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Chesterfield County church attendance defies national trends

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CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- In the Bible there are many mentions about the road to redemption.  For instance, Matthew 7:14 reads, "But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it."

If there is a literal road to redemption, it might be Courthouse Road in Chesterfield County. Along a seven-mile stretch of Courthouse Road, between Smoketree Drive and Route 288, sit at least 16 churches.

One of them, Central Baptist Church, was organized in 1900.  Senior Pastor David Turner has only been there since 2005, but said he has seen the growth around his church and others along Courthouse Road.

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The majority of congregational adherents belong to an Evangelical Protestant church, according to data collected by the Association of Religion Data Archives. However, the churches along Courthouse Road are varied.  Denominations represented on the road include Catholic, 7th Day Adventist, Methodist and Lutheran, among others.

"We are simply here to serve the community and be the presence of Christ," Pastor Turner said. "We’ve got a lot of great partners."

Turner's church is part of CCHASM, the Chesterfield Colonial Heights Alliance for Social Ministry, a non-profit organization that serves those in need.  Central Baptist also collects and distributes donations of food and funds through the "Broken Loaves" ministry.

Less than a mile down the road the message on many Sunday mornings is about diversity.

"Diversity is a good thing," Pastor Harvey Joyner of the First Congregational Christian United Church of Christ said. "We don’t all have to think alike to love alike. There are different approaches to one’s understanding of God and the practice of their faith and frankly we see that as a good thing."

Pastor Joyner said about a third of his parishioners are same-sex couples.  With the Supreme Court effectively paving the way for same-sex marriage in Virginia and other states, he's seeing more people show up for his sermons.

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Pastor Joyner's church isn't the only house of worship seeing growth.  While the ARDA numbers show church attendance is down nationally, it is up 20 percent in Chesterfield County over the last 10 years.

Even the Mayor of Richmond sees Chesterfield as a mission field. Pastor Dwight Jones' new church, the First Baptist Church of South Richmond, is under construction just over the Richmond/Chesterfield border on Ironbridge Road.

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Back on Courthouse Road, at the Cross Creek nursery, gardener Barry Van Dyke sees a lot of business on Sundays.

"Between 10 and 12 o'clock it's really quiet; and all of a sudden at 12 the nursery just explodes.  A lot of people dressed in their Sunday finest are coming here from church," she said.

While Cross Creek sees more money from church goers, the county doesn't receive property tax money from the churches themselves.

According to the Chesterfield tax office, the county had a total of 243 churches last year.  There are a total of 501 tax exempt properties when you include these properties in with the churches.

The 2013 assessment for these properties is $354,676,000. The tax amount on this assessment would have generated $3,369,422 if the properties were taxable.

Dale District Supervisor James "Jim" Holland said he doesn't miss those millions.

"If there were no churches in our community I would be terrified!""If there were no churches in our community I would be terrified!" Holland said.

Holland, a professor of accounting at VCU,  said its simple math. Churches, plus volunteers, equals millions of dollars in savings for Chesterfield. He said churches host police and fire department ceremonies, become polling places during elections, act as food banks and organize free medical care.

Holland said he also believed churches help save the county money in fighting crime.

Jim Holland

"Each Sunday they hear a great sermon. And I don't expect problems from them on Monday or Friday," Holland said.

Some groups, like the Fredericksburg Coalition of Reason (FCR), oppose the federal tax exemption churches enjoy.

The FCR is made up of secular humanist and religious skeptic groups who believe some churches act strictly as a business.

"You have to keep the money coming in if you want to keep the doors open," FCR spokesperson Matt Jordan said. "Some people have done quite well using religion in terms of an income."

Do you think church should enjoy tax exempt status or should houses of worship be compelled to pay taxes like other businesses? Click here to email the CBS 6 Newsroom your opinion.