep will likely return to the church as they mature.
"I think, like everything else in life, people will drift away, but they'll come back," he said.
"We're covenant people. God has called us to worship together."
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