Church pews around Detroit Lakes are pretty full right now — and not just because it’s Christmas.

The local community is bucking the national trend of declining church memberships, with the majority of churches in town reporting robust, growing congregations, or at least numbers that are holding steady.

Religious organizations across the country are struggling to retain members; that’s been a national conversation for years. A Gallup Poll from April 2019 shows that the percentage of Americans who belong to a church, synagogue or mosque reached an all-time low in 2018, of 50%. Church memberships have declined 20% over the past 20 years.

Those losses are not reflected here in Detroit Lakes, however. Church leaders from at least eight local churches said their congregations have been holding strong or growing in recent years, some by leaps and bounds. (The Tribune reached out to 17 churches for this story; not all responded).

The most striking example of growth is at Lakes Area Vineyard, where attendance at Sunday services regularly reaches into the 700s, an increase of about 300 people since 5 years ago. The church has been in a growth curve since 2015, according to Lead Pastor Troy Easton, and recently broke ground on the first of a three-phase remodeling and expansion project to accommodate that growth.

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The Zion Lutheran, Community Alliance and Christian Fellowship churches are also in the midst of, or have recently completed, expansion projects due to growth. Pastors at Trinity Lutheran, Lake Eunice Evangelical and Faith Lutheran churches all said their attendance numbers have been on the rise, as well.

The only church to report a dip in attendance was First Lutheran, which has suffered the loss of five pastors over the past five years. Even throughout all those transitions, Interim Pastor Lauryl Ivers said the church’s youth programs have continued to swell, with the addition of 32 confirmation youth and 25 kids in the children’s ministry. And the overall attendance numbers are rebounding now, with “a bunch of new people coming again” and 23 new members introduced at the last New Member Sunday.

At Christian Fellowship Church, where attendance had been dropping for the first 15 of the last 20 years, the past five years have been friendlier, with numbers remaining steady and some new faces appearing in recent months.

“New faces” was something all the pastors reported, signaling that recent increases at their churches aren’t simply all due to “church-hopping,” but rather that new and more people are joining the overall faith community in Detroit Lakes (“church-hopping” is when populations of church-goers switch from one church to another within the same community). There are some church-hoppers, the pastors said, but most of the new faces they're seeing are newcomers to church altogether, are new to town, or are giving church another chance after straying away from it earlier in life.

Notably, the pastors said that not only are their congregations growing in number, but also that a growing number of people in those congregations are becoming more heavily involved in church missions, ministries and other activities.

A supportive community, and a focus on families

Local church leaders offer a number of reasons why this might be happening in Detroit Lakes.

First, there’s a uniquely unified system of support for church leaders here: the Detroit Lakes Ministerial Association. This group has been around since 1989, bringing local pastors together for monthly meetings every September through May.

“The pastors work really closely together,” said Jillene Gallatin, the senior pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church and the vice president of the Ministerial Association. “When we gather, we pray for one another and we celebrate what’s going on in one another’s lives … It’s a high priority and commitment here in Detroit Lakes, which I think is unique. Collectively, we recognize that God is moving in powerful ways in this community, and it’s exciting.”

Guy Roberts, the senior pastor at Zion Lutheran Church, said he’s never known a more supportive faith community than the one here.

“I’ve lived in a lot of other places,” he said, “and Detroit Lakes isn’t like other places.”

“There’s a growing unity among leaders in our (faith) community, and I think that really helps,” said Easton, of Lakes Area Vineyard Church. “I’ve really appreciated that, because I think what you often find in communities — and this is a general comment — is there's a lot of competition and dissonance … and it’s super unfortunate. There is none of that (in Detroit Lakes), and it is really encouraging … It’s just been a huge blessing, and to be quite honest, I believe our God blesses that, when people make the effort.”

Troy Easton
Troy Easton

In addition, several churches in town have been shifting their focus to families with young children — another likely factor behind the community’s growing church attendance.

Zion Lutheran is probably the best example of this. Roberts said that, five years ago, Zion’s attendance was “about as low as we could get,” with about 190 people there most Sundays. Church members decided to make some changes to try and attract and support families with young children, and average attendance ballooned to over 350.

“Our Sunday school went from 24 registered and attending (kids) to 78,” Roberts said. “Maybe the most startling statistic is our younger families; the average age (of a parishioner) went from 69 to 37. That’s a significant drop.”

