How to Get Millennials to Church? Houses of Worship Get Creative

Emily Thompson
Congregation Tifereth Israel

This spring, The Jewish Daily Forward named a Columbus rabbi one of the top 33 inspiring rabbis in the country. Rabbi Eric Woodward had been working at Congregation Tifereth Israel in Olde Towne East for less than two years. This is his first job out of rabbinical school.

"From the start, Rabbi Woodward was eager to work with people … who sometimes struggle to feel comfortable in synagogues," wrote Tifereth Israel secretary Susie Seletz, who nominated Woodward for the list. "His openness has brought many new faces to our building, and his intro to Judaism class for potential converts is oversubscribed. He is responsible for substantial growth in our synagogue's membership."

Since Woodward started at Tifereth Israel, 30 new families (the measure the synagogue uses to track membership) have joined the 950-family congregation. "They're almost all young people, like in their 20s and 30s," 34-year-old Woodward says.

In a time when many religious institutions are seeing a decline in membership, especially among young adults, the synagogue's growth is significant. Between 2007 and 2014, the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian dropped from 78.4 to 70.6 percent, most notably among Protestants and Catholics, according to Pew Research Center data published in May. The same report showed a six-point increase in the religiously unaffiliated category and a small increase in the number of people who adhere to "non-Christian" religions, including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. And about 35 percent of millennials-ages 18 to 33-now identify as atheist, agnostic or "nothing in particular."

Though these stats are new, the trend of young adults shifting away from religion is not. It seems every week there's a new article about millennials leaving the church, and religious institutions are noticing. As their populations are aging, they're searching for new ways to draw in millennials, including employing young adults to reach others in their 20s and 30s.

"I know our numbers of 20-somethings have gone down," says Jess Gatton, 26, pastoral coordinator with community life at Vineyard Columbus, a nondenominational Christian church in Westerville. "About 10 years ago, we started seeing a decline. It was a very slow decline, and mostly we'd just been paying attention to it softly. And now we're having focus groups for 20-somethings. We're in the beginning stages of making changes."

Not all religiously unaffiliated young adults are atheist or agnostic. The Rev. Linda Mercadante developed an interest in the "spiritual but not religious" (SBNR) movement when she was researching addiction recovery in the '90s and first heard the term. "It's people who basically are on a spiritual journey, and they are aware of it and they celebrate it, and they're inspired by the mystery of life," says Mercadante, a professor of theology at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio, located in Delaware. "They turn away from organized religion and take their journeys other places." Mercadante considered herself SBNR when she was a young adult, and she wrote a memoir about her spiritual journey, which eventually led her to the church. For her fifth book, "Belief Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious," she interviewed hundreds of SBNR people of all ages across North America. What she found was a cultural shift that's been building slowly since the '60s.

"What's changed is people no longer feel that being religious is important to their social status or to their identity as being a good person," Mercadante says. "People are almost proud to say they're SBNR, whereas in the past they probably wouldn't have been. And there's not a lot of social support anymore for being religious. In fact, people might look down on it.

"Joining groups is down in all areas of society," she continues. "More and more, people are claiming to be independent politically; less people are claiming membership in organizations. Churches are part of that."

Mercadante now shares her findings with religious leaders, advising them on reaching SBNR people. "I talk about style versus content," she says. "Some churches are willing to change their style, and some are willing to change content. I like to say that the cool, young pastor with the skinny jeans can only go so far. You get style points for that. But I think people are looking for authentic content, authentic relationships."

Building relationships is Woodward's winning formula. "A lot of what I do is sit here (at The Angry Baker) in one of these chairs and talk to people about what's going on in their lives and what's hard," says Woodward, who completed a clinical pastoral education, which required him to work as a chaplain during school. "And I think young people especially, especially in our culture, have to put on a happy face all the time. So a lot of this is just helping people realize, you know it's actually OK if you're in your 20s and you're figuring out things are kind of hard right now. That's normal, and so processing that is a large part of it. And I think that is a key way to reach people."

Woodward, who grew up in Los Angeles and went to school in New York, meets one-on-one with young adult members and prospective members at coffee shops and restaurants-"a place that's outside the walls of the synagogue, but it's always physically near the synagogue, because it's fun and it's not about being in that building." He recently started hosting well-attended social events for young adults on Jewish holidays, once at his house and once at Strongwater in Franklinton, in hopes of building "an intentional community to meet the needs of young people. My real goal is to have it be driven by some of the people themselves-not to be rabbi-driven, but to be community-driven." He also plans to pair social events with opportunities to volunteer in the community.

Brittany Porch, 29, director of mission and education at Broad Street Presbyterian Church, uses the same approach for the young adult group she organizes. She also meets with individuals and hosts social events, like happy hours, dinners and game nights, to connect the Downtown church's young adults.

"If you're a white church trying to figure out how to have a more diverse body, you can't just sit with a bunch of white people in a room and try to figure that out," Porch says. "So if you're a church that's aging, and you want to be relevant to young adults, you truly have to be in relationship with young adults. You've got to go to where they are and find how you can meet a need or be in a relationship, but that takes time and that takes a lot of energy. There's no program that fixes it."

Porch says when it comes to worship services, she's found young adults actually prefer traditional rituals, paired with open-mindedness and inclusivity. "My mother, who's in her 60s, loves contemporary music and rock bands. And I honestly think it's the boomers more-like, they want to radically change worship. Meanwhile, I think young adults are looking for something that's steady, calm, familiar-just something that's not chaotic."

Other local religious leaders echo the emphasis on open-mindedness and inclusivity. "Religion in general is actually declining, as you can see from a lot of news articles," says Imran Malik, chairman of the board of directors and office director at Noor Islamic Cultural Center in Dublin. "I think the problem is oftentimes religious institutions become-I don't want to pinpoint-but people in general feel like religious institutions get very judgmental at times. I think that's why people shy away at times.

"I think the message is we have to be inclusive," he continues, "and the more we can engage people, the more we can include everyone, the stronger institutions we can establish in the country."

For Porch, the key is being flexible while still maintaining the church's identity. "We're open and creative, but we're not going to be like, 'Forget it, we're going to go have church in a bar because that's what's cool.' That doesn't work. That's like having that one teacher that thinks they're so awesome, and every kid is thinking they're trying too hard. We don't want to try too hard. We just have to be who we are, and I do think that's attractive to young adults."