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Religious leaders, parents, and educators have been wringing their hands and wracking their brains ever since the Pew Forum reported in 2012 that one third of young adults under 30 claim no religious affiliation. How did this happen? Where did we go wrong?
The truth of the matter is that some of the factors leading young adults away from religion are beyond our control. Millennials are waiting longer to get married and have children. Gone is the social stigma once associated with not belonging to a church. Young adults tend to distrust all institutions, not just religious ones.
Still, there are pockets of success out there — religious institutions that are attracting and engaging vibrant communities of 20- and 30-somethings. After spending time with the most promising of these institutions — including a church in New Orleans, a Catholic service group in Boston, a mosque in Los Angeles, and a synagogue in Washington, DC — I’ve formulated seven ways they’re working:
1. They Pray Local
A church rooted in a particular neighborhood is a big attraction for young adults. They don’t like cars as much as previous generations. They like running into people they know from their religious communities during the week. Those daily interactions give faith groups a sense of accountability and deeper connection.
Even in an era where we embrace diversity, religious institutions that retain too much of their immigrant heritage are bound for failure. Future generations will not be comfortable praying and learning in foreign tongues. They may have some moments of nostalgia for their grandparents’ food and music, but ultimately they will choose a religious life that feels like it is of the new world, not the old.
3. They Demand Better Service
Young adults have been raised in a generation where service learning was part of their high school and college experiences. For many, the connection between faith and service has been severed altogether. But now that young adults have so many years between college graduation and settling down with a family, religious groups should ask that these young people do full-time service for a year or two. Not everyone will say yes, but those who do make the sacrifice will remain committed for a lifetime.
4. They Leave the Light On
Young adults often tell pollsters that they don’t like commitment and are distrustful of institutions. But once they are inside the building, once they have made a couple of friends, suddenly churches, synagogues, and mosques seem less like stodgy institutions and more like places to hang out. Even if it means letting them come to sample without a firm commitment, we need to send the message that institutions matter. Roving bands of friends who connect through Facebook will not be able to preserve or remake those institutions in the years to come.
5. They Send Singles Signals
Religious institutions have depended for too long on marriage to bring back young adults who have dropped the practice of faith. As the average age of marriage gets higher, it is time for houses of worship to figure out a way to speak to singles. Whether that means giving them a community of their own, integrating them more into a multigenerational church, or making religious messages more applicable to their lives, faith communities cannot afford to lose this demographic.
6. They Clean House
It may not seem like a nice thing to do, but it’s time to fire the old people. Emerging adults are not real adults, in part because we don’t give them enough responsibility. Whether it’s their fault or ours, they live in their parents’ basements, hold part-time jobs, put off marriage, and drop in and out of school. But you know what? They’re old enough to plan holiday events or community dinners. They can teach children and help with fundraising. They will step up when they realize they are needed. Until then, they’ll assume that the older, married members of the congregation will shoulder all the responsibilities.
7. Open Borders
It may be time for a new era of collaboration. Young adults may simply be too accustomed to high-cost religious entertainment, the kind that would bankrupt any one church or synagogue. But cooperating on some of the big events with co-religionists could lure young adults back into the fold while at the same time appealing to this generation’s desires for greater unity in their faith communities.
Not all of these solutions will be adaptable for all religious institutions. But it is time to start looking for answers outside of our own communities. There is no reason for hysteria, but there is cause for concern. Religious leaders and parents aren’t the only ones upset with the current state of affairs — the young adults I spoke with are feeling a little lost, too. So much of life until their 20s is scripted by parents and teachers that it is hard to know what to do when they get to be their own authors.
If it’s true, as a pastor told me, that leaving college is like “jumping off a religious cliff,” then religious institutions should be parachutes softening the fall. Ideally, though, they’re the trampolines, propelling young people to get excited about and involved again in organized religion.