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Increasing Young Adult Participation in Churches and Other Faith Communities
The emerging consensus of research shows a growing percentage of young adults are not connected with any religion, although many younger Americans express an interest in spirituality. This reality raises concern about young adult participation in religious communities.
What is the involvement of young adults in local congregations of all faiths across the United States? And how are faith communities with significant proportion of young adults distinctive?
For these resources, a congregation is considered to have significant young adult participation if 21% or more of its participants were 18 to 34 years of age. Across all faiths, a total of only 16% of all congregations were in this category.
The resources below explore patterns and practices of churches and other congregations with significant young adult involvement.
A narrative review of current literature on the topic of young adult participation (PDF). This review was authored by LiErin Probasco, a PhD candidate in sociology at Princeton University. She has been involved in young adult ministry and taught the subject at seminaries in Virginia and New England. She is currently engaged in community research in East Palo Alto, California.
And finally, ten case studies of churches and other faith communities with significant young adult involvement. These cases were chosen to capture to diversity of American religious congregations today. They vary in size from a group as small as 50 to a megachurch and are from multiple faith traditions. In each case the case study involved one or more on-site visits with the local group and interviews with key leaders and some of the young adult participants, as well as gleaning information from working documents and Web sites.
These case studies (PDF) include:
- a Southern Baptist Church near Chattanooga;
ChristWay Community Church, in Oolteah, TN, is a fast-growing church in suburban Chattanooga with Southern Baptist roots, a “Starbucks-like” feel, and about 800 regular attendees. A substantial number of young adults are integrated into the congregation, although they also have gatherings and small groups for people age 18 to 25.
- a young, single adult ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the suburbs of Salt Lake City;
Herriman Young Single Adult Ward is a suburban Salt Lake City-area Latter-Day Saints congregation of some 300 young adults only led by a dynamic husband-and-wife team. Only officially one-year-old at the time of the research, the congregation was formed when the LDS (“Mormon” church) reorganized its young adults-only congregations. Some of its activities are gender-segregated, and young adults involved move on to other congregations when they marry or turn 31. The congregation stresses testimony and practical advice for dealing with issues such as addiction to pornography and being single and unhappy.
- a Houston Baha'i Center;
Established in 1942, the Houston Bahai’ Center is a “mid-town” congregation of this religious faith that began in Iran. The congregation was founded in 1942. One in six of its attendees between 18 and 30. Nearly 1 in 10 members of the congregation’s board are young adults, and members of that age are heavily involved in teaching and mentoring the youth of the congregation.
- a United Church of Christ congregation in an urban neighborhood in Atlanta;
Kirkwood United Church of Christ is a seven-year-old mainline Protestant congregation located in an Atlanta inner suburb. Founded by a charismatic couple, this congregation has been strongly involved in its neighborhood. With about 1 in 5 of its 150 members currently between 18 and 30 and a young-adult group part of its ministry, students from Atlanta seminaries—many of them also young adults—have been leaders of the congregation.
- an Evangelical megachurch in Spokane affiliated with the Foursquare denomination;
Life Center Four Square Church, in suburban Spokane, Washington, is an 80-year-old Pentecostal congregation whose current pastor started in 1978. Life Center moved to its current location in 2005 with about 8,000 people affiliated with it. The congregation’s third Sunday worship service includes a large contingent of young adults and events of its ministry for young people age 18 to 25 draw about 150. The congregation has also started five other congregations and intentional residential communities for college students.
- an historically African American Church in Chicago;
New Covenant Church a predominantly African American, 10-year-old congregation currently located near downtown Chicago, with a charismatic founding pastor and four different young adult ministries. About 30 percent of its members are youths or young adults.
- an Orthodox Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts;
Saint Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has benefited from some of its pastors serving as chaplains for neighboring colleges and universities and at popular Orthodox camps. Founded in 1928 as an Arabic-speaking congregation of Syrian Americans, it has repositioned itself to serve Orthodox Christians of varying ethnicities and survived a financial scare in the 1990s. About a quarter of the 150 worshipers in a typical service are young adults.
- a Jewish Synagogue in Washington DC;
Temple Micah, and its Next Dor DC ministry, has some 500 member households and one monthly service targeted for young adults, who make up about 20 percent of worshipers there. Events such as “Drink and Drash” also attract 20 or 30 young adults. The congregation, founded in 1963, partnered with a cross-denominational Jewish organization and called a second pastor to reach out to people in their 20s and 30s.
- a young adult church plant of an Assemblies of God Church in the New Jersey suburbs of New York City;
The Well is an interdenominational ministry of Evangel Church, an Assemblies of God congregation located in suburban northeastern New Jersey. A 30-something couple has led this cross-denominational ministry since it was established in 2007. Weekly Well worshipers’ services feature about 40 to 60 people, while the larger Evangel Church includes about 1,700 in its various services.
- and an historic Catholic Parish in downtown Chicago.
Old St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church, also near downtown Chicago, has some 3,500 registered households. Although the congregation was founded in 1846, it has connected with a totally new group of worshipers since the mid-1980s. Its Sunday evening worship service and events such as “Theology on Tap” and the “World’s Largest Block Party” disproportionately attract young adults. Training for people new to the Catholic faith and for those preparing to marry also connects the church with many young adults.
It is hoped that careful reading and rigorous reflection on these case studies will lead to not only a deeper understanding of how some congregations are effectively engaging young adults, but also the identification of best practices to reach this distinctive demographic group.
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