Roberts said services are formatted to be more family-friendly now, and the church provides activities and events geared toward families with young children. The second service on Sundays, he laughed, “is usually pretty loud, with all the babies.”

Twenty new babies were baptized at Zion this year.

There’s a word-of-mouth effect behind the city’s church membership growth, too. Once a few new families are drawn to a church, those families start telling their friends about it, and then those families tell their friends, and so on. Before long, more people are showing up on Sundays. Success, as they say, breeds success.

The influence of children, in particular, has been a factor in the growth at Trinity, Gallatin said: “Our children and youth are really big in inviting people. Our kiddos are so excited, and then they’ll invite their friends, and a lot of the parents are encouraging of their kids.”

Parental influence is big, too. Roberts said a lot of the new, young adult members who have come to Zion did so at the encouragement of their parents: “They’re people who have kind of drifted away, and their families are intentionally trying to bring them back in now.”

The search for connection

While external factors like those already mentioned combine to help bring more people into local churches, another major factor is something that comes from within — the innate human desire for connection.

Whether it’s connection to other like-minded people, connection to the community through volunteer work, or connection to God and the spiritual powers that be — whatever connection a person is seeking, the right church holds the potential to fulfill their need.

Pastors here said they’ve been hearing more and more from their parishioners about the desire for in-depth biblical knowledge, meaningful personal relationships with God, and real, human interaction and connection with other people of faith.

“People are looking for what their purpose is in life, and when we help connect that, to give space for people to explore their gifts and to practice these life-changing ministries, they get it,” Gallatin said.

“My guess — and this is just a guess — is that this younger generation … that are raising kids, don’t have a ton of meaningful relationships,” Roberts said. “A lot of the relationships are superficial, through technology and the internet, so they’re gravitating to a place where they feel they can have those kinds of relationships … And our church provides those relationships.”

While older generations had multiple sources of connection, through fraternities, social clubs, civic organizations and the like, the younger generations aren't as involved in those sorts of groups, Roberts said, but that need for connection “is still inherent in younger generations,” so they’re seeking it out at church.

Then, of course, it’s the church’s job to help those folks find what they’re looking for. If they can succeed at that, they will sustain their memberships.

“The churches that are growing in town, the common thread is that people are being welcomed in and getting led into relationships where they know they’re being cared for and supported,” Roberts said. “The growth is happening at the churches that are a little less traditional in approach, if what I’m hearing is correct; that are a little more accommodating, or are trying to be.”

At Lakes Area Vineyard, a key to connection is the church’s emphasis on getting together outside of the church’s four walls. Easton said there’s “a growing and healthy small group structure” at Vineyard. “Last fall, we offered 48 different small group opportunities, hosted by various church leaders in their homes.”

Most of those groups meet weekly, he added, “so not only are those people gathering on Sundays for worship, but they’re also making space in their lives once a week. I’ve seen that increase connectedness here … It’s the community learning how to be a community that cares for one another.”

At Trinity, Gallatin said it’s service to the community that seems to bind church members together the most. Whether it’s the youth groups visiting nursing home residents, or quilters raising money for the food shelf, Trinity’s members foster relationships by giving back.

Once people get more involved in their community, “they find their purpose and their connection,” Gallatin said. “For us, that’s probably our biggest principle. It’s biblical: Love God, love your neighbor.”

An emphasis on the Bible and the Bible's teachings appears to be attractive to today's church-goers. Pastors said the younger generations show a strong interest in reading and learning the ins-and-outs of the Bible.

“Statistics have revealed that the churches that are growing across the nation are the churches that are doing a couple of things really well," Easton said. "One is a worship experience for the community that isn’t showy … but is high-quality. The other is solid, biblical preaching out of the Bible, and centered on Jesus.”

“People want Bible studies,” said Ivers, of First Lutheran. “That’s pretty exciting. Here at First Lutheran, this is a congregation that loves their worship, and their music. That’s one of the draws that we have; we’ve got a lot of talented musicians.”

Different churches have different strengths, which appeal to different people throughout the various phases of their lives. Some want a church with great music, while others might want lots of opportunities for missions work; some are looking for plenty of kids’ activities, and others want a strong focus on the teachings of the Bible. Having a variety of churches in town that can appeal to those various needs and wants, helps keep the overall faith community strong. That’s another thing Detroit Lakes has going for it.

“I think each congregation is unique in how they share the good news of Jesus,” Gallatin said. “And I think that’s wonderful.”