When Janet Belland and Mitch Zukowski decided to get married, they scoped out venues ranging from the Surly Brewing Co. to hotel ballrooms to the Minnesota Boat Club. One place they never bothered to check: a church.

Belland, raised Catholic, said she felt no connection to any church, to any clergy. Zukowski, a regular churchgoer as a teenager, said he’s now found a different spiritual path.

“Church was never part of our relationship,” said Belland, a 30-year-old from Shoreview. “And we found that we really enjoyed our friends’ weddings not held in churches.”

Added Zukowski: “We wanted an all-in-one location … where our guests could have the most fun.”

The couple’s decision reflects a seismic shift in modern marriages. For centuries, nearly all marriages took place in houses of worship, in ceremonies honoring both the bride and groom and their creator. That tradition has eroded dramatically in just a few decades.

Religious institutions hosted only 22% of weddings in 2017, according to a survey by the Knot, a leading wedding news website. That’s a swift decline from the 41% in 2009.

Barns, ranches and banquet halls are among the top beneficiaries of the shift.

Catholic churches have been particularly hard hit. The number of weddings nationwide plunged from 326,000 in 1990 to 143,000 in 2018 — despite an increase in the Catholic population. In Minnesota, there are half as many Catholic church weddings today, with 3,100 last year, as in 1990.

“When I started out at a small church about 30 years ago, we had about 12 weddings a year and had about 50 families,” said the Rev. Peter Nyckle­moe of Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. “Now we’re lucky to have five or six, and we worship 500 to 600 [people].”

Source: The Knot 2017 Real Wedding Study

The trend reflects the record-high ranks of young adults with no ties to religious institutions, and the cultural drift from organized religion.

It also corresponds with the booming $76 billion a year U.S. wedding industry, which offers stressed-out couples package deals that include everything from fresh venues to catering to wedding officiants. Even couples of faith say that the convenience, and the opportunity for a personalized ceremony, tilted the scales.

Faith leaders have reacted with both concern and acceptance. A marriage inside a church often meant future baby baptisms and some connection to the faith. But there’s a deeper loss, said the Rev. John Bauer, pastor of the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis.

“What is lost when a wedding is not held in a church, or a synagogue or a mosque, is a sense of prayer and God’s presence,” Bauer said. “While we can certainly experience God’s presence in a variety of ways and places, churches are those places where we instinctively feel God’s presence.”

But the Rev. Tania Haber of Westwood Lutheran Church in St. Louis Park is comfortable with the shift, and with performing weddings in parks and country clubs. Said Haber: “As Lutherans, we believe the church is where the people are gathered.”

Bride + groom + Angus

On a recent breezy afternoon, Belland and Zukowski stood under an arbor at the Minnesota Boat Club in St. Paul. They exchanged vows in a 20-minute ceremony, surrounded by their wedding party and their four-legged ring bearer, their dog Angus.

There was no organ announcing “Here Comes The Bride,” just a boom box playing Pachelbel’s Canon. The ceremony was written by the couple, the music selected by them. The man officiating the ceremony was longtime friend Alex Johnson, who became a licensed marriage maker after a 10-minute online ordination.

The couple had considered having a clergyperson perform it, “But who? From what church?” Belland asked.

After several readings, the couple exchanged rings and Johnson uttered the magic words: “With the power invested in me by the state of Minnesota, and the internet, you may now kiss the bride.”

Friends and family applauded and eventually strolled to the Boat Club building a few steps away, where cold drinks and a buffet dinner awaited them.

For the older relatives in the crowd, the scene couldn’t be more different from what they grew up with. In the 1950s, weddings were ritualized ceremonies, held at family churches, officiated by the church pastor. After the “I do’s,” guests might head to a dinner and reception in the church social hall, at the local Elks Club or a supper club for a meal of chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy.

But couples today marry later in life. They often live together, have careers and pay for their wedding. The first question they ask is not, “Whose church should we get married in?” but rather, “Where should we hold the wedding?”

Their research would point them to dozens of venues, many linked to full-service wedding planners. When Belland and Zukowski chose the Minnesota Boat Club, they learned that Mintahoe Catering and Events had exclusive rights to catering there. Mintahoe President Jim McMerty said of the 10 weddings his Minneapolis company was working with on a recent weekend, seven ceremonies were held at the reception site.

Said McMerty: “That surprised me.”

Spirituality remains

Even if weddings are inside barns or fancy hotels, there’s often a touch of the spiritual in the ceremonies, said Melanie Caron-Vlasak, founder of Tie the Knot Wedding Ceremonies, with offices in the Twin Cities and Arizona.

“I hear it all the time, ‘We’re not religious but spiritual,’ ” said Caron-Vlasak. “We might put in [the ceremony] a blessing for them or a Bible verse. Or we may invite a family member to come and read it.”

For example, Amy Grace, raised Catholic, said she is a person of “strong faith.” But she had no desire for a wedding at the Bloomington church long attended by family.

“The church always felt stuffy,” said Grace. “I wanted the wedding to be fun, to be a celebration of our marriage — not a stuffy religious affair.”

She and her husband, Kyle Ellingsworth, walked down the aisle at St. Paul’s Wabasha Street Caves.

Even some couples whose first choice is a church ceremony often change their minds because of requirements. Raised Catholic, Emily and Joe Beckers expected to be married in a Catholic church. But the Maplewood couple was put off by the marriage preparation classes, which seemed too “faith based,” and the required weekend retreat with other couples. They also wanted a personalized wedding ceremony and worried that couldn’t happen.

There was even a bigger hurdle. Joe Beckers was divorced, and for the marriage to be recognized in the church, he would need to get an annulment of his first marriage.

The wedding plans shifted gears, and they ended up at Embassy Suites in St. Paul.

Said Emily Beckers: “We were able to tailor every detail to our relationship.”

Amanda and Cole McGlynn don’t consider themselves outliers. But when they married this month in Central Lutheran Church, they bucked the wedding trend. Both are theology students at Luther Seminary and members of the church, and they wanted their faith community to be part of this important day.

Like many couples, they hoped for an individualized ceremony and were able to create it at Central Lutheran. They wrote their service, selected the prayers and, when the ceremony ended, headed to the church’s new Great Room where Cole McGlynn served his home-brewed beer during the dinner and dance.

“It was a beautiful opportunity to start a marriage, a step forward in a loving community,” said Amanda McGlynn.

Faith leaders said they believe there will always be couples like the McGlynns but acknowledge that they’ve lost their nearly exclusive role in marriage making. If the church is to remain a viable option, it will need to adapt to couples’ changing needs, many say.

“The church needs to do a better job meeting couples where they’re at,” said the Rev. William Murtaugh of Pax Christi Catholic Church in Eden Prairie. “I know we have rules and laws in the church, but how do we explain them in a way that they’re viewed as a good thing, not as taking away people’s choices?”