Minnesotans are going to church in large numbers, but fewer are attending mainline Protestant and Catholic churches, according to a new census of U.S. churchgoers. Instead, they are flocking to churches independent of any denomination.

The rise of these nondenominational churches -- most of them Evangelical Protestants -- is documented in the latest U.S. Religion Census, taken every 10 years. The 2010 census counted membership in nondenominational churches for the first time.

"The nondenominational churches have been around, but I don't think people realized they were quite so omnipresent," said Scott Thumma, a researcher at the Hartford Institute for Religious Research in Connecticut, who helped compile the data released Tuesday. "They're spread out in 88 percent of the counties around the country. They're in the top five religious groups in every state [including Minnesota], except two."

While the Catholic Church remains the largest denomination nationally and in Minnesota, its membership has dropped sharply since 2000. Minnesota had 1.15 million Catholics in 2010, down 8.7 percent from 1.26 million in 2000.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Minnesota's second largest denomination, saw membership sink to 737,537, a 13.6 percent decline from 853,448.

By contrast, the fastest-growing religious segment in Minnesota is the Evangelical Protestants, with a total of 744,910 followers. Non-denominational churches are among the leaders in this group with 130,263 followers.

More religious variety

While mainline Christianity continues to dominate, the religious landscape has become increasingly diverse. In Minnesota, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ranked as the third-fastest growing denomination, while the estimated number of Muslims grew as well -- the seventh-fastest-growing religious body.

The Assemblies of God ranked as the fastest growing denomination in the state, increasing from 56,028 followers and 212 congregations, to 75,302 and 234.

The Rev. Clarence St. John, district superintendent of the Assemblies of God churches in Minnesota, attributes the growth to a concerted effort to "plant" new churches. Since 1990, it has started 134 new churches throughout the state, and plans to add 70 more by 2020. Like other Evangelical Protestant churches, the group also has created Bible studies and other specialized groups within congregations for newcomers to join so they feel welcome and don't leave.

"Really, people are looking for relationships today," St. John said. "I think they're looking for a place that's vibrant and full of faith. You can almost walk into a church and tell it's there."

The 2010 data for the census was collected by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies and include statistics for 236 religious groups, providing information on the number of their congregations and adherents within each state and county in the United States.

Membership has been dropping for mainline Protestant churches for decades.

The clergy sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church is a likely factor behind its membership decline, Thumma and other religious scholars note.

The ELCA, the largest Lutheran denomination in the country, has seen at least 600 congregations leave since it voted in 2009 to allow for openly gay and lesbian pastors in committed relationships.

A major factor in the growth of Evangelical Protestant Christianity has been the group's consistent emphasis on starting new churches.

"That's a core part of it," said Carl Nelson, president of Transform Minnesota, a network of 160 evangelical churches in Minnesota. "Many evangelical leaders acknowledge the best way to reach new people ... is to begin new churches. Established congregations have a more difficult time of reaching new people."

'A new lens'

Peter Haas, pastor at Substance Church, one of the fastest growing nondenominational congregations in the Twin Cities with 3,000 followers and four church campuses, says their worship services tend to be more contemporary, which attracts younger families. About 70 percent of his congregation is under the age of 30.

"There's more opportunity for them [younger pastors and congregants] to lead, which means they also get to define church culture," Haas said. "There's less dogma and less tradition to contend with. A lot of people don't understand the traditions [of denominations] and would like to reinterpret the Bible through a new lens. It's the same message but a different format.

"People's willingness to even affiliate with nondenominational churches, I think, also reflects the diversity of America's religious culture. We've become a lot more complicated when it comes to our beliefs."

Rose French • 612-673-4352