MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Evangelical Christians are moving beyond the mainstream and onto the main stage in Minnesota.
The National Association of Evangelicals chose Minnesota for its annual meeting and will gather this week in Eden Prairie at Wooddale Church, whose senior pastor, the Rev. Leith Anderson, is the president of the NAE.
It's a sign of the growth of evangelical denominations in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest.
A typical example of that growth is Eagle Brook Church in suburban White Bear Lake, which grew from 300 to 4,000 in the past decade. Wooddale, for its part, has planted six "daughter" congregations in the past decade. Moreover, the number of Baptists in Minnesota, most of whom call themselves evangelical, has grown from about 13,000 in 1971 to more than 82,000 in 2000.
"Evangelicals in Minnesota are certainly part of the mainstream of Minnesota religious life, which probably wasn't true 15 years ago for sure," said Chris Gilbert, a political science professor at Gustavus Adolphus College.
The evangelical movement's leaders compare the current situation to the mid-1800s to early 1900s when evangelicals dominated American life, including the suffrage movement, prohibition and abolition of slavery.
"To me, that's the biggest challenge the evangelical church is facing," said the Rev. George Brushaber, president of Bethel College and Seminary in Arden Hills. "Can we expect a new rise in social ministries of the church that characterized evangelicals in the 19th century?"
Akron professor of politics John Green, an expert on American religious movements, said various sources show that between 20 to 25 percent of the U.S. population is evangelical. An evangelical is generally defined as someone who has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ; believes in the accuracy and truth of the Bible; has had a faith conversion experience, or been "born again"; and has a need to convert others to their faith.
Although their churches are growing and their political influence rising, for most evangelicals faith is personal and lived out in myriad ways in a diversity of congregations. "We're just ordinary people whose lives have been touched by something extraordinary," said Jeannie Burlowski, who attends the nondenominational Church of the Open Door in Maple Grove, along with her husband, Tim, and their children.
An example of that diversity is the evangelical community's ambivalence about the possibility of war in Iraq; the NAE has not taken a public stand on the issue.
Doug Trouten, executive director of the Evangelical Press Association, also said evangelicals disagree on social agendas. "Plenty of people are comfortable with where the Republicans are on social issues, but others are more comfortable with Democrats on caring for the poor. It's a continuum and hard to break into black and white."
The rise in evangelical numbers "goes with a gradual reintroduction of religious language into American public life," Gilbert said.
The Rev. Martin Marty, a Lutheran historian, said: "Mainline Protestants and Catholics don't evangelize on any significant scale. The power and prosperity in those two groups have trickled down to their local congregations, but the sense of a national movement that produces celebrities and has access to power has moved to the evangelicals."
Some experts, however, question whether evangelical congregations are growing all that much.
Marty said evangelicals don't "talk about those who drop out," he said. "I don't think evangelicals pull in a lot of people from the mainline or Catholics, but they do work their cohort well."
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