Fastest growing religion in Minnesota, the nation, is ‘none’

November 11, 2018 GMT

The men and women relaxing on yoga mats recently at a Minneapolis meditation center didnt know it, but most belonged to the fastest-growing religion in America none at all.

They included a former Lutheran who left the church because the Bible clashed with science, a former Catholic who became leery of its teachings, a former Baptist uninspired by Sunday services, 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.


They reveal a major force behind the empty pews in churches across Minnesota and the nation. Nearly one in four Americans now declare themselves unaffiliated with any organized religion. An estimated 56 million strong, and growing, there are more of them than all mainline Protestants combined.

The church experience that was central to many of their parents lives has lost relevance and credibility.

I cant imagine that only one religion has access to the pearly gates, said Lisa Pool, explaining her church breakup after class ended. I realized there are all kinds of different paths to being a good person.

The surge has Minnesota religious leaders wrestling with implications for the future of their churches, the future of Christianity. More than half of U.S. churches now see fewer than 100 worshipers on weekends, and theyre getting older, reports the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

Particularly alarming 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. Faith leaders are racking their brains over how to reach these adults who may never 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 its an issue, but dont know what to do about it. Its clear we cant rely on the old ways of doing things for this next generation.

Why they leave

Kay Christianson spent six years living in a Catholic convent as a high schooler and young adult in 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. Shes now among the 30 million Catholics who left the U.S. church, the largest of any denomination, according to the Center for the Applied Research in the Apostolate.


They say pray and your prayers will be answered, said Christianson, a retired corporate manager. That didnt 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 alternatives paths. One is agnostic.

I dont have any anger with the Catholic church, she said. I left because the premise of the belief system didnt work for me. Jesus was a wonderful teacher Was he the son of God? Arent we all?

This disconnect between core Christian teachings and real life was cited frequently in interviews with more than 30 Minnesotans who have left the church. The church rituals fell flat, they said. And many reported taking voyages of spiritual discovery on their own, aided by friends, YouTube and podcasts.

That voyage starts young. A recent survey of young Catholics who left the church by Saint Marys Press of Winona found the median age was 13.

Ashley Laflin, for example, 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 [the church teaching] was never deep seated. said Laflin, a 33-year-old business manager in Minneapolis. I like the teachings about helping others, about creating community. But I dont think you need a big organization to do that.

Church leaders find a ray of hope in the trend. Most of the unaffiliated 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, associate research director at the Pew Research Center. More than a third say they believe in God with absolute certainly.

Leif Christopherson, a U law student, reflects another trend Smith stressed: a striking gap in generational replacement in churches over the years. Christopherson said that his grandfather was a minister. His father was less fervent. And he was never fully on board with church teachings.

You listen to a sermon and you read some Bible passage and theres no real connection to your daily life, he said.

Alternative paths

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

Before the yoga stretches 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, qigong , a poetry read, and classes ranging from Mindful Movement to Twelve Step Mindfulness. Theyre also listening to the centers online programs, downloaded a million times since 2013, said Mark Nunberg, Common Grounds co-founder.

The basic need to understand our hearts hasnt 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 is now the Metta Meditation Center, a Buddhist retreat. The former Clares 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 thats 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.

Clearly not all adults without churches are out meditating, doing yoga, or exploring exotic new spiritual directions. Sunday morning could find them quietly kayaking on a lake, cross-country skiing on fresh snow or just watching a football game, shopping or chauffeuring their kids.

Nurtured by nature

Walk up the gravel driveway of the Dancing The Land Farm, and youll 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, was surveying the gardens of kale, lettuce and tomatoes.

Dwyer 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.

Organized religion, she said, wasnt alive. It was too full of answers and had not enough questions. She sees the divine in watching a seed transformed into a vegetable, seeing a baby chick emerge from an egg. Thats 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 animals 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 Dwyers 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, hes among the many unaffiliated who are drawn to something out of the realm with words. The bands 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, Minowa said. 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 havent changed as fast as the transformations in the rest of society, everything from technology to spiritual life.

Theres a massive yearning, he said. I dont think were giving up the spiritual. Its evolving. Its just different.

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

How to respond

The Rev. Richard Coleman 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 dont like organized religion.

Leaders at Colemans Minneapolis church have interviewed 50-some former parishioners to ask why they stopped coming and what more the church can do. Theyre setting up neighborhood focus groups, asking the same, to lay the groundwork for an alternative type of worship service next year.

Were 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. Hes noticed that many of the disenchanted return to church for milestones such as baptisms, wedding, funerals and periods of personal despair. Like many pastors, hes trying to figure out how to build on those temporary connections.

Other churches are experimenting with fresh worship styles, launching young adult projects, attending special conferences on the churchless. What may stem the tide is unknown.

Were in a dark spot right now, because we dont know how it will shake out, said Coleman.

The Rev. Susan Moss, of St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in St. Paul, agrees.

Everyone is attuned to whats happening in our culture, said Moss. Were adapting. And there is no map.

Jean Hopfensperger 612-673-4511