MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Religion is evolving in Minnesota.
According to the Pew Research Center, since 2007 the number of Minnesotans who attend church regularly has dropped by 4 percent. More drastically, the number of Minnesotans who say they don’t believe in God has tripled in the past decade.
But some churches are growing – and one in particular is exploding.
Eagle Brook is now the largest church in Minnesota, with more than 22,000 people attending services each weekend and 48,000 attending on Christmas. The church has six campuses across the metro: in Blaine, Lino Lakes, Woodbury, Spring Lake Park, and White Bear Lake.
In late March, the church opened its newest campus in Anoka. The church staff turned an old K-Mart into an $18 million facility. Thanks to donors, they built it debt free.
The very first weekend the Anoka location opened, 6,545 people showed up, with some watching from the hallway as the venue flooded with visitors.
Eagle Brook’s approach to church has Minnesotans showing up in droves, and senior pastor Bob Merritt says it’s partly because Eagle Brook tries to make the church experience less weird.
“Churches can be so weird,” he said. “So we try to reduce the weird factor.”
While it might not be weird, Eagle Brook is certainly unique.
From the parking lot attendants and front door greeters to the coffee shop and expansive kid play areas, the church offers a visitor-friendly experience.
“We’ve tried to eliminate all the barriers,” Merritt said. “They come into a church, there’s a lobby, there’s a café, there’s a bookstore…It feels like a movie theater almost where you have comfortable seats. All that’s just to help people who’ve never been to church before or people who’ve gone away from church.”
There are no pews at Eagle Brook, nor are there any stained glass windows or choir robes. Instead, there are lots of blue jeans.
“It’s very comfortable, very comfortable here,” said volunteer Phil Resendez of West St. Paul. “It’s not a suit-and-tie place.”
Resendez is one of more than 20,000 people who finds weekly comfort at Eagle Brook. A lifelong addict, he says he’s found faith and sobriety.
“I do not feel judged, not at all,” Resendez said.
He volunteers with the church’s recovery support group.
“I felt very alone and coming here I felt like that changed,” he said. “I felt like I belonged, I felt instantly loved, I felt cared for.”
Church greeter Shelley Stelton has a more common backstory.
“Most of my adult life I had not attended church except for maybe on the holidays,” she said.
Stelton was raised Lutheran. Lutherans and Catholics make up almost half of the state’s faith population. Eagle Brook is Baptist in origin.
“The first message that I heard the day I walked in I felt like I was the only person in the room,” she said.
Although it was unusual when compared to her traditional faith experiences, she loved the music and energy.
“The kids loved it too,” she said. “They wanted to come back.”
Eagle Brook’s thriving environment caught the attention of Augsburg religion professor Hans Wiersma. He says he brings students to services so they can see what’s attractive about it.
“The trappings of a religious institution seem to be missing form Eagle Brook’s worship space,” he said. “It’s just less formal.”
Perhaps the most unconventional part is the way the sermon, or message, is delivered. The message is beamed.
A self-proclaimed introvert, Merritt speaks from Lino Lakes. The other campuses have their own campus pastor but watch the message from Merritt or another speaking pastor on a big screen.
Music varies from campus to campus, with no organs in sight.
“Not everybody likes it, and that’s OK,” Merritt said, describing the sound, which is full of electric guitars and big drum beats. “We’re trying to hit that 80 percent.”
It’s the type of music he says people listen to during the week — so why not Sunday? He says it’s music people can relate to, and relatability is what Merritt, who’s been at the church since 1991, is all about.
In his messages, Merritt often speaks of his past personal struggles.
“All I need to do is talk about my own weaknesses and my own failures, my own blunders in life,” he said. “If I can add some humor around that, people are in their seats [nodding their heads, saying] ‘yup, yup, that’s me.'”
Merritt spends more than 30 hours on his weekly messages and has several people review them. Each one is around 30 minutes.
The week WCCO visited his church, Merritt talked about how to conquer your burdens. His messages are also posted online, with viewers in all 50 states seeing them. Soon — thanks to $5 million in donations — they’ll stream live to the world on Sundays.
“I think it’s a sin for people to come into a church and be bored,” he said. ” I don’t mean that they should be entertained, because I think God’s word is the most compelling thing on the planet, but so often we take God’s word and we just bore people with it and to me that’s sinful,” Merritt said.
His audience is captivated by his words. And with 240 staff members and 27 weekly services, the audience is growing.
But that, Merritt says, is a side note.
“It’s not about being big, never has been,” he said, adding, “It’s just…God keep using us, and we’ll try to follow.”
On Easter Sunday, Eagle Brook broke an all-time attendance record, with more than 51,000 people showing up at services, and 10,200 people watching online.