A look at the state of religion in Colorado

HIGHLANDS RANCH - Amid the soaring ceilings, voices join together in shared faith.

It's Sunday morning at Cherry Hills Community Church in Highlands Ranch and the service is packed.

"It's really like a large extended family," said Senior Pastor Shane Farmer of Cherry Hills Community Church. "If you come here on Sundays, you're going to see grey hairs, young bald-headed guys and all things in between."

It's no surprise, really: last September, Cherry Hills Community Church received the distinction of being the fastest growing church in the country. The church has more than 6,200 members and grew by 43-percent last year. That's according to Outreach Magazine, which reached out to 27,000 churches across the country and compiled a list of the top 100 growth churches.

"I knew that I was experiencing growth in ministry that was unparalleled from anything I'd experienced before," Farmer said. "We could simply see there were more people coming here on Sundays and with 1,500 to 2,000 extra people kind of showing up on our doorstep."

While Colorado is home to the fastest growing church in America, it's also a state with a large percentage of people who claim to not be religious.

"The western states, with the exception of Utah, constitute what has long been called by historians "the unchurched belt," as opposed to the "Bible belt" in the south," said Deborah Whitehead, an assistant professor of religious studies at CU Boulder.

Whitehead said the idea of not being affiliated with a religion is something Americans, in general, have become more comfortable expressing.

"It's more acceptable nowadays, socially, to say that, to make that statement than it has been in past decades," she said.

According to a recent Gallup poll on religion in America, in Colorado, 35-percent of those surveyed said they were very religious. A larger percentage, 39-percent, claimed they had no religious affiliation.

It's a split that can look very different, depending on where you live in the Centennial state.

"For example, Colorado Springs, and also Greeley, rank sometimes, according to different studies, as very religious cities-- as even the most religious cities in the state or in the nation," Whitehead said. "On the other hand, Boulder gets ranked as one of the least religious cities in the nation."

Other experts on religion say claiming no religious affiliation doesn't necessarily mean someone is an atheist or agnostic.

"To me, this idea that Colorado is not a religious state is either a very narrow way of understanding religion or simply not true," said CU Boulder Professor of History and Religious Studies David Shneer.

Instead, they say Colorado may be more about spirituality -- a concept not tackled as much in polling data.

"Spirituality is kind of an amorphous category," Whitehead said.

It's a concept that they also see at Cherry Hills Community Church.

"Nowhere in the Bible did Christ say, 'Go to church every Sunday.' It's not a commandment, but people do continue to choose to go," Pastor Farmer said. "I definitely feel that a lot of the people who live in Colorado, they're more spiritual, in a sense. There's a lot more self-invented religions out here—but people are seeking and longing."

It's a search with the ability to bring some people indoors on a Sunday morning, or out into the Colorado sunshine.

You can find more polling information on where Americans stand on religion at bit.ly/1cO9je5 and bit.ly/1znxo2V

(KUSA-TV © 2015 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)


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