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Hands up and eyes closed, Ashley Ingram sways and sings along with the live band playing contemporary Christian music at River Valley Church.
The largest Assemblies of God congregation in Minnesota with close to 5,000 people, River Valley recently opened its sixth Twin Cities area campus, located near the Vikings headquarters in Eden Prairie, where Ingram and her fiancé worship on Sundays.
"It's very emotional for us," said Ingram, 23, who grew up attending traditional Lutheran services but now prefers the charismatic style at River Valley. "Especially the first couple of weeks we were here, I wasn't used to it. I would cry at every service. The teachings just touch you."
River Valley sits at the epicenter of growth in evangelical Protestant groups while the larger Catholic, Lutheran and other mainline Protestant populations slide. The Assemblies of God ranked as the fastest-growing religious body in Minnesota between 2000 and 2010, according to religious census data. The denomination gained the largest number of worshippers during that decade, 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, says the growth is part of 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. Twenty more should be added this year.
"We kind of have a church-planting fever," said St. John. "I think it is our responsibility to spread the faith as much as we can. If we really think what we have in our faith is something that helps people live and prepares them for life and for eternity, then we have a responsibility to do our best."
'We're the best-kept secret'
Senior Pastor Rob Ketterling established River Valley's main campus in Apple Valley in 2000, when attendance was close to 500. That number now swells to nearly 5,000 every week, counting the new campuses in Eden Prairie and Burnsville the church started this past fall.
Ketterling attributes much of the church's steady growth to an active ministry for children that attracts young families, vibrant contemporary worship services and a pastoral approach that applies the Scriptures' significance to everyday life.
"People have said we're kind of the best-kept secret in church growth in Minnesota," Ketterling said. "We're just finally starting to get noticed."
The church raised more than $1.5 million for ministry projects around the world, he said. It supports a campus in Spain and is preparing to open a church and orphanage in Swaziland, Africa, in February.
"They [congregants] feel like they're going on a mission to do something, that we're here to change this world, and they actually feel like they're making a difference," Ketterling said. "Our giving went up 29 percent last year at a time when most churches would have been thrilled to be flat or barely above that. To me that shows people are believing in it."
Ingram and her fiancé, Steven Claiborne, 23, started going to River Valley's Eden Prairie campus after learning about it from one of the pastors, whose children attended the day care where Ingram worked.
Besides enjoying the contemporary worship style, Ingram says the congregation has been welcoming and hasn't judged her and Claiborne for having a child out of wedlock. The couple also like the children's ministry at the church, where they bring their 16-month-old son each Sunday during worship.
"Although they encourage us to read the Bible, it's not just strictly teaching of the Bible," Ingram said. "It's taking a verse from the Bible and relating it to our life, and how we can use it in our life. So that's what I think is really cool."
A changing church scene
The Assemblies of God has seen significant growth in other states as well. It ranks as the third-fastest growing religious body in the United States, with close to 2.94 million followers, according to the census. Data for the census was collected by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies and includes statistics for 236 religious groups.
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 ELCA, Minnesota's second-largest denomination, saw membership dip to 737,537, a 13.6 percent decline from 853,448.
Scott Thumma, a researcher at the Hartford Institute for Religious Research in Connecticut who helped compile the data, says evangelical Protestant denominations like the Assemblies of God offer a more expressive, physical kind of worship that's dramatically different from the more traditional worship services of Catholic and mainline Protestant faiths.
The influx of Hispanics in the United States and Minnesota has also helped boost charismatic faith groups like the Assemblies of God, Thumma notes.
Sergio Aranda is senior pastor at Taller del Maestro, an Assemblies of God congregation on the East Side of St. Paul with a predominantly Hispanic membership. He said he started with about 11 followers in 2008 and now has close to 130. Minnesota's growing Hispanic population -- which numbers around 250,000, based on 2010 U.S. Census data -- has helped boost membership in the Assemblies of God and other evangelical churches in the state
The big faith groups like Catholics and ELCA Lutherans "still kind of dominate the field," said Thumma. "But these smaller groups -- all the Pentecostals together, the evangelicals, the nondenominationals -- are really filling in the gap where these larger groups traditionally very prominent are in fact losing dramatically.
"It's only a matter of time before the balance of power really changes. At the very least what it does is take something that was very homogenous ... and it's making it much more diverse. For some place like Minnesota, that's pretty dramatic."
Rose French • 612-673-4352