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Changes in the church pews

Monsignor Tim McGee said Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Detroit Lakes has a steady membership with new members still joining, including retirees moving in from the country and new families moving to town. Photo By - Brian Basham1 / 2
Pastor Brenda North preaches during a United Methodist Church outdoor Wednesday service. Submitted Photo2 / 2

Church membership may be down nationally, but local congregations seem to be doing all right as some grow in members and others make efforts to maintain attendance.

According to a survey released by the Association of Religion Data Archives in May, fewer people are attending church nationwide, particularly in traditional congregations.

Between the years 2000 and 2010, mainline Protestant churches lost an average of 12.8 percent of adherents, and Catholic churches are down by 5 percent of active members.

The survey's look at Becker County showed a 6 percent decrease in the number of total religious adherents from 2000 to 2010, but showed an increase in the number of congregations.

Those numbers don't mean every church in the area is suffering, though.

Local church


Pastor Jeff Culver, from Assemblies of God in Detroit Lakes, said their congregation's membership has been at a slow but steady increase for the past few years.

"Our church is doing quite well," he said.

Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Detroit Lakes also has steady membership and attendance, Monsignor Timothy McGee said.

Some of Holy Rosary's new members include retirees moving in from the country and new families moving to town for employment, he said.

Pastor Wade Dutton, from First Lutheran Church in Detroit Lakes, said their number of church members has also stayed about the same, but their regular worship attendance has dropped.

"People are still members, but they don't come quite as often," he said.

Two reasons he listed for this are people who only live in Detroit Lakes seasonally, and young families who are very busy with their children.

"I think it's because of people's busy lives," he said.

Pastor Brenda North at United Methodist Church in Detroit Lakes said her congregation also struggles with people's busy schedules, even though their church attendance has been about the same since North started there five years ago.

Dutton thinks the economy plays a role. Due to the lower economy, people have to work more or have a second job, he said.

"People can't worship on a Sunday if they have to work on a Sunday," he said.

For that same reason, United Methodist has started to offer Wednesday night worship this summer.

"People have appreciated another worship time," North said.

The Wednesday night services have had about 40 people, compared to United Methodist's Sunday worship, which attracts just under 200 people.

While Dutton and North both understand busy schedules, they feel that worship is important.

"We certainly miss people when they're not in worship," Dutton said. "I think they miss us also. Worship is a centerpiece of our life together as a community."

Immanuel Lutheran Church in rural Osage has been having a tougher time, with a decrease from an average of 40 regular attendants to 30 in the past year.

Its pastor, Phil Johnson, attributes the decrease to not as many families and young people living in rural areas as there used to be. He said they have an increase in attendance in the summer when people come to the lakes, though.

Dutton pointed out that it's difficult to compare church membership in Detroit Lakes, or nationwide as the survey did, because many churches measure their membership differently. Some base it on regular attendance or active worship, while at other churches, members must be baptized with the church.

The survey noted that some religious congregations may have changed the way they count adherents from year 2000 to 2010, which could affect the way the data is compared.

New churches

In addition to showing a decrease in church adherents, the survey showed a nationwide increased popularity of alternative and nondenominational churches, with 12.2 million adherents in 35,500 congregations.

Local examples of alternative churches are the Northwoods Harvest Barn Cowboy Church and Experience Church.

Both have non-traditional aspects to their worship. Experience Church's music has a much harder edge than most church's worship bands, and the Cowboy Church always starts sermon with a joke.

In the 20 months that Experience has existed, it has been growing rapidly, Pastor Mike Verlennich said.

"We've grown from nothing to 250 people coming every weekend," he said. They meet at the Holmes Theatre in Detroit Lakes Sunday mornings.

A main reason for Experience's non-traditional approach is to attract people who don't go to church, by trying to give them a more familiar atmosphere.

Verlennich still preaches the Bible, just a little differently, he said. They have no traditional music, and no traditional garb.

"I'm the pastor, and I preach in jeans and a T-shirt," Verlennich said.

The downside to a more alternative church is that it isn't always appealing to people who prefer traditional worship, Verlennich said.

But Experience still attracts many people.

"We're growing rapidly. We have numbers of people coming regularly and experiencing changes in their lives," Verlennich said.

The survey also showed an increase in the number of congregations in Becker County.

Two more examples of these new churches are Shepherd of the Lakes Lutheran Church in Detroit Lakes and Waters of Grace Lutheran Church in Frazee and Vergas.

Johnson, from Immanuel Lutheran, is also the lead pastor of Waters of Grace, which started about a year ago in Frazee.

They rent the Frazee Event Center and have about a dozen regular members.

"It's been small, but we've worked hard to connect with people," Johnson said.

The church particularly tries to connect with people who don't go to church regularly, perhaps because they don't feel like they fit in at more conservative congregations in the area.

"I hate to use the word liberal, but we're kind of the more liberal kids on the block," Johnson said. "We're trying to be an open church, welcoming of all kinds of people."

This summer they've started holding services at the Vergas Community Center also. Johnson doesn't deliver the sermon in Vergas; there is a volunteer pastor who does it.

Although Waters of Grace is small, Johnson said they want to keep growing.

"My belief is that there's still a longing to be connected to a fellowship of people who are diverse in nature and challenge thinking," he said.