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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Shawn Vestal: The pronounced shift away from mainline churches in Spokane continues

Kyla Scott, shown here with her husband, Travis, and their two children before their third was born, has always attended church in the denomination in which she grew up – the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. It’s an important way for her to maintain a sense of tradition and connection to her family. Travis has now been baptized, and they attend The Vine Church in Hayden with their children regularly.  (Courtesy of the Scott family)

Kyla Scott always wanted to attend the same religious denomination in which she was raised.

The church to which her parents belonged. The one she attended growing up in South Dakota. The one in which she now wants to raise her own children.

The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod has been a constant in her life.

“I’ve always sought it out because it was my tradition,” she said. Whenever she moved to a new place, whether it was Iowa, Denver, Issaquah, Washington, or Liberty Lake, “I always looked up the church I attended at home.”

For Scott, that faith provides comfort and connection, a sustaining tradition and a deeply important set of beliefs about the purpose and meaning of life.

She and her husband, Travis, who was baptized more recently, take their three young children to The Vine Church in Hayden, which is affiliated with St. Matthew Lutheran in Spokane. They also make a point of building religion into daily life.

“Who knows where their faith journey will take them, but I want them to know what my faith journey has been,” she said.

Like Scott, thousands of Christians in the Inland Northwest will celebrate Easter next week. Many of them, however, will not be worshiping in the same church in which they grew up.

The Inland Northwest has seen a pronounced shift in worshipers away from traditional denominations – such as Catholicism and mainline Protestant churches – and toward nondenominational and evangelical Protestant churches.

The trend is not new, but it is dramatic. According to the U.S. Religious Census, the number of people worshiping at nondenominational Christian churches in Spokane County grew 413% between 2010 and 2020, supplanting Catholicism as the largest religion in the county.

‘This thing called the Bible’

During that same period, the number of Catholic adherents tracked by the census dropped 47%. Most mainline Protestant churches, including Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists and Lutherans, also showed declines in religious adherence, according to the census.

On the other hand, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has grown here, as has the Assemblies of God.

This evolution has been under way for many years. In 1980, evangelicals comprised 8% of the Spokane County population; by 2020, they were 26%. During that same period, the percentage of Catholic adherents went from 14% to 6% and mainline Protestantism dropped from 12% to 3%.

The categories of nondenominational and evangelical include a tremendous range of churches. Broadly speaking, they tend to be less hierarchical, focused on Scripture, more casual in worship style, and self-governing, without being part of a larger organization.

Much of the growth has come in the large congregations – many with several hundred members or more – but the category includes numerous churches and approaches.

That includes the Scotts’ church, The Vine in Hayden. Pastor Kevin Schultz moved there from St. Matthews and started the church in 2017, after a year of preparations.

“I see people becoming more and more interested in God and the Bible more than the church – by the church I mean the organization,” he said. “People just want to get to know this thing called the Bible.”

The category also includes The Rock Church in Spokane Valley, which opened in 2018. The church was started by lead pastor Zac Minton, who moved to Spokane from the Memphis, Tennessee, area in 2014.

Minton describes the church as nondenominational with Baptist roots; it has a “come as you are” approach, with casual dress, beverages and live music at services, and an effort to make sure everyone feels “known, noticed and loved,” he said.

“What we want to do is remove whatever barriers people have to explore faith,” Minton said.

He said he sometimes hears from people who prefer a more formal style when he does something like wear a ballcap while delivering a sermon.

“We want to reach people who don’t go to church and don’t have a church background,” he said. “To reach people no one’s reaching, you do things no one’s doing.”

A long-term trend

Tracking a city or region’s church membership with precision is difficult. Every person’s faith is personal, and every church’s membership takes in a wide range of congregants, from devoted, every-Sunday members to those who barely show up but still consider themselves members.

The Association of Religious Data Archives conducts a national religious census every decade; its most recent report, for 2020, paints a picture of church membership in Spokane and Kootenai counties, and how it changed in the previous 10 years.

Overall, in a region that has long had relatively high levels of people unaffiliated with any religion – the so-called “nones” – the census shows an uptick in religious adherence.

In Spokane County in 2020, 42% of the population were adherents of some religion, an increase of five percentage points from 2010. That still lags the national figure of 49% percent, according to the census.

Church-going is much more widespread in Kootenai County, with 64% of the population belonging to a denomination.

Kootenai County’s religious landscape is different in other ways. It experienced an explosion of growth in nondenominational churches between 2000 and 2010, a trend that tapered off in the following decade. But at 40% of the population, nondenominational church membership still dominates the religious landscape there.

Also, Catholicism grew dramatically in Kootenai County between 2010 and 2020 when the Catholic portion of the county grew from 5.5% to 15.8%, the census says.

A generational shift

There are many factors involved in the shift away from traditional churches but a key one is age and generational differences in what people want out of a church. Mainline congregations tend to be older, comprised of those who value the consistency of a traditional, consistent liturgical practice, while nondenominational and evangelical congregations have attracted more young people and others looking for new ways to worship.

Tracy Simmons, who runs the nonprofit SpokaneFAVS religion news website and is a professor of journalism at Washington State University, said the trend has been under way for many years. Fewer people have a strong attachment to the church tradition of their youth – or don’t have one – but are still seeking ways to worship and build community with fellow believers.

They prize ways of worshiping “outside of Sunday and the four walls of the church,” she said, and value a more casual, personal experience, and worship services that feel more accessible, inspirational and fun. They seek out forms of conversations and fellowship outside of church services.

“The nondenominational church leadership is doing all of those things a little better,” she said.

At Minton’s The Rock Church, for example, there is an emphasis on home groups, in addition to the main Sunday service. The small groups meet weekly in the homes of members, and they combine study and service.

There is also a strong, though not exclusive, association in recent years between politically conservative areas and nondenominational churches, reflected in the growth of churches in the Spokane Valley and North Idaho.

‘It’s about God’

For whatever the statistics can tell us about our region’s religious landscape, matters of faith remain personal and individualized, even among members of the same congregation.

For Kyla Scott, there was a great value in some of the traditional, even “old-timey” kinds of elements of the church services she grew up with. A minister in the front speaking, hymns sung to organ accompaniment, everyone dressed up.

Worship services at the Vine are a little less formal – people may dress casually, songs are accompanied by a guitar.

She even approached Schultz, her pastor, to talk about it. Schultz said in an interview that his view is that the church should remove impediments between people and the Gospel – given that the church’s mission is less to serve its members than to minister to those outside the church.

“Our goal is to reach people who don’t know God,” he said. “The church is the only organization that exists primarily for the people who don’t belong to it.”

Scott said she’s come to value a different style of worship.

“It’s about God,” she said. “It’s not about making Kyla feel comfortable.”