Nancy Boler, a former Methodist, led a yoga class at Common Ground Meditation Center in Minneapolis. Hundreds of people come through the doors each week.
Test of faith: The unchurching of America Test of faith:
The unchurching of America
Fastest growing religion is ‘none’
One in four Americans now belong to no religion, a trend fueling church closings, mergings.
Fastest growing religion is ‘none’
One in four Americans now belong to no religion, a trend fueling church closings, mergings.

Most of the men and women who were relaxing on yoga mats at a Minneapolis meditation center one recent weekend are not Sunday churchgoers, but they belong to the fastest-growing religion in the United States — none at all.

They included a former Lutheran who left the church because the Bible clashed with science, a former Catholic turned off by the concept of hell, a former Baptist uninspired by Sunday services, and a young man raised with no religion.

About the series This is the third 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 4: Churches sow seeds for future revival.

Together, they represent the biggest force behind the rising number of shuttered churches and empty pews across Minnesota and the United States. Nearly one in four Americans now declare themselves unaffiliated with any organized religion. The share of adults who identify as "none" has more than doubled since the 1990s — to 56 million and climbing. That's now more than the membership of all mainline Protestants combined.

The church experience central to many of their parents' lives never took root or has faded from their own.

"I can't imagine that only one religion has access to the pearly gates," said former Catholic Lisa Poole, 44, after the yoga class ended. "I realized there are all kinds of different paths to being a good person."

The surge in these so-called "Nones" has Minnesota religious leaders wrestling with the implications for the future of their churches, and the future of Christianity. More than half of U.S. churches now see fewer than 100 worshipers on weekends, and they're getting older, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, which has documented trends in religious life for three decades.

More striking is the plunge in church membership by people in their 20s and 30s. One in three are now churchless, according to the Pew Research Center. Most faith leaders are struggling to reach a generation increasingly unlikely to step under a steeple.

"We are [all] worried," said the Rev. John Bauer, pastor at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis. "We all know it's an issue, but don't know what to do about it. It's clear we can't rely on the old ways of doing things for this next generation."

Why they leave

Kay Christianson, 69, spent six years living in a Catholic convent as a high schooler and young adult in the 1970s. She was preparing to take her vows as a sister, and was already donning the black robe.

But over time, she developed "so many questions." When her parents died suddenly, her faith shattered. She's now among the 30 million Catholics who have left the U.S. church over the past 40 years, the largest exodus of any denomination, according to Catholic researchers at Georgetown University.

"They say pray and your prayers will be answered," said Christianson, a retired corporate manager. "That didn't happen. I was angry."

Spirituality remained in her core, however, and she now embraces meditation. She remains friends with seven women who left the convent. Three are still Catholic, she said. Three are on "alternative paths." One is agnostic.

"I don't have any anger with the Catholic church," she said. "I left because the premise of the belief system didn't work for me. Jesus was a wonderful teacher … Was he the son of God? Aren't we all?"

The disconnect between core Christian teachings and contemporary life was cited frequently in interviews with dozens of Minnesotans who have left the church. The rituals fell flat, they said. Many also reported taking voyages of spiritual discovery on their own, aided by friends, YouTube and podcasts.

The search for something more relevant isn't limited to adults. Among young Catholics who left the church, the median age of departure was 13, according to a recent survey by the religious publisher Saint Mary's Press of Winona.

Ashley Laflin, 33, said she began drifting from Catholic services in about junior high. She then joined a Methodist youth group that her friends belonged to. She could recite all the prayers and creeds in a church, but they were more words than heartfelt beliefs, she said.

"I realized it was never deep seated," said Laflin, a business manager in Minneapolis. "I like the teachings about helping others, about creating community. But I don't think you need a big organization to do that."

Church leaders see a ray of hope among the ranks of the unaffiliated: Most have not ruled out a higher power or God. Only a fraction, about 3 percent, are atheists, according to Pew researchers.

"Religious Nones are not all nonbelievers," said Greg Smith, Pew's associate research director. "More than a third say they believe in God with absolute certainly."

Even so, their failure to show up on Sundays creates a glaring gap in "generational replacement" at Minnesota churches.

Leif Christopherson, a U law student, illustrated the historic shift. Christopherson, 32, said that his grandfather was a minister. His father was less fervent. And he was never fully on board with church, explaining, "You listen to a sermon and you read some Bible passage and there's no real connection to your daily life."

Alternative paths

On a recent morning, a stream of visitors walked through the doors of Common Ground Meditation Center in Minneapolis. They removed their shoes, hung up their coats, and headed in stocking feet to the mediation room for yoga class.

