Redeemer Lutheran Church is not your typical Lutheran outpost. Summer means the bike store and coffee shop are humming, kids camp and Zumba classes are in gear, and the young adults renting its apartments are mentoring children in this north Minneapolis neighborhood.
It represents a new model for the Lutheran Church, which is transforming itself to attract younger and diverse members, be more relevant to neighbors below its steeples and shake its image as a Scandinavian bastion best known for hot dish, Jell-O and Ole and Lena.
Minnesota, with the largest number of Lutherans in the nation, will be instrumental in shaping the future of the faith. Time is of the essence: 37 percent of the churches in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — the largest denomination in Minnesota and the U.S. — now have fewer than 50 Sunday worshipers.
"A lot of Lutherans are worshiping like they just got off the boat from Europe," said the Rev. Kelly Chatman, pastor at Redeemer. "It doesn't create space for people from different backgrounds. We need to reframe what it means to be church, and make it real and relevant to the neighborhood."
Membership at the ELCA plunged from 5.2 million in 1988 to about 3.7 million today. In Minnesota, numbers fell from 782,000 to about 679,000.
The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, the second-largest Lutheran denomination, saw membership slide nationally from 2.7 million to 2 million during the same period. In Minnesota, the numbers dropped from 218,000 to 169,000.
This decline is not unique to Lutheran Protestants. But it means the faith that shaped about one in four Minnesotans — as well the state's character and culture — is undergoing a second "reformation."
"We haven't been able to translate our identity in a way that gets people excited," added Bishop Mark Hanson, former presiding bishop of the national ELCA and former head of the St. Paul Area Synod.
"If we only see loss … it will be a discouraging time for Lutherans," Hanson said. "Fortunately that's not the only story we're telling."
Past meets future
In the rolling hills outside Red Wing stands Vasa Lutheran Church, one of Minnesota's most historically significant churches. It was founded in 1855 by Swedish minister Eric Norelius, who also helped lay the foundation for Lutheran Social Service and Gustavus Adolphus College.
The church museum displays the heavy wooden trunks lugged by Swedish immigrants when they settled the rich farmland here. Today the church coffee hour still serves traditional Swedish cookies, albeit courtesy of Ikea. The coffee is as strong as ever. And many of the folks in the pews — mainly a good-natured group of retirees — are descendants of its founders.
On a recent Sunday, about 45 people were scattered in the sanctuary — about 25 percent of church members. One in four baptized Lutherans in church on Sunday is the norm nationally, ELCA figures show.
The Rev. Maureen Hagen's morning announcements revealed they were a small but generous group. Hagen mentioned the Wednesday night religious program, a $2,000 donation by members to nearby food shelves, and the free dinner serving about 150 neighbors each month.
In other words, Vasa is holding its own.
But the dark clouds looming above the steeple on this Sunday were a symbol of the church's challenges — the ones troubling most churches, Lutheran or not. Aging members. Fewer children. Competition for Sunday family time. And an increasingly secular world.
Lutherans also are up against enduring stereotypes as humorless do-gooders, set in their ways. Classic joke: "How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb?" Answer: "Change?"
"A lot of people don't know what Lutherans stand for," lamented Hagen as church members grabbed coffee after the service.
Al Lindell, a fourth-generation Vasa member, said he recently attended a workshop on how to boost church attendance and finances. One young speaker said traditional church "is on the outs," said Lindell, and churches need to bring in "some entertainment, something uplifting."
"It's hard to find a balance," Lindell said. "Every time there's a change, we lose some people."
Losing people is the norm for most churches. Scroll through ELCA reports on Minnesota's 1,031 congregations and find "declining" typed next to about 85 percent.
Bishop Steve Delzer of the Southeastern ELCA Synod grapples with the fate of the 174 churches under his leadership. He recently introduced two projects that pair church leaders with church management experts to help them build a clear mission and financial direction. Some will have to close, he acknowledges. Some will merge. Some will find a new way.
"There's no doubt the church is changing significantly," Delzer said. "No one knows what it will look like. The upside is that those of us now get to shape what it looks like in the future."
Fewer members mean lower contributions to churches for programs and staff and to national headquarters.
