The young minister at New City Church used the biblical tale of Sampson to launch a debate on toxic masculinity on a recent Sunday morning. The Minneapolis church, started in his living room, attracts an eco-friendly community active in social justice causes.
In Lino Lakes that same day, a new online minister was gearing up for digital worship at Eagle Brook Church. With cameras rolling, he welcomed remote viewers to the church’s lights and sights before going backstage to connect on Facebook Live.
About the series This is the last in an occasional series about Christianity at a crossroads — a time of unprecedented decline in church membership and a changing future for the faith. Part 1: As Christian denominations decline and churches close, a way of life fades. Part 2: Fewer ministers and shrinking budgets mean heavier burdens. Part 3: The fastest growing religion is “none”.
And in Brooklyn Park, a Liberian faith healing ministry was getting rolling, with worshipers singing and swaying to African hymns.
The three churches illustrate the quiet but profound transformation of Sunday worship unfolding in Minnesota. The stark reality of declining church attendance and a culture eschewing organized religion has compelled Christian leaders across the state and nation to experiment with new models of “church.”
Together with immigrant congregations, they are planting fresh seeds in Minnesota’s religious landscape and offering a glimpse into the future.
It’s a race against time for many congregations, as barely one in three Americans attend weekly services and one in four belong to no religion at all. To survive or thrive in the 21st century will require many churches to experiment in ways unthinkable to earlier generations.
“We live in both worlds,” said Bishop Bruce Ough, who oversees the United Methodist Church in Minnesota and the Dakotas. “We’re trying to maintain what we have, because it maintains our financial stability, and also to prepare for a future church that is not yet in focus.”
The focus, however blurry, will clearly include more diverse and creative church experiences, religious leaders said, and deeper connections to neighbors. Just as society is becoming more fragmented, so will expressions of faith.
“There will still be people who like the ancient worship, the bells and smells and organ music,” said Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, which has examined religious life for three decades. “But it’s a smaller group.”
“The model that fits with modern society are malls and boutiques,” he said. “There will be very large churches and smaller niche churches. Dinner church. Bluegrass church. Pop-up church. We’ll have a greater variety of styles.”
Preparing for the future
The Rev. Tyler Sit, New City Church’s founder, set forth to build a church “that would create inward renewal for changemakers.” After a few years of meeting over dinners in members’ living rooms, the church found a worship home on the second floor of Walker United Methodist Church.
A recent Sunday worship attracted a diverse group of about 50 people: black, white, Hispanic, gay, straight. Up front at the piano was a music director with a soulful voice and turquoise hair. All readings were in English and Spanish.
Sit delivered a sermon based on the biblical story of Sampson, an Old Testament hulk who often used his superhuman strength for destruction and violence.
“He got the gift, but he didn’t pray for the instructions,” said Sit, who went on to discuss the harmful effects of hypermasculinity, and pointed to Jesus as a model for wielding strength for mercy and renewal.
Musician Mayyadda Major sat at the piano and listened intently. She first checked out New City earlier this year.
“Tyler preached that Sunday with Beyoncé references, with references to [the Broadway hit] ‘Hamilton,’ and I thought ‘Here’s a place that speaks my language,’ ” said Major, who later was invited to be the worship leader.
New City Church was a model examined by the new “Riverside Innovation Hub,” an Augsburg University project working with churches to spark innovative ideas to connect with young adults and others. The hub received $1.5 million from the Lilly Endowment for its work, which included lending an “innovation coach” to New City.
The funding reflects the booming industry of how-to-books, conferences and inspirational speakers that has sprung up to prepare Christian leaders for the shifting demographics and religious attitudes in the next decades.
Out-of-the-box thinkers such as Sit increasingly are being courted and supported by their denominations. The goal: make Christianity more relevant to the 21st century.
“I’m not launching a grenade behind me, saying that a thousand years of church history and theology don’t matter,” said Sit. “We’re finding a new voice to a song that’s been sung 2,000 years.”
Dance studios and rural schools
New City represents the burst in church “planting” sweeping Minnesota as religious leaders work to keep the Christian faith alive. At least 300 new startups are planned for the decade ahead.
The Minnesota District of Assemblies of God wants to launch 120 congregations in the next 10 years, said Amber Woller, who is part of the district’s “church multiplication team.” In roughly the past 12 months, six “plants” put down roots in venues ranging from a salsa dance studio in Columbia Heights to a high school gym in rural Fulda.
“Most don’t meet in church buildings because some people won’t come then,” said Woller.
Converge, formerly known as the Baptist General Conference, is scouting for leaders and locations for another 120 congregations.
Other denominations also have startups on the drawing board, in a practice long embraced by evangelicals but not so much by mainline Protestants.
“It’s definitely playing catch up,” said Ben Ingebretson, a veteran “planter” now working with United Methodists to bring 20 new congregations each year to the Minnesota and Dakotas.
The number of church startups nationally now equals roughly the number of churches closing, he said, or 2,500 a year.