Before their stretching began, teacher Nancy Boler, a former Methodist, read a passage from a book called "The Force of Kindness."

Over the course of the week, hundreds of people step into this space to engage in meditation, a Chinese mind-body exercise called qigong, a poetry reading, and classes ranging from Mindful Movement to Twelve Step Mindfulness. They're also listening to the center's online programs, downloaded a million times since 2013, said Mark Nunberg, Common Ground's co-founder.

"The basic need to understand our hearts hasn't gone away," he said.

Nunberg has noticed another sign of the growing influence of the unaffiliated. Several religious retreat centers run for decades by Catholic nuns have been sold or are newly managed by ecumenical or Buddhist owners.

The former Holy Spirit Retreat Center in Janesville, Minn., is now the Metta Meditation Center, a Buddhist retreat. The former Clare's Well near Annandale is now Wellspring Farms. The Christine Center, in western Wisconsin, kept its name but is as open to churchgoers as dance groups.

"The Nones — that's who we see as our target community," said Russell King, executive director of the Christine Center. "Most people here are seeking a spiritual path of their own."

Nurtured by nature

Walk up the gravel driveway of the Dancing the Land Farm, and you'll run into grazing curly-haired goats, a flock of clucking chickens and a greenhouse full of squash and greens. Liz Dwyer, who grew up on this farm near Clearwater, Minn., was surveying the gardens of kale, lettuce and tomatoes.

Dwyer, 33, is among the many Minnesotans who feel a connection to the natural world that is infinitely stronger than a Bible verse or church hymn. Her parents were sporadic churchgoers, and she sees no reason to go at all.

For her, organized religion, she said, "wasn't alive." It was too full of answers and not enough questions. She sees the divine in watching a seed transformed into a vegetable, seeing a baby chick emerge from an egg. That's how she spends a Sunday morning.

"You have to be a spiritual being to do what I do," said Dwyer. "I live with life and death every day. If you see that life go out of an animal's eyes, and hold them as they go … you recognize that you live because he died for me."

The cycle of life is ever-present. Under an apple tree in the field lie the ashes of Dwyer's mother. Under a nearby plum tree are the ashes of her infant son. Said Dwyer: "Now they are living and growing in a different way."

Craig Minowa also lives with his family on an organic farm, in Wisconsin, where he embraces both the mystery of the land and of music.

The singer/songwriter for the award-winning indie rock band Cloud Cult, he's among the many unaffiliated who are drawn to something "out of the realm of words." The band's latest album is called "The Seeker," reflecting a way of life for the former Lutheran.

"If you look back a thousand years, our ancestors used [music] as a means of communication with the gods," said Minowa, 45. "Music for us is a ritual that connects us to the divine."

Minowa said he appreciates all beliefs, or lack thereof. But he feels religious communities haven't changed as fast as the rest of society, "everything from technology to spiritual life."

"There's a massive yearning," he said. "I don't think we're giving up the spiritual. It's evolving. It's just different."

Read the stories of four who sought answers outside mainstream religions.

How to respond

Not all adults without churches are out meditating, doing yoga, or exploring new spiritual directions. Sunday morning could find them kayaking on a lake, chauffeuring their kids to activities, or running errands that they can't squeeze in during hectic workdays.

The Rev. Richard Coleman, sitting in his church office in north Minneapolis, laments that organized religion is becoming like "a foreign culture" known by many only from reading headlines of sex scandals and political controversies.

A 2017 Gallup poll of adults who rarely, if ever, go to church showed the biggest reasons were they "preferred to worship on their own" and they "don't like organized religion."

Leaders at Coleman's Minneapolis church are conducting their own research. They've interviewed 50-some former parishioners to ask why they stopped coming and what more the church can do. They're asking the same questions of neighborhood focus groups, laying the groundwork for an "alternative" type of worship service that could be held during the week at community locations.

"We're specifically targeting people who have become disenchanted with the church," said Coleman, of Wayman African Methodist Episcopal Church. "A lot of young people, in particular, have no idea of why or what we do."

Bauer, at the Basilica, is eyeing other strategies. He's noticed that many of the disenchanted return to church for milestones such as baptisms, wedding, funerals and periods of personal despair. Like many pastors, he's trying to figure out how to build on those temporary connections.

Church leaders across Minnesota are experimenting with ideas such as nontraditional weekend worship, social media outreach and volunteer projects for the social justice-minded youth.

"It's a significant moment of reckoning for the church," said Curtiss DeYoung, CEO of the Minnesota Council of Churches. "I don't think the church can just wait for this to resolve itself … The question isn't so much getting people to come to church, as to going where the people are and addressing the issues they care about."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511