According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans who are not affiliated with any religion is on the rise, including a third of Americans under 30. Even so, nearly 80 percent of unaffiliated Americans say they believe in God, and close to half say they pray at least once a month.
The “spiritual but not religious" category is an important audience that evangelical leaders hope to reach in a culture that many believers call “post-Christian."
So they arrange meetings in movie theaters, schools, warehouses and downtown entertainment districts. They house exercise studios and coffee shops to draw more traffic. Many have even cast aside the words “church" and “church service" in favor of terms like “spiritual communities" and “gatherings," with services that do not stick to any script.
“It’s unsettling for a movement that’s lasted 2,000 years to now find that, ‘Oh, some of the things we always assumed would connect with the community aren’t connecting with everyone,’" said Warren Bird, the director of research for the Leadership Network, a firm that tracks church trends.
Ideal locations — urban, multipurpose and with plenty of foot traffic — are favored in part because they are relatively inexpensive to operate. Coffee shops, for example, can also help generate revenue.
It is a trend that even established megachurches, like Bent Tree Bible Fellowship in Carrollton, Texas, are studying. After paying off $5 million in debt on its 135,000-square-foot facility last year, the church is again seeking to expand. But instead of building another huge campus, church officials are looking at smaller satellite spaces that can operate seven days a week, with services like child care, shared office spaces and a community theater.
“That’s a significant difference for us," said Paul Miller, the pastor of ministries for Bent Tree. “We’re really building a community center more than we are a worship center."
For those seeking traditional churches, there’s still hope. Though the number of evangelical churches in the U.S. declined for many years, the trend reversed in 2006, with more new churches opening each year since, according to the Leadership Network’s most recent surveys. This wave of “church planting" has been highest among nondenominational pastors.