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Who's filling America's church pews

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"We want to be part of a church that is growing," says Mr. Leslie, who does outreach work for León de Judá, from visiting hospitals to sharing information in subways. "We want to touch the community for Jesus, and this church has advanced that cause."

Much of the church growth in secular New England stems from immigrants and the cultures they create in pursuit of spiritual grounding. Researchers at the Emmanuel Gospel Center (EGC), a Boston-based Christian organization that studies urban ministries, call it a "quiet revival." It is often overlooked because the Religion Census tracks only denominations, yet nondenominational churches account for some of the fastest-filling pews, or folding chairs, as the case may more often be.

EGC data show that Boston has spawned more than 100 Hispanic evangelical churches in the past 40 years, up from just a handful in the 1970s. EGC's census also found 65 Haitian churches in greater Boston, including at least one with more than 500 members.

"A storefront church might not look that big, but they have 100 to 200 people coming each week," says Rudy Mitchell, a senior researcher at EGC. "A big old church might only have 50 people attending even though they have a big building."

Where growth is happening inside traditional denominations, such as at León de Judá, immigrant connections often play a central role. Half of the Southern Baptists' 325 churches in New England are non-English speaking. They worship instead in Spanish, Portuguese, or Haitian Creole.

What's more, internationally minded denominations are benefitting from having built churches, schools, and hospitals abroad for decades. Seventh-day Adventists operate more than 7,800 schools around the world. Thus, Brazilians who immigrate to Massachusetts often plug into a local Seventh-day Adventist church led by an immigrant pastor who knows their homeland and speaks their native language, according to Edwin Hernandez of the Center for the Study of Latino Religion at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind.

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