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Winging it on a prayer: churches are trying new ways to attract young followers

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The Rev. Dominique Buchholz engages a young congregant during an outdoor service at Sharon Lutheran Church in Grand Forks. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service2 / 4
The Rev. Paul Knight gives a high-five to a group of children at Hope Church in south Grand Forks. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service3 / 4
Pastor Lynn Ronsberg at Sharon Lutheran Church in Grand Forks believes that personal faith is as strong as ever despite the fact that people are attending Sunday services less frequently. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service4 / 4

GRAND FORKS, N.D.—The names of hundreds and hundreds of people are hidden, but not forgotten, beneath the rug in the Worship Center at Hope Evangelical Covenant Church.

The Rev. Paul Knight says each name scribbled in Sharpie marker was put there by a church member who deeply loves and cares about that person.

"There are names written in Korean. There are names in Chinese. There are names of people from all over the country on that floor," Knight said. "And all we're doing is praying that God will somehow penetrate their lives with his love."

It's a bit symbolic and it might not be traditional evangelizing, but Knight says the power of prayer and a personal invite does work.

"Every once in awhile someone will come to church with a guest and they'll come to me and say, 'By the way, their name is under the carpet over there.' "

A new calling

As today's headlines shout "U.S. public becomes less religious," faith leaders of all kinds are answering an urgent call to find new ways to reach followers before the tide can turn to a battle of biblical proportions.

The Pew Research Center's latest Religious Landscape Study released in 2015 said a large majority of Americans (77 percent) still identify with some religious denomination and remain strongly committed. In fact, two-thirds say they pray every day and that religion is "very important" to them.

The extensive survey of more than 35,000 U.S. adults found the religiously affiliated include a broad variety of Protestants as well as Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus.

But what's probably getting the most attention is the growing minority of "nones"—the name given to those who don't claim affiliation with any organized religion.

The study said the "nones" and, in particular, millennials, account for the recent decrease in religious beliefs and behaviors. The "nones" now make up 23 percent of the population, up from 16 percent in 2007.

According to the study, only 27 percent of Younger Millennials (born 1990-1996) attend religious services weekly, compared with 51 percent of Silent Generation adults (born 1928-1945). Only 38 percent of the younger group said religion was "very important in their lives," compared with 67 percent in the older group.

As older Americans die, they are being replaced by younger Americans who show far less attachment to religion than their parents or grandparents did at the same age.

A different world

"It used to be in any neighborhood most everyone went to church, and you knew the people who didn't," said the Rev. Lynn Ronsberg of Sharon Lutheran Church in Grand Forks. "Today, it's probably the opposite."

Ronsberg estimates as many as 50 percent fewer people fill the pews each Sunday than did when she was first ordained 38 years ago. But she's also just as quick to say she doesn't believe people have lost their faith.

"Faith is there as strong as ever. I think that the expression of that faith has changed," she said. "That's where we, as a church, are missing the boat. We need to say 'how do we speak the word to people today' because what we've done forever isn't connecting.

"We can't go back to the '50s and '60s because people don't (just) go to church because they should. That's not how it works anymore."

Ronsberg says America's evolving culture demands the church change up its pitch to appeal to younger generations.

"Young adults want to make a difference in the world, and they want to do something worthwhile that changes things," she said. "It's our job to provide those opportunities to serve and then figure out how to nurture their faith through that."

Sharon Lutheran is mixing it up with such things as contemporary outdoor services and a faith campout.

It also has a new minister, the Rev. Dominique Buchholz, whose focus is young adult ministry. "She's their age, she's one of them," Ronsberg said. The frustrating part is there's no guide to guaranteed success, she said. The only answer is to keep trying.

Growth at Hope

The Rev. Knight's congregation is one church that's defied the odds. Hope Church has outgrown its space twice already and now is knocking out a wall to add 200 seats in its Worship Center. When Knight arrived in 1991, he said the church had 80 members.

Today, more than 1,000 people attend services there each Sunday, and the church moves Easter services to the Chester Fritz Auditorium to make room for the 2,300 people who come to pray.

"The message never changes. We're teaching the same 2,000-year-old message," Knight said. "But how we package it and how we present it has to change all the time to meet with the culture and to attract new followers."

Part of those changes include different kinds of music and staff than 20 years ago, he said. Just this month, the church added a full-time young adult minister. The church has a separate Connection Center, Youth Ministry Center and Hopeful Beginnings Day Care and Preschool.

"We really want to pay attention to young families and the fact that it's hard to raise kids these days," Knight said. "If we can get the little kids understanding they're loved by God right away, it changes so many things."

This summer, nearly a record 300 children and 75-plus volunteers took part in a weeklong vacation Bible school. The church also sponsors almost a dozen Christ-centered support groups, and its Grounds for Missions Coffee Bar raises money to support its work in Fitche, Ethiopia. A new Adult Ministry Center already is in the works, and construction is set for fall for a fully commercial kitchen.

"We're not building our facility just for us. We want it to serve the community," Knight said. "Our dream is to create a space where people will want to hang out, an oasis. My goal is to get as many people connected to Jesus as I can."

Peer to peer

Other churches are reaching out in similar ways.

Paul Braun, director of communications with the Catholic Diocese of Fargo, said special Focus Missionary members are connecting with students on the University of North Dakota campus, and The Newman Connection is linking entering students to existing Catholics already on campus.

"We need to evangelize across the world, but most important, across the street," Braun said. "That's where we need to start."

Braun says the diocese also hopes to soon launch a social media campaign via Instagram—a language in which young people are fluent.

"We want to use social media as more than just a bulletin for upcoming events," he said. "We want to send a message that will touch the hearts of our young people."

Recognizing that very powerful draw of popular culture, the diocese also is sponsoring a concert with popular Christian artist Matt Maher on Aug. 12 in Fargo's Scheels Arena.

No matter how they see the state of America's religion today, all of the faith leaders agreed a happy, healthy church is one filled with love and service.

"At the core, it's people who let God love them, love him in return and love others in Jesus' name," Knight said.

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