National Edition

Reasons to stay: What faith communities do to attract and keep young adults

Published: Friday, Sept. 20 2013 8:45 p.m. MDT

Recent studies say that a mere 16 percent of religious congregations have a young adult population of at least 21 percent of total membership.

Lisa F. Young

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The music at a service during an Assemblies of God biennial gathering in August was getting a little too loud and raucous for George O. Wood, head of the world's fastest-growing Pentecostal faith and a self-professed organ-and-hymn man when it comes to worship music.

But as the band of drums, keyboard and guitars kept playing, the 72-year-old Wood looked over at his 16-year-old grandson waving his arms above his head in praise along with thousands of youth and young adults attending the event in Orlando, Fla.

"I thought, 'I can sacrifice my style of music if this is what he enjoys and it helps him connect with the Lord,'" Wood said. "Who am I to say, 'No, I want my preference and forget you.' We are not going to do that."

A contemporary style of worship music is one way the Assemblies of God and other faith communities have been successful at keeping youths and young adults in the pews, according to a recent report examining the practices of American congregations that have a significant young adult population.

Other distinguishing characteristics of youthful congregations include an emphasis on spiritual practices such as prayer and Bible reading, ethnic diversity, use of new technology and leadership placing a priority on ministering to the next generation.

"If you don't arrange for a new generation to inherit your local institution, you cannot reasonably expect that it will be in business 50 years or 60 years down the road," said Monte Sahlin, a co-author of the report commissioned by the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership.

And with other research finding the millennial generation being less inclined to affiliate with a religion and the average age of churchgoers at 54 years, Sahlin said, finding some answers has become a top priority for many faith leaders.

Key findings

The sample size of the study indicates how strapped religious organizations are for youth, especially young adults. Researchers analyzed data from the 2010 Faith Communities Today survey of more than 11,000 congregations. They found that just 16 percent met the criterion of having participants ages 18 to 34 comprise 21 percent or more of the congregation.

The religious groups with the largest proportion of young adults were nondenominational churches (25.6 percent), Assemblies of God (22.8 percent) and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (21.5 percent).

The initial report on the data didn't address the question of why young people aren't attending worship services. Sahlin said that would be explored in a later study. Instead, the research looked at common characteristics of congregations with younger adherents and what some of those congregations are doing to attract younger worshippers.

Among the key findings were:

Congregations that emphasize basic spiritual practices such as prayer and scripture reading are five times more likely to have a significant number of young adults than those that don't.

Congregations that report high spiritual vitality are three times as likely to have a significant number of young adults.

Congregations with higher staffing and a greater emphasis on programs and activities for youths and young adults are more likely to report higher engagement of that demographic.

Congregations that often or always use guitars and drums in their worship are about twice as likely as those who never use them to have significant numbers of young adults participating.

Congregations that report major usage of technology, including social media as a way to communicate between leaders and churchgoers, are more than twice as likely to have a significant percentage of young adults than those who report only marginal use.

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