Anxious Christians, watching young adults slip away from congregations by the millions, have built an entire industry around “church growth.” So, this new book by journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley is both eagerly awaited news—and a startling surprise.
What’s the big surprise in Got Religion? How Churches, Mosques, and Synagogues Can Bring Young People Back? Riley’s extensive research, backed by the Templeton Press, shows that the advice hawked by a lot of would-be church-growth experts simply isn’t worth the money. And, congregations of any size—whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim—have an opportunity to welcome back young adults by focusing to the basics of religious community: hospitality, compassion and sincere relationships.
Frequently, self-proclaimed experts walk into congregations and promote investment in technology to bring young adults back to worship. Her book concludes: “Perhaps the most striking element that is absent from the accounts of successful religious institutions in this book is—technology. When I asked the academics, religious leaders and journalists who cover religion which institutions were doing the best job and how, my respondents barely mentioned Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Tumbler, let alone the institutional websites that congregations often spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours creating.”
And when Riley went out and talked to young adults nationwide? Yes, she reports, they did “expect a basic level of technological literacy from their churches and synagogues. … Of course they would like to see an updated Facebook page from their religious instutions with information about where services will be or what time events will take place—but I could not find one example of a technological innovation that brought someone into one of these religious institutions or an instance in which it convinced them to stay.”
In fact, young adults are even willing to forgive the technological limitations of their houses of worship. They’re seeking, first and foremost, something that congregations once understood was their core value—forming communities.
Today, ReadTheSpirit magazine is highly recommending Naomi’s book for individual reading and for small-group discussion. Click on the book cover and order a copy today. Invite friends to discuss this book with you.
Here is Riley’s message—after an impressive body of national research—in a few concise lines: “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 a public relations firm 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 their country reflected in their religious community. … 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 often are inclined to take it.”
Is this refreshing news—or what!?! For religious leaders bemoaning the mass exodus of young adults? Riley’s message is: The opportunity to welcome them back is right there in your hands and in your own timeless mission as congregations.
ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author. Here are …
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH NAOMI SCHAEFER RILEY
ON ‘GOT RELIGION?’
DAVID: I imagine that many of our readers will be surprised by the conclusions in your book, but I see your work mirroring the No. 1 “Key Takeaway” from Pew’s study of the millennial generation: “Millennials have fewer attachments to traditional political and religious institutions, but they connect to personalized networks of friends, colleagues and affinity groups through social and digital media.” Most people reading Pew’s No. 1 point may focus on the final phrase in Pew’s conclusion “through social and digital media.” And Pew is correct in explaining how millions of millennials achieve community through social media. But your book looks past that final phrase to focus squarely on Pew’s main point: Young adults want to connect socially with a community.
NAOMI: Absolutely. My research for this book included going out and finding success stories to the extent they exist. When I went around the country and visited a variety of religious institutions–Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, evangelical and mainline Protestant–I asked the young adults I found there to describe what drew them in. I was surprised that nobody gave me answers involving technology. It wasn’t mentioned as something drawing them in.
What people described was a personal sense of human connection with the community. In New Orleans, when I visited Redeemer Presbyterian Church, I found that the people there focused on where they are—the neighborhood they are in. The pastor there prides himself in saying to visitors: Is there a church that’s closer to your home that you’d rather belong to? You don’t hear that from most religious leaders. He says that because he wants to warn people ahead of time that this church is very focused on the neighborhood. He walks everywhere. The members of the church really like the fact that they run into each other on a daily basis. They like seeing each other in coffee shops and bars and stores.
DAVID: Now, you also make it clear that digital technology is a way of life with young adults and congregations ignore that at their peril. Millions of adults want their congregations to connect in ways that make common sense in their lives today. For example, they want an easy-to-find website with the location and the upcoming schedule. The Redeemer church website provides all of that information on its opening web page. However, you also conclude that Twitter or Facebook “campaigns” aren’t going to bring young adults through the doors.
THE DAILY QUESTIONS:
‘WHERE ARE YOU?‘ AND, ‘WANT TO GO …?‘
NAOMI: This focus on Twitter and Facebook among some of the people who are advising congregations is a misunderstanding of how young people think about technology. These are just tools—just a means of meeting other people. Most people are using these tools to say things to other people, like: “Hey, I’m at the Starbucks now. Where are you?” Or: “I’m headed to the bar later. How about you?” Or: “Want to go to the park?”
These tools aren’t magic. What we need to look at more closely is the spontaneous way that young adults use these tools to create human interaction. If you’re a congregational leader and you think that young adults will flock to you because of the coolness of your new technology—you’re missing the point.
DAVID: One of the fascinating examples in your book is called CharlotteONE, and the program’s website also makes it clear that these organizers understand what people really want on a website: the upcoming schedule. As we publish this interview “Upcoming Dates” is the top headline item on CharlotteONE’s website. This Charlotte program is an example of a bunch of local congregations all coming together to produce a “local” event aimed at orienting young adults to local houses of worship.
