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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of May 8 - 14, 2002


Spiritual life in the valley burgeons

Baby Boomers, others lead rediscovery of religion

Express Staff Writer

"Church is there to facilitate a relationship with God," said Bob Henley, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood in Ketchum, one of the Wood River Valley’s largest congregations.

The Emmanuel Episcopal Church is located in the middle of Hailey’s original town site. The Rev. Jennifer Anttonen, the valley’s only female pastor, stands in the doorway of the historic building built in 1885. Express photo by David N. Seelig

Seeking to re-establish that relationship¾ in the upheaval of the post-Sept. 11 days¾ the country’s populace is returning in record numbers to their houses of worship.

It’s also a mark of the state of our world in Blaine County that along with secular growth¾ a burgeoning number of new homes, increased highway traffic, the need for more schools, services and infrastructure, plus other continuing demands on planning and zoning¾ there’s an increased need for more places of worship. That’s right. Faith in the Wood River Valley is a growing business.

Organized spiritual groups here include Christian Fundamentalists, such as Baptist, Lutheran, Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and Seventh Day Adventists; new-age non-denominationals, such as Light on the Mountains and Wood River Spiritual Center, which are both aligned with Religious Science; two Buddhism groups, and the Wood River Jewish Community, which this year will be hiring its first full-time rabbi.

And there’s yet another reason for the growth of spirituality in the valley that reflects changes in the outside world. According to the 2000 census, Hispanics make up 10 percent of Blaine County’s population. They’ve moved to the valley in ever increasing numbers, and are largely churchgoers. Both St. Charles Catholic Church in Hailey—where the Hispanics now out number the Anglos—and Valley Christian Fellowship hold Spanish services. Valley Christian Fellowship is the only church in the valley with an Hispanic pastor, Tito Rivera, on staff.

But coping with growth in churches can be tricky. In an article in Church Growth magazine, Flavil R. Yeakley, director of the Center for Church Growth at Harding University, Searcy, Ark., said most "churches have been unable to sustain their growth rate when they have gone beyond 90 percent of capacity in regard to parking space, classroom space and seating capacity."

Brian Baker, the minister at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Ketchum, agrees.

When a church is full to the rafters, as St. Thomas was before its recent reconstruction that doubled its sanctuary size, newcomers may feel unwelcome, Baker said. "They think there is no room for me here."

Yeakly contends "The growth rate begins to decline at about 90 percent of capacity. Growth stops at around 95 percent. Attendance then declines. The cycle is repeated over and over."

Considering the large additions on two of the more prominent church buildings here—besides the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church of the Bigwood has built an entirely new sanctuary—this concept is timely. In Hailey, an expansion of the Emmanuel Episcopal Church, whose congregation has tripled in the three years that Jennifer Anttonen has been the minister, is in the planning stage. This spirituality revival did not happen easily, however.

"In the 1950s there were maybe seven brands to choose from," Henley said. "Everybody’s parents generally went to church."

But in the divisive 1960s and 1970s, a search for spiritual alternatives developed.

The younger generation’s general consensus was to go anywhere that wasn’t daddy’s church. For many, it meant the outright rejection of organized religion.

"We also saw a drift from mainline churches due to the bureaucracy in church in itself," Henley said.

Nationwide, church attendance dwindled.

But spirituality never really goes out of style, and many came back or formed new churches, which addressed their needs in more relevant ways.

And, in the microcosm that is Blaine County, it’s easy to see now why additional church space is necessary.

According to the last census, Blaine County’s population swelled by 40 percent over the past 10 years to 18,991. And it’s continuing to swell at a pace that places it 4th in annual growth among Idaho’s 44 counties. Between April 2000 and July 2001, Blaine grew by 807 to a population of 19,798, for a growth rate of 4.2 percent.

Also, Baby Boomers, who make up 36 percent of the county’s population, have had children and have shown an increasing desire to pass on spiritual traditions. Baker said a significant number of those aged 40 to 55 have school age children who begin to ask about God. "That is the entry point, not at baptism, but older. Parents want to give them spiritual foundation."

Fortunately, many churches have changed with the times, incorporating outreach programs, becoming havens for community and serving the public’s need for diversity. Many people now choose their religions and churches based on personal compatibility rather than brand name.

Churches like the Religious Science groups think of themselves as all-denomination rather than non-denominational despite the fact that they are based on Christian principles, said John Moreland, the new pastor for Light on the Mountains. But they do not appeal to everyone after all. In fact, Light on the Mountains is currently gathering on Sundays in the Sawtooth Botanical Garden, but is planning to purchase a home nearby to use as their church. First, though, they must resolve a conditional-use issue regarding a turn-off lane on the highway, and contend with nearby property owners unsure of the affect on their property values.

Henley said one of the reasons for the inclination toward these so called interdenominational churches was the Jesus People Movement, which began in 1967 with the opening of a small storefront evangelical mission called the Living Room in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district.

This gave license to others to adopt and adapt elements of several faith traditions based on their own sensibilities. Among the mélange of churches that were born of this movement was the Calvary Church, huge non-denominational places like the Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, Foursquare Gospel, Church of Science and the Charismatic Renewal.

Much of this trend shows that at the institutional level evangelism has re-infiltrated the mainstream.

In fact, many diocese and local churches are once again exploring their faithfulness to the missionary mandate by building homes in Mexico, working on Native American reservations or sending their children to Bible camps.

But we haven’t come full circle. Certainly, with the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, there is once again a need to peer deeper under the layers of church bureaucracy and out-moded paternalistic approaches.

But continuity of faith, and the accompanying manifestations, is really all about freedom of conscience—as essential to the fabric of human rights as the pursuit of happiness, free speech and freedom of the press.

It’s this concept that has emerged as a leading force behind the valley’s spiritual growth, where new grocery stores, sub-divisions and bigger schools go hand in hand with an increase in faith-based groups.

When the snow melts, and Bald Mountain closes, the need to connect on a deeper level doesn’t diminish. In fact, the need to have that personal relationship with God or higher power of choice, remains and must be nourished.


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.