"Lutherans have been good at building institutions," said Mark Granquist, a professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul and author of "Lutherans in America." "Colleges. Nursing homes. Hospitals. Social services. They've managed to create an ethos that influenced the world around them. They've created a huge superstructure in America, in Minnesota, and now they're having a hard time sustaining it."
A new direction
Redeemer Lutheran Church in near north Minneapolis is often mentioned as an urban model for the future. Like Vasa, it was formed more than 100 years ago by Scandinavian immigrants. Unlike Vasa, its surrounding community changed significantly. The church changed with it.
Pastor Chatman remembers the sinking feeling when he arrived 16 years ago, preaching to so many empty pews. But Redeemer's congregation had just created a nonprofit to serve the needs of the Harrison neighborhood, and that opened the door to innovation.
Over the years, Redeemer has been able to buy most of the city block where it stands on Glenwood Avenue. It owns about 26 apartments, with tenants ranging from college-educated millennials to lower-income residents. It has a "Health Commons" in one of its buildings, a partnership with Fairview Health Services, offering health and wellness programs from Zumba to meditation. Its Venture North bike shop teaches neighbors to repair bikes and offers meeting space for teens and adults.
That's not to mention the spiritual direction that strives to grow diverse and committed Lutheran leaders.
Walk into the church on a Sunday morning, and the crowd singing hymns is mainly middle-aged and younger. It includes young African-American men, Scandinavian families, a contingency of seminary students. Music shifts from traditional hymns to upbeat jazz during the greet-your-neighbor portion of service, which can last 10 minutes as members step out of their pews and shake hands with friends and strangers.
Kendrick Hall was among those mingling. The 26-year-old said he connected with the church about three years ago. He credits the church, and its social activism, with his decision to enroll in seminary today.
"I love this community," said Hall. "PK [Pastor Kelly] took me under his wing to be a role model to my peers, to be of help to this community."
Chatman, among the many Minnesotans who traveled to Martin Luther's German homeland this year for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, argues that the message of the 16th-century monk still can inspire. But Lutheranism, as we know it, has to evolve.
"Churches need to be willing and able to try new things," said Chatman. "It might not be that people come on Sunday morning. It might be that churches can't afford a full-time pastor. It might be that they don't own their building. I think the church will continue to exist if we allow people to own it."
Building out from history
The ELCA has a solid history to build on, Lutheran leaders say. It's long provided and advocated for education, health care and anti-poverty initiatives. It's long welcomed immigrants and refugees. Women have been ordained pastors as far back as the 1970s, gays and lesbians since 2009.
The future of the Lutheran church, say church leaders, has many faces. It's niche churches such as an assembly of millennials who meet Sunday nights at an art house in St. Paul. It's the urban church offering its space to Swahili-speaking neighbors. It's a megachurch in a fast-growing suburb that meets the spiritual and social needs of hundreds of families.
And it's simply congregations that offer relevant spiritual and other supports to their communities.
"I think traditional congregations will still be the norm," said Granquist. "But they will look less and less like each other."
Church leaders will also have to look less like each other. The Rev. Justin Grimm, who oversees church development for the St. Paul Area Synod, said a theology degree alone can't guarantee an effective leader of the future.
"People crave authentic relationships and being together," Grimm said. "It takes really good leadership and commitment to welcome them where they are."
All this poses risks, said Lutheran leaders, including alienation of current members, failed attempts at outreach, and more financial strain.
In the years ahead, Lutherans will continue to do what they've been doing for centuries — trying to help neighbors and share the news that God's grace saves them. It's a simple message entering a complex world.
"Martin Luther started a movement; we institutionalized it and bureaucratized it," said Bob Hulteen, communications director at the Minneapolis ELCA synod. "We have to reclaim the movement, to be nimble and responsive to the people around us. Luther answered the existential questions of his time. We need to do that today."
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511
THE ELCA BY THE NUMBERS
3.7M U.S. members
679,000 Minnesota members
9,300 congregations nationally
37% Churches with average Sunday attendance under 50.
2% people nationally self-identify as Lutheran
20% or nearly 1 million, Minnesotans baptized in Lutheran denominations