Lisa F. Young
Recent studies say that a mere 16 percent of religious congregations have a young adult population of at least 21 percent of total membership.
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. —Monte Sahlin

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.

Congregations with more men than women are more likely to attract young adults. Also, congregations where most of the members are from ethnic minority groups report a significant number of young adult participants.

Congregations in newer suburbs or urban areas have higher participation among young adults than those in small towns or rural regions.

Congregations with either rapid growth or rapid decline of more than 10 percent in the past decade have a significantly higher proportion of young adult participants than those that experienced stable or flat growth.

Congregations organized in the past decade are more than three times as likely to have a significant number of young adults as those organized before 1976.

Case studies

To take a deeper look at faith communities successfully engaging their youth and young adults, researchers conducted 10 case studies. One of the congregations examined was the New Life Covenant Church in Chicago, a nondenominational church affiliated with the Assemblies of God.

Among the factors that attract black youths and young adults to New Life are the engaging Sunday services with overhead lights dimmed, strobe lights flashing and the band playing a mix of gospel, Christian rock and hip-hop as members dance and sing along.

On the day the researcher visited, founding Pastor John F. Hannah's dynamic sermon was a mixture of humor and honesty illustrated with visual aids. While Sunday services are the main draw for youths, the church also offers a variety of programs for those in the early teenage years to young adults to keep them involved and connected to the church and each other.

Researchers also observed an LDS young single adult ward in the suburb of Herriman, Utah, where, instead of a rock band, worshippers sing hymns accompanied by an organ.

The main draw to this place of worship is that the more than 300 members are entirely young adults, ages 18 to 30, with the exception of the bishop and his two counselors. Participants forge strong relationships with their leaders and peers through service in the ward and a myriad of activities outside of Sunday worship services.

"This religious group ministers to congregants in temporal and spiritual ways and provides a community of friends and mentors to support young adults in the many challenges inherent in this stage of life," one researcher wrote.

At a Southern Baptist church in Ooltewah, Tenn., some of the young adult members wear T-shirts inscribed with the motto “Changing the way you think about church." It's a come-as-you-are atmosphere at the church, which is a converted warehouse that accommodates sitting areas, two bistros, a cafe, a theater, a prayer room and a worship center.

"Ministry functions, not the gospel, have adapted to changing times," a researcher wrote. "This is evident in the pastors’ reference to Facebook or Twitter, the importance of having a media specialist on staff which enables an always-up-to-date website, and use of current technologies which include ... podcasts, the use of the “You Version” Bible app for pastor’s notes, and video archives if a message is missed."

Meeting needs

Sahlin said the next survey, which will be out in 2015, will look at why more than 80 percent of congregations can't even reach a 20 percent threshold of young adult participation.

He said some surveys of young adults have been done that could give some clues. An oft-cited study by the Pew Research Center, which found that one-third of Americans under 30 aren't affiliated with a religion, cited research showing the entanglement of religion and politics, delayed marriage and disengagement with the community as contributing to young adults pushing away from religion.

Sahlin said that in his experience as a Seventh-day Adventist pastor and a consultant to other leaders, the feedback he hears is that youth don't value the idea of being a member. "That notion doesn’t fit a young adult mentality," he said. "They don’t understand why (church leaders) want them to be a member. They ask, 'What does this have to do with my spiritual needs?'"

The case studies show how some congregations made the effort to learn those needs and address them.

At a Reform Jewish congregation in Washington, D.C., the emphasis is on building relationships through one-on-one discussions over coffee with one of Temple Micah's rabbis or at the once-a-month Next Dor (Hebrew for generation) Shabbat service largely attended by people in their 20s and 30s.

Another once-a-month gathering is "Drinks and Drash," where young adults meet at a local restaurant/bar and engage with a rabbi in discussions on timely topics such as religion in the public square or Jews in the military.

"Temple Micah demonstrates that a successful ministry to the 20s-30s generation must be a ministry that is about relationships, not about programs," the researcher wrote. "People of this generation are over-programmed and have too few opportunities to build genuine, satisfying, person-to-person, face-to-face relationships."

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