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Stephen J. Lee, Forum Communications Co., Published May 06 2012

North Dakota bucks trend toward nondenominational churches

GRAND FORKS – What do North Dakota and Utah have in common?

Both states, while highly religious, are bucking a national trend by having the lowest percentage of people who go to nondenominational and independent religious congregations.

A new survey released last week found that swelling numbers of religious Americans are attending evangelical Christian congregations, such as Willow Creek near Chicago or Calvary Chapel in southern California or the Lakewood Church in Houston headed by Joel and Victoria Osteen, which have no ties to a larger denomination.

The survey found that nondenominational and independent churches considered as a whole could be considered the third-largest religious group in America, with 12.2 million adherents in 3,500 congregations, according to the 2010 U.S. Religion Census, released last week by the Association of Religion Data Archives.

Roman Catholics, at 59 million in 2010 – down nearly 6 percent from 2000 – and the Southern Baptist Convention, with about 15 million members, are the largest single denominations, according to the ARDA survey.

Mainline Protestant denominations continue to hemorrhage members, while evangelicals, denominations as well as nondenominational congregations, are growing.

But only in North Dakota and Utah do less than 1 percent of religious adherents go to a nondenominational congregation.

Why Utah and North Dakota?

Why are the two conservative, religious states impervious to this national trend?

Utah, of course, is dominated by Mormons, officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as no other state is dominated by a single denomination: 69 percent of the population is LDS.

In North Dakota, Lutherans of all types (about 31 percent) and Catholics (about 24 percent) added up to 55 percent of the population of 672,400 in 2010.

While mainline Protestant denominations, including the two largest Lutheran churches, as well as the Catholic Church, lost members the past decade in North Dakota, they still dominate the landscape.

One expert points to history and ancestry.

“We are still close to the immigrant experience, so that if you are Norwegian you tend to be in the Norwegian (Lutheran) synod, if you’re German, you tend to be in the Missouri (Lutheran) Synod, if you are Polish, you tend to be Polish Catholic,” said the Rev. William Sherman, a retired Grand Forks priest and sociology professor at North Dakota State University in Fargo. He’s studied religion and ethnicity in North Dakota for 60 years and written several books about it all.

“This was the last area (in the nation) to be homesteaded, and it’s still an important factor. I think it’s as simple as that. When you get people highly mobile and with no roots, they are looking for a nondenominational church, but not up in this neck of the woods.”

This ain’t California

A prime example of the countervailing national and North Dakota trends concerning nondenominational churches is Calvary Chapel in Grand Forks.

The Rev. Seth Wetter has led a “church planting” effort nearly five years old, starting as Bible study.

About a year ago, a group now numbering about 20 began meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Sundays for services in an office building at 2500 S. Columbia Road.

Wetter commutes to Grand Forks from Fargo, where he started a Calvary Chapel eight years ago that has about 50 members.

Started by the Rev. Chuck Smith in southern California 45 years ago as part of the Jesus Movement, Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa quickly became one of the first modern “mega-churches,” with thousands attending – nearly 10,000 today.

It spawned nearly 2,000 congregations worldwide that use the same name but operate independently, with no formal denominational organization.

The congregations focus on serious Bible study – “through,” not “from” the Bible, Wetter says – a spirit-filled praise style of worship while eschewing liturgy and many mainline customs seen as “man’s traditions.”

But it hasn’t caught on much in North Dakota.

“If my goal was to have a large church, I would have quit,” Wetter said. “But my goal is to serve God and be faithful, to teach the Bible and see people get saved.”

Wetter, who grew up Lutheran in southwest Minnesota, says he got saved and born again through his older brother, a Calvary Chapel pastor on the East Coast.

Wetter was called, trained and ordained through a Calvary Chapel in St. Paul and like many Calvary Chapel pastors, didn’t attend a seminary.

Calvary Chapels haven’t been big in the Upper Midwest, he said.

“If someone has an affiliation with a church, they tend to think they are OK and are not really open to the Gospel. Many here don’t think of themselves as gross sinners in need ... of a savior.”

He also thinks North Dakotans just like the status quo more than most.

“There are a lot less consolidations of schools here than in other parts of the country, I think, and you see in so many small towns people want to keep businesses open even though there are few people left. It seems as if in North Dakota this goes beyond religion and that people here do not want to change.”

Another reason may be that Calvary Chapel’s style and teaching aren’t that different from trends in many evangelical denominations.

Hope Church, part of the Evangelical Covenant denomination based in Chicago and birthed by Swedish immigrants a century ago in the Midwest – looks like and functions like a California-sized Calvary Chapel, with 700 or more attending every Sunday in the Grand Cities Mall in Grand Forks.

Another factor might be less church attendance overall: The survey found 67 percent of the state’s population were religious adherents in 2010, down from 73 percent in 2000, while the total population grew nearly 5 percent to 672,591.

Mormons on the uptick

Besides the commonality of being non-nondenominational, Utah and North Dakota have another sort of link: The Mormon church based in Salt Lake City is the fastest-growing religious body nationwide, as well as here.

It’s up nearly 2 million adherents in the decade ending in 2010, more than any other church; it’s up 89 percent to nearly 7,000 members in North Dakota, besting any other denomination of more than 4,000 members, according to the ARDA survey.

Jeffrey Deem is bishop – or lay pastor in LDS terminology – of the Grand Forks Ward, or congregation. A retired Air Force pilot, he – like nearly all LDS bishops and other church leaders – is an unpaid volunteer.

Until shortly before he and his wife, Jaquie, and their children moved to Grand Forks about a decade ago, there were two wards using the Grand Forks LDS building. But shrinking numbers overall, especially at the Grand Forks Air Force Base, led to closing one of the wards just before he arrived.

Attendance averages about 235 during the school year, he said.

“We have lost quite a few military and quite a few church members,” Deem said of the past decade. “But over the last year and a half or so, we have seen a significant increase in people coming to the Base for Global Hawk (drone mission), and we have picked up a fair share of members moving here for that.”

Even the booming Oil Patch in western North Dakota has affected the Grand Forks Ward, which covers a big reach from Mentor, Minn., to Devils Lake, and the Canadian border to Hillsboro, N.D., on the south point, Deem said.

“We have a family that moved into Walhalla (N.D.) recently and the husband is driving to Dickinson, N.D., to work in the oil field. This is where they could find reasonable housing.”

While Mormonism began missionary work a century ago in North Dakota, nearly all its growth has happened since 1977, when the Fargo “stake,” or diocese, was organized, making the state the 50th to have an LDS stake, according to the church’s website.

The rise of Gov. Mitt Romney as the presumptive Republican nominee for president this year has upped the profile of Mormonism here, as well as nationally, but not necessarily membership, Deem said.

He isn’t surprised by the survey showing non-denominationalism being rare in these parts.

“You have very grounded people in North Dakota, very conservative and religious, and I think people who want to change religions are people who are in some kind of turmoil, looking for something, not satisfied,” Deem said. “Yet, I see people in North Dakota as very solid in their beliefs, their faith, their ancestry, their traditions. They are just not, as a general rule, looking for something different.”

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Stephen J. Lee writes for the Grand Forks Herald