Lisa and Keith Kupcho leave their Chanhassen home on Sundays and hit the freeway for a 20-mile morning commute — to their Minneapolis church.
Dave and Patty Dronen make tracks around the same time, driving north 30 miles from Prior Lake to their urban spiritual home. Thornton Powell heads from the west to east metro, racking up 20 miles from Golden Valley to St. Paul.
They are among thousands of Minnesotans crisscrossing the Twin Cities and rural roads for weekend worship, fueling a growing religion trend. For centuries, both Protestant and Catholic faithful headed to their neighborhood or nearest church. But geography is no longer the arbiter of church membership.
“People are looking for something that resonates with their values,” said Lisa Kupcho, a longtime member of St. Joan of Arc Church in Minneapolis. “For us, it’s all about community, about liked-minded people.”
The commuters are in high gear during the Christmas season, when many think nothing of driving up to an hour to sing “Joy to the World” with a beloved church community. But it’s a mixed blessing for pastors and priests.
“People aren’t going to battle traffic if they’re not sure it’s going to be worth it,” said the Rev. Ben Cieslik of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. “We need to make it worth people’s time.”
The percentage of Americans driving between 16 and 30 miles to church jumped from 24% in 2001 to 32% in 2017, according to the Baylor Religion Survey, a national survey conducted by Baylor University in Texas. The group driving more than 30 miles rose from 4 to 9% — or nearly 1 in 10 churchgoers.
Catholics report driving the shortest distance, the study showed, with a quarter behind the wheel for longer than 15 minutes. A third of mainline Protestants also travel for more than 15 minutes, and one in 10 travel for a half-hour or more.
Big cathedrals and basilicas have always attracted the mobile faithful. But that has expanded to other churches as the baby boom generation and beyond began embracing personal choice. They’re lured away by theology, youth and music programs, community engagement and community in the pews.
It’s not just an urban phenomena. Bill Marx, who drives 65 miles from Mazeppa to St. Joan of Arc for weekend services, said Catholics nearby go to mass in Mazeppa, Zumbrota and Rochester.
“People always did it, just not so many,” said Marx.
Why they travel
On a recent Sunday, the Kupchos buckled up at 9 a.m. and launched their Sunday ritual. The retired educators pulled into St. Joan of Arc church an hour early, staked out their usual seats, and saved chairs for friends by laying out their scarves and mittens on seats.
Keith Kupcho surveyed his group as they came in.
“Bob is from Inver Grove Heights,” he said, pointing to a man at the end of the row. “The couple behind him is from Edina. They’re from Burnsville. There’s another from Burnsville.”
The couple, like others at St. Joan of Arc, said they are drawn to the church’s liturgy, music and social justice commitments. They also appreciated the children’s programs, attended by all four of their children. Joan of Arc, in fact, has 208 ZIP codes on its mailing list, said church administrator Dennis Heaney.
Over at Bethlehem Lutheran Church a mile away, Dave Dronen is among the many commuters motivated by childhood history. Dronen was baptized and confirmed at this church, not far from where he grew up.
“My dad still goes there, my sister goes there,” Dronen said. “I know the pastor and like the message. There’s a comfort level.”
Patty Dronen said they’ve never considered going to church closer to their house. Said Dronen: “We’re not going to restart a church just to gain 15 minutes of driving time.”
Over at Progressive Baptist Church in St. Paul, Powell comes three times a week, drawn to a theology similar to what he was raised with, and opportunities to shape music and other programs.
A schoolteacher, he is director of the men’s choir and involved in other music programs. He volunteers at the food shelf, men’s Bible study and more.
“I’ve always been a worker, and wanted to go to a church serving the community,” Powell said.
Pastors and priests say it’s an honor to be a Sunday destination, but it does affect volunteerism and church midweek involvement.
The Church of St. Agnes in St. Paul, a traditional Catholic church that attracts a metro-wide congregation, has reduced the number of times children must come to classes at the church over the years to accommodate families traveling longer distances, said the Rev. Mark Moriarty. He said the church offers “fewer times but more concentrated” educational options and programming.
St. Agnes also has added a second mass in Latin.
“We know we need to compete,” said Moriarity. “That’s what’s behind this mobility. I cannot take my flock for granted. I think it’s upped our game.”
Progressive Baptist Church responds by offering some programs that typically aren’t available in churches, such as a STEM science camp in the summer and a focus on academic enrichment for children, said the Rev. Melvin Miller. It has also made a concerted effort to support the community, but that effort can be hampered by having so many distance members.
“We have Toys for Tots this time of the year and 1,500 people come to the church” to get toys, said Miller. “We had adequate volunteers, but could have used more.”
Miller said he’s observed that people are “looking for a sense of belonging, but also a sense of purpose.” Faith leaders need to do more than just make people feel welcome, he said. They need to create a deeper space where members find meaning.
Bethlehem Lutheran pays a lot of attention to cultivating relationships between members young and old, said Cieslik, noting, “Relationships last longer than sermons.”
“When you’re a neighborhood church, you could just walk over for multiple events during the week,” Cieslik said. “We might see them once now. We need to leverage that momentum.”
And so, as Christmas Day approaches, that momentum is picking up across the state as choir members drive to rehearsals and parents drive their children to Christmas pageant practices. The commuters will be out in force this week, and unlikely to miss church.
“A lot of people have family members visiting from out of town, who join them at church,” said Kupcho. “For us it’s been nice to be able to share this over the years.”