The 11 a.m. Sunday service at Emmaus Church bears little resemblance to its Scandinavian Lutheran roots. The choir and organ music have been swapped for piano and guitars. Five technicians occupy a section of the church, monitoring lights, music and cameras for the service and its YouTube channel.
Bibles are gone from the seats. The faithful follow Bible apps and verses on two screens towering above the altar. Some sway to the music, palms raised in prayer, and burst into applause during certain Scripture passages.
Such "enthusiastic'' services, once considered the province of megachurches and charismatics, are now widespread in Christian America, according to the latest National Congregations Study, a Duke University survey that has tracked religious trends since 1998. It found a steady evolution in music, movement and fervor, even among the more reserved denominations.
"God's word doesn't change but culture does … and our mission is to reach the culture," said the Rev. Nick Dyrud, senior pastor at Emmaus Free Lutheran Church, a 67-year-old congregation founded in the cornfields of Bloomington. "It's not holier to use an organ than a drum, or a Bible more than a Bible app."
Like many churches, Emmaus offers both a contemporary and a traditional service, striving to reach new and younger members but hold onto the long-timers.
"We are a traditional church that has transitioned and is continuing to transition," Dyrud said.
These changing worship practices are revealed by the fourth wave of surveys in the National Congregation Study, taken roughly every six years since 1998. The latest data is based on in-person interviews with 1,262 clergy or congregation leaders in 2018 and 2019.
Pastors are reporting more than just exuberant amens. Technology has become mainstream at weekend worship, even before COVID-19 forced most churches online. Nearly half of churches surveyed use large projection screens, and a third incorporate their congregation's mobile phones, the survey showed. Nearly 20% show video clips.
Meanwhile, drum sets are now pushed on stage in four out of 10 churches, doubling their presence from 1998. Choirs are stepping down: Fewer than half of churches report having them. Two thirds of congregations now raise their hands in prayer. Faithful who "jump, shout or dance" during worship climbed from 19% to 28%.
"More informal and enthusiastic worship practices have continued their march across American religion," said Mark Chaves, a Duke University professor and director of the study. "Their diffusion has not yet peaked or even slowed."
The study also reveals that ethnic diversity in the pews is growing, as are women clergy and acceptance of LGBT members.
"We see important developments in aspects of congregation life," Chaves said.
'This speaks to my heart'
Bonnie LaCoursiere was part of the congregation seated below the vaulted ceiling at Emmaus Church last Sunday. The musicians — guitar and piano players and vocalists — performed from both sides of the traditional altar up front, with a backdrop of sparkling artificial trees.
As the musicians sang "Battle Belongs," a Christian contemporary song released last year, LaCoursiere clasped her hands together, sometimes clapping gently to the beat, and swayed to the music.
"This speaks to my heart," LaCoursiere said when the service ended. "I was raised Catholic and there was a lot of tradition and rituals. But I didn't have that personal relationship with God. I have that here."
Bob Bogott, a church member for 30 years, was standing near the doors. He said he's not surprised that more energetic worship and music have made inroads into mainstream churches.
"The music reminds me a lot of folk rock of the 1960s," said Bogott. "So it's comfortable for us old guys. And for people who don't know church, it makes it more accessible."
Making church accessible is taking different forms. Lutheran Church of Christ the Redeemer in south Minneapolis is among the growing number of multiethnic congregations, which climbed from 6% to 16% over two decades. "Multiethnic" is defined as a church in which no one group has more than 80% of the members.
This previously all-white Lutheran church now is also the religious home for a community of families from the African nation of Togo. The Rev. Mary Albing estimates they make up 15 to 20% of the members, who also include some Spanish speakers.
The order of service, including the readings and musical lyrics, are now printed in French, the official language of Togo. African drumming is sometimes part of worship, as are global religious hymns. There have been educational forums on Togo, adoption of some religious customs, the hiring of a Togolese staff member.
"I can't imagine the congregation without them now," said Albing. "We wouldn't be 'us' without 'them.' "
The church illustrates another trend: Female clergy such as Albing are increasing in numbers and acceptance. Nearly half of congregations said they allow women as head clergy, compared with 39% in 2006. Likewise more than half of churches surveyed now accept LGBT couples as "full-fledged members," up from 37% in 2006.
Catholic churches most diverse
Although Catholic churches report the lowest level of "vibrancy," they top the Protestants when it comes to diversity. The reason: the huge influx of Spanish speakers.
The Rev. Kevin Kenney has lived this transformation. In the 1990s, he was pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in St. Paul, then the only church offering Spanish masses in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Today, 24 parishes offer Spanish masses, some offering multiple ones each weekend.
One of the churches Kenney now administers, St. Cyril and St. Methodius in northeast Minneapolis, has four Spanish-language services that attract about 180 people each, he said. Meanwhile, at St. Olaf Catholic Church in downtown Minneapolis, where Kenney is pastor, there's a sizable African population, as well as Latinos and Filipinos, he said.
"Am I surprised that Catholics have the most ethnic diversity? Not at all," he said.
Nor is the Rev. Ralph Gustafson surprised that even more mainline Protestants are adopting new music and rituals for Sunday worship. The executive minister at Bethel University in Arden Hills said Protestant denominations, such as the Baptist church that he belongs to, have more autonomy to experiment.
"Churches today are less predictable, going from one Baptist church to another," said Gustafson, a pastor at Calvary Church in Roseville. "You knew what you were getting if you moved across the country. Now it's different if you move across town."
The congregational study has tracked hundreds of details of those transitions for 20 years. Chaves hopes to also document how COVID-19 is shaping the religious landscape.
"We're in the midst of some significant changes, including in worship styles," said Chaves. "To me the big question is, how far will this go? That remains to be seen."
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511