MOUNDS VIEW, Minn. — On a recent Sunday, the parking lot at Bethlehem Baptist Church was packed, and cars had overflowed onto nearby side streets.
Approximately 1,500 people attend the Mounds View church on any given weekend. And this is just one of three Bethlehem Baptist churches in the Twin Cities. Last Easter weekend, all told, more than 5,000 people walked through their doors.
And while those people may not agree on every political issue, said one of the pastors, they do share a broad consensus on some controversial topics — namely, the definition of marriage and the sanctity of life.
“We’re pretty clear on how we’ve defined marriage,” said the Rev. Steven Lee, a pastor at Bethlehem Baptist. “We see from the Bible that it’s one man and one woman.”
That tends to keep away the more politically liberal. “There could be some who could find this to be a place where they could worship, but my guess is not many,” he said. “Although we would welcome them.”
Abortion and same-sex marriage are the two major issues that divide more conservative churches from the more liberal. They also divide many Republicans from Democrats.
Those divisions may also play a role in one finding of a recent survey commissioned by MPR News and the APM Research Lab: Minnesotans are far more likely to go to church every week if they identify as Republican than if they identify as Democrat.
“One of our values is we don’t pick and choose which parts of the Bible we like or that we’ll preach or teach on,” said Lee. “We take all of it.”
Church elder Andy Naselli, who teaches theology at Bethlehem College and Seminary, said last year’s presidential election was divisive for the congregation. Some members felt they had to vote for Donald Trump because of his stance on abortion. Others, including Naselli, couldn’t vote for someone they thought was not of good moral character.
“So I’m at the point now where I don’t even identify as a Republican,” Naselli said. “I’m theologically conservative, politically conservative, but I’m not in the pocket of any political party at all. I did not vote for President Trump, and I’m embarrassed to be a Republican because of him, so I don’t call myself a Republican.”
What brings him and his family to church each week, Naselli said, is his deep love of Jesus and the Bible.
“We most glorify God when he most satisfies us, and one of the ways he satisfies us is when his people come together, sing together and pray together and hear the word preached,” he said. “And that’s something that happens weekly, according to the practice of the New Testament. That’s why it’s every week for us. And it’s something we love — it’s kind of hard because we’re so big here, but we’re a big family and we love it.”
The church has several social service programs — food banks, car repair funds, crisis care for church families in need. But by far its largest effort is to share the faith, by translating the Bible into different languages and by starting up new congregations.
Lee said approximately 110 Bethlehem Baptist families are currently serving as missionaries around the world, reaching out to communities that have never read the Bible.
“We want to alleviate both physical suffering in the temporal sense and we also want to alleviate spiritual, eternal suffering, which we believe will come in the afterlife,” Lee said. “We would feel like we would be doing someone an injustice if we helped them get a meal and did not address their eternal state.”
Compared to Bethlehem Baptist, Mayflower United Church of Christ in Minneapolis is a modest congregation.
The church serves approximately 800 households. About 400 people show up on any given Sunday.
Mayflower identifies itself as both theologically and politically liberal. Anyone can take communion, whether or not they’ve been baptized. The congregation is actively involved in several social issues, including climate change. The church has installed 200 solar panels, and seeks to be carbon-neutral by 2030.
Alix and Holly Magner joined Mayflower this past year. Alix said they both grew up attending church, but stopped going and stayed away for years.
“Being gay, being part of the queer community, we just had incredibly negative experiences with church,” said Alix. “When I would meet someone that would say they go to church, I would think, ‘I can’t be friends with you, because you probably don’t like gay people, and your church is probably preaching against gay people.’”
When the Minnesota marriage amendment was put on the ballot in 2012, Alix got involved at a phone bank. There she overheard other volunteers quoting the Bible as they worked to persuade people to vote against a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Intrigued, Alix found out they were members of Mayflower. Soon after, she and Holly started attending church again.
But hardly any of their other liberal friends do.
“We’ve both said it feels like coming out of the closet again,” Holly said. “It’s like this weird feeling of coming out as churchgoers now because people, our friends, are going, ‘Whoa, wait a minute — you go to church?! But you’re queer! And you’re liberal, and you’re educated, and you’re logical. Holly, you’re a public school science teacher! You believe in God enough to go to church?’”
The Magners say they value the intergenerational community at Mayflower, and how the church encourages them to step outside their own bubble.
Three nights a week, volunteers like Mayflower member Jack Forsman go to the Creekside Commons apartment building next door to help kids with their homework. Mayflower, working with Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative, built Creekside Commons to fill a need for affordable housing. The 30 families who live in it are predominantly Somali and Muslim. The church also runs an early childhood center that welcomes people of all faiths.
The Rev. Sarah Campbell said that while some people think liberal churches are light on religion, Mayflower is anything but that.
“We know our Bible stories, we read them,” Campbell said. “They mean everything to us. We are religion-intense, and so we welcome everyone but we are also very clear that we are on the Jesus path, and that’s less about certain beliefs about Jesus and God, and more about the path being about compassion, justice, nonviolence... a very joyous, rigorous path.”
Campbell acknowledged that her church does not get the same attendance as a church like Bethlehem Baptist, but she said the congregation is growing. People don’t need religion to be moral and good, she said, but it helps:
“There’s so much distraction that would take us away from living generous, forgiving lives, and I do believe that spiritual practices or religious practices do help people be more moral.”
Both the Rev. Campbell and the Rev. Lee agree: While their beliefs may occasionally align them with specific political parties, the work of Jesus goes deeper than that of either the Republican or the Democratic party.