The men and women relaxing on yoga mats recently at a Minneapolis meditation center didn’t 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.
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 can’t 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 they’re 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 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 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. She’s 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 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 “alternatives 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?”