The advantage of small startups is that they are relatively low-budget, nimble, and can be less intimidating to prospective members, church planters said. Even so, their success or failure is tied heavily to the pastor, and becoming financially independent can be challenging, church leaders say.
Digital path to Jesus
On a recent Sunday, hundreds of worshipers flocked through the front doors of Eagle Brook Church in Lino Lakes, a sprawling 93-acre complex that dwarfs the nearby modest houses and farm fields.
As visitors entered the enormous auditorium, about 30 production staff and volunteers were getting ready to bring this religious service to a world even bigger than Eagle Brook’s seven locations.
With about 22,000 people attending each weekend, Eagle Brook is the largest church in Minnesota and ranks in the top 25 in the nation. It reports another 11,000 people watching it online — a location it sees as critical for the future.
“We’re finding more and more people are connecting to God through technology,” said Eagle Brook’s senior pastor, Bob Merritt. “And we have the ability to connect with anyone on the planet.”
While the United States’ 1,700 megachurches have pioneered this digital trend, mainline churches today are following suit — albeit with lower budgets and less sophistication.
Eagle Brook’s online service isn’t just a camera pointed at the minister. There’s a separate video crew with state-of-the-art cameras, a new $5 million video production studio, and starting this fall, a new online pastor whose job is to engage with viewers.
Five minutes before the service, online pastor Tim Williams and Molly Harren, the production resource manager, stood with microphones before a video camera near the stage.
“Hey everybody. Welcome to Eagle Brook!” Williams said, looking into the camera.
For the next five minutes, he and Harren engaged in friendly banter before signing off with, “We’re glad you’re here!”
As the church worship band took the stage, Williams headed back to the production studios, flipped open his laptop, and joined viewers on Facebook Live. It wasn’t a super chatty bunch, but they offered greetings — including a “Hello from El Salvador” — requested prayers, and shared personal struggles.
Makenzie Hart, a University of Minnesota Duluth student, was among those tuning in on this day while visiting her parents in Stillwater. All three of them grabbed some coffee, got cozy on the couch, and watched the service on the computer in their den, she said.
“It makes for easy access for busy college students,” said Hart, who watches every week from campus. “And it’s great for my parents if it’s snowy or bad weather.”
Some churches experiencing a steady state of decline have found new life from Minnesota’s 457,000 foreign-born residents. Immigrant faith groups often rent and sometimes buy the buildings of mainstream denominations, bringing young families and energy into the space and introducing fresh customs to old worship traditions.
An estimated one in three churches in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in the Twin Cities open its doors to immigrant congregations, charging a modest rental fee. Faith Healing International Church, which holds weekly worship at Cross of Glory Lutheran Church in Brooklyn Center, is one of them.
“Our church started as a Bible study. Now we have about 80 to 100 members,” said Faith Healing’s pastor, Wisseh Geegbae, relaxing after the worship service.
On this Sunday, the pews were occupied by women and girls wearing stylish American or African dresses, and men in suits. The sermon was delivered by a church elder, focusing on obedience.
“Fear God and be obedient,” she told the audience. “Children must obey authority so they don’t bring shame on their families.”
“Amen,” some worshipers responded.
After the service, Geegbae remarked that membership in his church as been stable in recent years, but not growing.
It’s a pattern that often can unfold even among immigrant faith groups.
“It matters what generation you are,” said David Odom, executive director of the Leadership Education Program at Duke University Divinity School. “For the first generation, the church is a very important part of life. By the second and third generation, they become more like new Americans.”
The Catholic Church, perhaps more than any other denomination, is being shaped by the immigrants walking through its doors. About 27 percent of adult Catholics in the United States are foreign born, said the Rev. Tom Gaunt, executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
More than half the nation’s Catholics younger than 40 are Hispanic, he said. They’re introducing music, rituals and celebrations from their homelands.
For example, parishes such as Saints Joachim and Anne in Shakopee were founded by German and Irish immigrants more than 120 years ago. They — and dozens of other churches — recently held celebrations for Our Lady of Guadalupe that would have been unheard of a few decades past.
On a recent Wednesday night, a diverse group of second-graders attended religious education at the parish school, Shakopee Area Catholic School, to prepare for their first confession. They practiced at a table set up as a mock confessional, complete with a little curtain behind which sat a priest. They confessed sins such as “lying” or “being mean to parents.”
“The kids are so sincere,” said the Rev. Erik Lundgren, the parish administrator. “They have a real joy of receiving sacraments, which is a part of their faith tradition in Latin America.”
Church leaders, both Catholic and Protestant, are watching these demographic and technological shifts with heightened interest. Some are hopeful that the church may experience a “second Reformation” of sorts as it responds to them.
“The change happening has been impossible to predict, especially the pace of it,” said the Rev. Doug Mork, of Cross of Glory Lutheran Church in Brooklyn Center. “I think something exciting will come out the other side. We just don’t know what it will be.”