CASSELTON, N.D. — While trends in church attendance look bleak, three area Lutheran churches are too busy with major expansion projects to be downcast.

Martin’s Lutheran Church in Casselton, for example, recently broke ground on its $2.5 million, 22,000-square-foot new structure. The Rev. Mike Jacobson says discussions for the project started in 2003, when land on Old Highway 10 was purchased with future expansion in mind.

“Roughly eight or nine years ago, the church made a run at doing a build, but there was some conflict in the church at the time,” he says.

Since Jacobson joined the congregation in 2016, however, membership has “boomed beyond belief,” with 200 new members added. In the past year alone, the church has accommodated 56 baptisms, over 140 children in Sunday school and nearly 100 confirmation students — despite a 2017 Gallup poll revealing that, nationally, only 38 percent of adults attend religious service weekly or nearly every week, down from 42 percent in 2008.

This rendering shows what Martin's Lutheran Church's new building will look like in Casselton, N.D., when completed. Special to The Forum
This rendering shows what Martin's Lutheran Church's new building will look like in Casselton, N.D., when completed. Special to The Forum

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“Our congregation is super young, and in the fall, our worship attendance just goes absolutely, positively bonkers,” Jacobson says, noting that at its height last year, 420 people worshipped together. “Other churches may be decreasing in some way, shape or form, but that’s not what we’re experiencing at Martin’s, which is why we needed to look at this project.”

The city’s overall growth has played a part, he says, explaining that while many residents work in Fargo, they appreciate a simpler life.

“I grew up in North Dakota, and people love the small Class B school system and being in a community that’s tight-knit,” he says. “Something I’ve found extremely true is that people here are completely and utterly committed to serving and being together as one. We have one worship service to fit all those people.”

It’s all about sharing in people’s lives, he says, and not just on Sundays.

“I’m very proud of our congregation in what they’re doing and how they’re moving forward for their goals and dreams… to house us as we do God’s mission together as Martin’s Lutheran Church.”

Congregants gather June 5 to celebrate the groundbreaking of a new building for Martin's Lutheran Church in Casselton, N.D. Special to The Forum
Congregants gather June 5 to celebrate the groundbreaking of a new building for Martin's Lutheran Church in Casselton, N.D. Special to The Forum

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Downtown growth

In downtown Fargo, the expansion of First Lutheran Church, 619 Broadway, has been visibly moving along since the groundbreaking in May 2018. Daniel Damico, operations director, says a robust attendance in young families combined with downtown growth prompted the look forward.

“How do we continue to be a thriving congregation, and one that is downtown, where congregations typically struggle?” he asked.

The project, which costs around $12 million, is projected to be done sometime in the fall. Renovations include upgrades to the 100-year old sanctuary, along with an emphasis on educational space and other updates.

“I wouldn’t say this was a driving factor, but something we’ve taken into consideration has been child care, whether it be full day care or school care, when looking at our spaces,” he says. “Whatever the future holds, we wanted to be able to make sure our facility could support that.”

First Lutheran Church as seen April 19 in downtown Fargo. Forum file photo
First Lutheran Church as seen April 19 in downtown Fargo. Forum file photo

First Lutheran also has been a sought-out venue for community events, Damico says, such as university concerts, so better accommodating those also became part of the planning.

“I can’t speak to trends worldwide or across the U.S. I do know there’s some data out there that, when you ask younger folks about Christianity, it can be very negative,” Damico says. “All I can do is continue to demonstrate love and grace from my position… and support the community at large.”

Despite the importance of the upgrades, he says without God, it’s still just a building.

“It’s important to have a quality structure and to keep everyone safe, but it’s also about what happens in that space,” he says. “And if we can open our doors wider to the community, I think that’s wonderful."

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West Fargo expansion

The Rev. Paul Nynas at Hope Lutheran Church says the congregation’s upcoming expansion to West Fargo parallels the city’s westward growth.

“A lot of our Wednesday evenings and Sundays are at or over capacity,” he says. “We finally had to ask, ‘Is God asking us to do something more?’”

In the early 1990s, the church expanded from its north Fargo campus, 2900 Broadway N., by adding a second in south Fargo, 3636 25th St. S. Nynas says the congregation has continued to grow “beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.” Hope will begin its widening efforts by renting out portions of an already-existing building, West Fargo's Liberty Middle School, 801 36th Ave. E., where it plans to hold its first worship service on Sept. 8.

Starting in September, Hope Lutheran Church will hold a worship service in West Fargo's Liberty Middle School as seen her on Aug. 25, 2014. Forum file photo
Starting in September, Hope Lutheran Church will hold a worship service in West Fargo's Liberty Middle School as seen her on Aug. 25, 2014. Forum file photo

“In the Fargo-Moorhead-West Fargo area, there are around 75,000-plus people who don’t go to church, and another 75,000 who only attend a couple times a year,” Nynas says. “A whole lot of people need help with their ‘soul business,’ so our goal is to continue being what we are and finding innovative ways to approach those not being reached.”

The church has invested around $150,000 to $175,000 in the project for annual staffing, materials and building rental. Nynas says a core group of about 100 families committed resources and time to the project.

“It’s not about size,” he says. “We really feel we have a ministry model where we try to make it personal and relevant for anyone who comes. You can go to a church and be anonymous, but we’re always encouraging people to go deeper.”

Eventually, they hope to purchase land and build a facility in West Fargo. Nynas says young people need to know that faith in Jesus Christ makes a real difference, he says, “not just in their eternal life, but in their life right now.”

Additionally, there’s an increase in people who are hurting in general, “those who are depressed, their marriage is struggling, or they come from broken homes or are dealing with addiction.” A church home can help, he says.

“It’s one of the last places where all generations can gather at any given time to be in relationship and community with one another," he says.

Salonen, a wife and mother of five, works as a freelance writer and speaker in Fargo. Email her at roxanebsalonen@gmail.com, and find more of her work at Peace Garden Passage, http://roxanesalonen.com/.