Seeking Practical Solutions to Reaching Young Souls

Naomi Schaefer Riley’s book, Got Religion?, explores what thriving religious institutions are doing to attract young people

At age twenty-three, I was asked to join the parish council at my church on the Upper East Side of Manhattan where I’d been an active parishioner for several years. Upon accepting the invitation, I realized I was the youngest representative by at least twenty years. Like many churches, my parish recognized we had a sizable number of young adults who would attend weekly Mass—and an even larger potential market to tap into in the neighborhood—but we lacked the programs, ministries, and opportunities to transform these members into an active congregation.

At one council meeting, I was tasked with launching a wine and cheese social hour after the Sunday evening Mass. While the event was open to all in attendance at mass, it was specifically targeted to young professionals who were most likely to attend the later service on Sunday nights. These gatherings became popular affairs for the young and old where both friendships and mentorships were formed. And while it takes more than just free alcohol and snacks to turn weak ties into strong ones, we learned that the exercise of putting young people in charge of programming is one of the successful trends necessary to keep them involved in church life for the long haul.

According to a 2012 Pew Foundation report, one-third of American adults under the age of thirty claim no religious affiliation. Within the Catholic Church, Mass attendance among ages eighteen to twenty-five is at an all time low, with only one-fifth of this population attending weekly Mass. Along with declining youth attendance, emerging adults are getting married and having children much later than previous generations—milestones that were once directly linked to higher levels of religious participation. These same individuals also tend to be more transient, less financially stable, and unable to articulate a consistent worldview, which some observers believe is symptomatic of a decline in religious influence.

In her new book, Got Religion?: How Churches, Mosques, and Synagogues Can Bring Young People Back (Templeton Press, 2014), veteran religion journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley explores what thriving religious institutions throughout the country are doing to attract young people back into the pews. “Despite the amazing religious diversity of this country, the way that faith leaders describe their problems does not vary much across religious lines,” writes Riley. She believes that the solutions to declining youth participation may also be consistent across those lines.

From a growing Muslim community in Santa Barbara to a post-Katrina Presbyterian congregation in New Orleans to a Manhattan organization aiming to bolster Jewish identity among young adults, Riley explores the best practices of seven dynamic religious groups that have all succeeded, on some level, in figuring out what it is that young people want when it comes to finding a home within mosques, synagogues, and churches.

Down in New Orleans, the Reverend Ray Cannata offers a simple message of what he’s found central to his success in getting young people tapped into church life: “Location.” To Cannata, a good location isn’t necessarily easily accessible to public transit or in a trendy part of town. Instead, the best location is one that allows members to attend a local small group Bible study a few blocks away from home and to meet fellow congregants for coffee within walking distance of both their church and their homes. He believes the church should comprise members living in a particular neighborhood and aiming to serve those within that same neighborhood. While such a concept might not seem too innovative to those used to attending religious services in urban environments like Manhattan or Chicago, Cannata believes that such a model is essential for giving new life to the suburbs. “Go somewhere and put down roots,” Cannata is fond of counseling his congregants.

Putting down roots and settling in one location, however, can be difficult for single young adults—something that leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) have been forced to confront in recent years. While the Mormonism has experienced rapid growth during the past few decades, thanks in large part to the high rates of marriage and subsequent children within these Mormon families, it has not been exempt from the rising age of marriage in America. As a result, church leaders have pioneered a new model for engaging its single young adults within their respective communities. Within the LDS there have traditionally been separate wards for students and single young adults. Since 2011, Mormon leadership has combined these two groups to form Young Single Adult wards (YSAs), which serve a twofold purpose: to increase the likelihood that its members will find a lifelong mate within the faith and to offer more opportunities for young adults to take on greater responsibilities within their wards. In an effort to transform young adults who might otherwise spend their free time playing video games or dating outside the faith, the new ward model charges young people with tasks traditionally left to older members of the community: managing church finances and teaching religious education. By tasking its young members with these responsibilities, the Church encourages personal commitment, future-minded decision making, and spiritual growth, all of which they hope will lead to create permanent buy-in.

Concerns about cultivating faith identity among young people are not a new phenomenon and are not unique to any one religious body or sect. Over a decade ago, Jewish philanthropists launched the Taglit-Birthright Israel program to provide free ten-day trips to Israel for young adults in hopes of bolstering their Jewish identity. The initiative has been successful on a surface level, having sent over three hundred thousand Jews on Birthright trips to date. The program’s efforts to leverage participation in a ten-day intensive into lifelong commitments to Jewish heritage have been somewhat less effective. To meet this more complex challenge, some Birthright participants launched Birthright NEXT, an initiative geared toward increasing Birthright alumni’s participation in Jewish life, whether through synagogue attendance or involvement with Jewish community centers. While the program has been met with mixed success, among its most successful efforts have been its volunteer and service initiatives. Jewish young people who might be put off by paying dues at a synagogue are inspired by the call to serve. While they might not see the point of regularly participating in the ritual observances of Judaism, volunteer activities remind them that “Jewish culture and its values are beautiful.” For now, these might just be sentiments—but for the leaders of Birthright NEXT, they’re optimistic that these sentiments will one day turn into substantive commitments.

In Riley’s examination of ways faith communities have attracted young people, two common tools for advancing religion are notably absent: technology and doctrinal change. In an era that is increasingly dominated by technology, neither Riley nor those interviewed in her book believe social media or technical innovation will draw young people to faith. Instead, young people starved for participation in an actual community are drawn by the idea of switching off their smartphones and plugging into a congregation.

As for the idea that religious leaders can pack their pews by rejecting traditional theology and changing teachings on issues such as abortion or gay marriage, Riley refuses to accept that the solution is that simple. While young people are increasingly more progressive on these issues than their parents, they’re not exactly on a quest to challenge traditional teachings on these matters either. Rather than hoping that religious institutions change their views, there’s still some evidence that they’re looking to religious life for standards and boundaries—and expecting their religious institutions to demand that they be the ones to change.

As helpful as this book is in suggesting methods for attracting and keeping young people, one question is likely to linger in the minds of most readers: “So what if you’ve got religion—what’s the point of it all?” The “why?” question that seeks a defense of participation in religious life remains unanswered. As a result, what Riley reveals in Got Religion? is less profound than practical. What young people are looking for today is a sense of belonging—and to feel as if they are contributing to their communities in a meaningful and substantive way. Any congregation that offers community and responsibility to its young people will stem the youth exodus from its religious tradition, whatever it may be.

What may begin as a conversation at a wine and cheese social hour might ultimately lead to real conversion—or at least that’s the hope, dare we say, and faith that religious leaders are aiming to achieve. Rather than spending thousands of dollars on outside consulting agencies, these leaders would do well to first invest in Got Religion? as they set out to reclaim and reenergize members of their flock. The wisdom offered here will not only serve pastoral staff, but also parents who seek to pass on their faith to future generations and fellow congregants aiming to more actively contribute to the faith life of their own community. Such effects, if successful, might not only prove beneficial in the here and now, but in the hereafter, as well.

Got Religion: How Churches, Mosques, and Synagogues Can Bring Young People Back
Naomi Schaeffer Riley
Templeton Press, 2014
Hardcover, 176 pages

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About Christopher White 0 Articles
Christopher White is director of Catholic Voices USA.