Keeping young people in church takes more than technology and a swank coffee bar!

Got Religion - 2

Since its release in May of this year, reviewers have been giving high praise to Got Religion?: How Churches, Mosques, and Synagogues Can Bring Young People Back. 


A broad range of experts insist that Got Religion? is essential reading — from Roman Catholic (Christian Smith at Notre Dame) to Jew (Jonathan D. Sarna at Harvard) to Southern Baptist (Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission).


In Got Religion? Naomi Schaefer Riley takes a close look at why religious groups – all religious groups – are losing the under-thirty generation.  Her work follows on from several studies including a 2012 Pew Forum report that found that a third of American adults under the age of 30 claim no religious affiliation.


By way of introduction, here are excerpts from three different interviews with Naomi Schaefer Riley.


The biggest surprise!


The ways that leaders of different faiths all seemed to be describing the problem in the same way, often using the same language. And yet few of these leaders seemed aware that other faiths were facing the same challenges. I think we all tend to live in our own religious bubbles and don’t always see the larger trends. Or we assume that the factors that are drawing our young people away from faith are somehow unique. America is a religiously diverse nation, but the cultural factors acting on religious organizations are the same.


For whom was Got Religion? written?


On a most basic level, this book is written for anyone who has been concerned about the phenomenon of the “nones.” If you have been reading the surveys and looking around at your own congregation and thinking that the average age of the people in the pews seems to be creeping up, Got Religion? will help sort out some of the data, but it will also provide some suggestions for ways that other congregations of various religious stripes are dealing with this challenge. I think religious and lay leaders as well as the parents and grandparents of millennials will learn a lot about this generation’s view of faith from this book. Looking at the big picture, I would say that there is definitely cause for concern about this generation’s religious practices. They are marrying later–the average age of first marriage for women is 27 and for men it’s 29. And marriage has traditionally been the cue for people to come back to church. But they are spending so many years away, they are out of the habit of faiths and may not come back at all.


The way out of religion


“For an increasing number of young adults, ‘religion is like a jacket. You have to take it off whenever you are doing something that you know violates the teachings of your church.


‘So you throw that jacket in the corner. … Then you drift further and further away until there is some part of you that just doesn’t fit anymore. In your head, you’re saying, “I haven’t been behaving the way that I should, so I shouldn’t go to church, or to Shabbat, or to the mosque.” Then you say that week after week. … You lose your religious habits.’”


The culture of “second-guessing”


We live in a culture of second-guessing. Everybody is looking over their shoulder, wondering if they’ve made the right choice. There are so many options. It is not just secular culture having cooler things to offer. There’s the more basic, nagging question, Have I made the right decision?


People don’t ask themselves that question when there is real intimacy, the kind of deep friendship that gets formed in religious community.


For millennials, it’s NOT all about technology and social media


One misconception about the millennial generation is that it’s all about technology and social media. But media are simply a vehicle for meeting people in person. This generation longs for interpersonal interaction more because so much of their interaction is online.


They long for intimacy, having a close group of friends. I heard 25-year-olds reminiscing about their college years, a time when they were able to live in community and meet spontaneously. In their childhood, there was no spontaneity. Play dates were scheduled weeks in advance.


Young adults are attracted to urban environments. They like neighborhoods. In many ways, they long to live in the way their grandparents did and walk to everything. This generation has the lowest rate of car ownership of any generation since cars became popular. They want the spontaneous, “Oh, I ran into so-and-so at the coffee shop.”


Religious institutions can take advantage of the millennial desire for community and spontaneity. I saw this at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New Orleans. Young people there are so willing to invest in each other’s lives, not just on Sundays but throughout the week.


Raising up leaders, the future of the church


Savvy religious leaders are saying, “We need to think about giving the next generation responsibility.” One pastor I talked to said his wife had led the women’s ministry for 20 years, and he decided it was time to fire her. Not because she was doing a bad job, but because it was time to give younger people responsibility.


There’s a complaint that millennials are selfish. But it’s a two-way street. If you don’t give people responsibility, they will act like children. When they act like children, then you’re less likely to give them responsibilities.


Baby boomers are living long, healthy lives. They think to themselves, I’ve been doing the church’s books for 25 years. Why wouldn’t I do them for the next 25? Here’s why: Younger people coming to church don’t feel like they are needed.


There is tension between priorities. Is the priority the people who are here every week? Or is the priority getting the people who are not here to come every week? Religious leaders are caught in a bind. If everybody in the congregation is over age 55, what’s the future?


Can pastors and religious leaders learn to work together?


Competition breeds success. That is one reason religion in America remains vibrant. On the other hand, I have mixed feelings about the creative destruction of religious institutions. Something is lost when people invest in a religious institution only for a short time, jumping from one to another.


Collaboration ought to be considered, but it has to come from the grassroots. There have to be pastors and religious leaders who know each other and become friends. They work not to compete with each other, but to provide competitive alternatives to the nonreligious alternatives out there, like going to the movies or a bar.


Reaching millennials — it doesn’t take a swank coffee bar!


There is something to the idea of getting people to hang out, to see their religious institution as a center of their community, where they can experience the kind of spontaneous meeting that would draw them further into the community.


But the way to start that process is not by offering expensive food or coffee. Start small and have individuals make commitments to each other to say, “It’s two o’clock and I am going to be there hanging out doing x, y, and z for the church. Will you meet me there?” Those connections and commitments eventually cause growth.


This doesn’t happen all at once, but for this generation, that kind of intimacy, spontaneity, and the desire for community like they had in college—that’s the way to go.


The argument of Got Religion? (in one paragraph):


“Religious leaders who are successfully connecting with young adults realize that sleek advertising is not going to bring people into the pews. The barriers to entry are not matters for public relations firms to tackle. Young adults want community. They want a neighborhood. They want a critical mass of people their age. But they want to see older people and younger people in their religious institutions, too. They want a way to serve, and many of them want a way to serve sacrificially for longer periods of time. They want the racial and ethnic diversity of the country reflected in their religious community. They want a message (in English) that resonates and helps them tackle the practical challenges they face, of which there are many. They want to feel welcome whether they are single or married. And while they may appear to be experiencing an extended adolescence, when they are given responsibility, they are often inclined to take it.”



It Takes More Than a Swank Coffee Shop to Reach Millennials,” an interview by Timothy Morgan, is available on the website of Christianity Today.

Got Religion? A Q&A with Naomi Schaefer Riley” is available online at Patheos.

Churches struggle to reach young Americans” by columnist Terry Mattingly is available at



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