By promising not to be stuffy, churches aimed at the under-35 set are booming in the Twin Cities.
When 23-year-old Glenise Johnson was asked why she drives all the way from St. Paul to Fridley every Sunday morning for worship services at Substance church, she stopped to consider the political correctness of her response.
"I don't want to offend anyone," she said, "but I find traditional churches stuffy. They have a different way of doing things here; they think outside the box. But it's not just about the format. What I really like is that it's so relevant to my life."
She's not alone in feeling that way. The church often comes close to filling all 750 seats.
Substance church focuses on recent and current college students and is part of a growing sector of the religious scene -- churches aimed at worshipers 35 and under. There are 81 such churches in the metro area, with new ones cropping up at a rate of about one a month while some existing churches, including Substance, scramble to add more services to accommodate swelling crowds.
As part of their effort to distance themselves from the stodgy image that many young people associate with their childhood worship experiences, many of these places of worship don't use the word "church" in their titles. They have such names as Urban Refuge, the Upper Room, Solomon's Porch, the Salvage Yard and Substance.
Other ways in which they differ from traditional churches:
• Ritual is on the outs. The amount of pomp ranges from nearly none to absolutely none.
• Multimedia is in, with video and film incorporated into services and websites bursting with bells and whistles.
• Casual dress rules. The uniform of the day is blue jeans topped by a T-shirt or sweatshirt.
• Practical bests theoretical. Bible lessons focus on practical application rather than theological theory. In his sermon at Substance last week, the Rev. Peter Haas started by "hammering on a couple of Bible verses," but eventually got around to what he called "the meat and potatoes stuff. The answer is not always just 'You need to have faith, brother.'"
The approach connected with listeners.
"I like that there's a biblical spirit that we can apply to our lives," said Maddie Dosch, 21. She was at the service with Amanda Beran, 20, who added, "Every time you walk out of here, you walk away with something you can use in your life."
Ryan Menghini, 21, was making his second trip to the church, and vowed to be back. "I've stayed away from churches that seem complacent," he said. "Here, they seem sincere. They show their Christianity with actions, not just words."
Changing spiritual patterns
The first churches with this format cropped up in the Twin Cities in 1996: Hope Community Church in Minneapolis and House of Mercy in St. Paul. Many are nondenominational, but the rest cover the religious landscape, with 26 denominations represented among them. Sizes run the gamut, too, from small groups that meet in leaders' living rooms to the Upper Room in Edina and Substance, each of which can draw more than 1,000 people on any given Sunday.
Their popularity runs contrary to what used to be common thinking in religious circles: Young people drift away from spirituality when they leave home at 18, entering into a religious dead zone that lasts about a decade, with many of them returning to the fold once they've "settled down" and started families.
That's not the way it has to be, Haas, 34, argues.
"When I was spiritually seeking, I wasn't looking for ritual or dogma," he said. "I was looking for substance. And I thought: What if we take traditional Christianity -- take unchanging truth -- and just package it a little differently so nonreligious people can understand it?"
Many mainstream churches are making an effort to reach out to generations X and Y by adding so-called contemporary services with bands instead of organ music. And there are attempts to connect with younger worshipers by using multimedia. Podcasts are becoming common, and Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie has started a monthly "dialogue" in which members of the congregation use their cell phones to text-message questions to the ministers.
The Minnesota factor
The Twin Cities are a "hotbed" for this movement, said the Rev. John Mayer, executive director of City Vision, a Minneapolis organization that tracks religious demographics. There are several reasons why youth-oriented churches have become so popular here.
The state has a reputation for supporting religious movements and leaders, he said. The largest Hindu temple in North America is in Maple Grove, and the biggest Cambodian temple in the United States is in Farmington. The president of the National Association of Evangelicals is from Minnesota (the Rev. Leith Anderson of Wooddale Church), and the president-elect of the National Council of Churches is the president of the Minnesota Council of Churches (the Rev. Peg Chemberlin).
In addition, one of the leaders of the emergent church movement is the Rev. Doug Pagitt, founder of Solomon's Porch in south Minneapolis. He has written extensively on the subject, both in his blog and in books. His most recent book is "A Christianity Worth Believing: Hope-Filled, Open-Armed, Alive-and-Well Faith for the Left Out, Left Behind, and Let Down in Us All" (Jossey-Boss, $22).
If those things are the matches that light the bonfire, the high number of college students in the metro area is the fuel.
"The University of Minnesota is the second-largest college campus in the country," Mayer said. "Then you've got Bethel University, Northwestern College, Crown College, all the community colleges, technical colleges, St. Thomas, Macalester, Concordia, Hamline ... the list goes on. Colleges tend to be the hotbed of new ideas and experiences, as well. So this surely plays a factor."
But you don't have to be a young adult to attend these churches -- you just need the mind-set of one. Among those listening to Haas last weekend was Mike Franta of Maple Grove, who, at 72, is three times the age of the church's target audience.
"I think it's great," he said of the service. "This is alive."
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392