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Who's filling America's church pews

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New England's changing religious character comes as religious ties decline around the country. Nearly 1 in 5 Americans (19.6 percent) now says he or she has no religious affiliation, up from 15 percent just five years ago, according to Pew Research Center surveys.

Faith remains strong: More than 90 percent of Americans still believe in God or a universal spirit, according to Gallup research, even as fewer claim a particular religious "brand" or identity. More people are opting not to align themselves with one religious denomination or tradition, but their interest in faith remains keen and creates opportunities for innovators.

"The way people are religious is changing," says Frank Newport, Gallup's editor in chief. "And maybe what's happening up in [New England] is a good indication of what is happening or could happen elsewhere."

Now emerging in the land of Cotton Mather and Robert Frost are religious cultures marked by immigrant experiences and creative worship, with emphasis on good works and personal holiness. It's not entirely what stolid New Englanders are used to, but maybe that's its appeal.

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On a December morning, the polished sounds of bongos and electric keyboards emanate from Congregación León de Judá, a 1,500 member church in an ethnically diverse Boston neighborhood. It's a mainline American Baptist Churches congregation, though maybe not one prior generations would recognize.

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