The program’s website boils the conclusions of your book down to a simple line: “CharlotteONE helps 20-to-30-somethings get connected, make a difference, and find their purpose.” At the moment, they explain: “We are a collaborative effort of nearly 50 local churches to provide young professionals with greater opportunities for establishing significant roots in Charlotte.” This is right in line with the central findings of your book.
NAOMI: One of the big obstacles that religious leaders and communities face in attracting young people is: Where do we find the resources? You have people in the pew now and you have an obligation to serve them. So, how much time and money should you spend on bringing in people who are not there–and who aren’t showing much interest about coming?
So, a group of religious leaders got together in Charlotte and found that they all were throwing up their arms in weariness over trying to create their own individual programs for young adults. Together, they came up with the idea: What would happen if we all contributed to this one big flashy gathering for young adults each week? Sometimes it’s a lecture. Sometimes it’s music.
DAVID: Since your book is about attracting young adults to Jewish, Christian and Muslim congregations, we should explain that this particular example is very diverse but the CharlotteONE example is a Christian program. Sponsors include Catholic and mainline and evangelical congregations.
NAOMI: Yes, whatever the program might be in a particular week, this is always a Christian gathering with a Christian theme. But the real focus for the sponsors are these tables they set up representing all of the different churches in the Charlotte area. There are maps to help visitors see the locations. And, as everyone gathers, you’re supposed to walk around and talk to people about what you’re looking for in a church community. Some people might want to find a Catholic church; others might want to find a more evangelical congregation.
Because of its focus, CharlotteONE has an almost 100 percent turnover every few years. It serves as a funnel for young adults to think more about belonging to a church, attending on Sundays and putting down their roots in a local community. One characteristic of the Charlotte area overall is a transitional feel among the young professionals who live and work there. People are moving in, getting new jobs and then, like a lot of young adult life now, people expect to be drifting from job to job, roommate to roommate, friend to friend. CharloteONE is intended to help people put down some roots in the middle of that process.
DAVID: I could see this working in a big, healthy Jewish or Muslim community like the ones in metro-Detroit as well. There might be weekly regional gatherings for young adults co-sponsored by a number of congregations. This could work, of course, with Christian groups just as it does in Charlotte, but I think this is a part of your book that could apply to other faith groups as well.
WHAT DO ‘THEY‘ WANT?
INVITATIONS TO SERVICE
DAVID: Let me ask about another key finding in your report: Congregations nationwide are missing a big opportunity if they don’t reach out to young adults with opportunities for service, either within their own communities or within other needy communities. This is fascinating: You conclude that many young adults today are looking for ways to provide much more significant service—even longer-term sacrificial service. I hope that religious leaders pay close attention to that part of your book.
I know, just from young adults I’ve known in recent years, this certainly is true. They’re not so sure that America has a secure “career path” waiting for them, so they are eager to consider alternative ways to work and provide service. I know a lot of young adults who have considered the Peace Corps, for example. This is very much in line with the big Pew study of “Millennials” that calls this generation: “Confident. Connected. Open to change.” As I read that Pew study, it’s a portrait of a generation open to invitations for service. Your research draws an even more pointed conclusion about this, right?
NAOMI: This is the first generation that has grown up and gone through school with this sense of community service as part of their curriculum. For many people in their 20s, community service actually was a part of their curriculum in high school and college. They don’t need to go the religious route to find opportunities for service, but this possibility of service is an opportunity for religious groups.
DAVID: One amazing point we should stress about your book: You say almost nothing about the religious teachings that should come from houses of worship. You do say a lot about the need for religious leaders to be honest and welcoming and reflective of the diversity in our country. But you really don’t write about theological themes. That’s one reason, I think, that this book can be so successful across faith lines.
NAOMI: That’s right. This book is not about changing your theological outlook. This book is about seeing your church, synagogue or mosque as an institution that needs to figure out how to get the next generation involved. And if you look through the chapters from different religious perspectives, then some things I write about will be more applicable to you than others.
But the most important message here is the importance of face-to-face contact focusing on your neighborhood. Young adults today have one of the lowest rates of car ownership in our history. Young adults want to walk places. Young adults want to know about their neighborhood. Second, young adults need to be treated as adults. Twenty somethings are perfectly capable of being in charge of any number of so-called “adult” issues in your congregation. That’s a point I can’t stress enough. It’s true that these young adults don’t have the traditional markers of adulthood. Many are waiting years to get married. Many may live with their own parents. They may not look like traditional adults to older leaders in religious communities. But they are very capable adults and we need to invite them to lead and to serve.
This really is about talking to young adults and saying: You really are valuable members of our community.
Contributing columnist Gayle Campbell has written several series of OurValues columns about the values that motivate her Millennial generation. If you click here, you’ll find 15 of her columns, grouped into three series, including: “Doing Good,” “5 World-Changing Truths” and “5 Millennial Truths.” In many ways, Gayle’s columns mirror the conclusions drawn in Naomi Schaefer Riley’s new book. If you are planning a small-group discussion of Naomi’s book, you may want to include some of Gayle’s columns, as well, which include discussion questions.
Care to see the idea?
Author and columnist Benjamin Pratt shares a vivid greeting card about building strong relationships that he often sends to young couples.