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The Congregational Consulting Group, organized in 2014 by former consultants of the Alban Institute, is a network of independent consultants. We publish PERSPECTIVES for Congregational Leaders—thoughts on topics of interest to leaders of congregations and other purpose-driven organizations. —  Dan Hotchkiss, editor

(How) Can We Attract Younger Adults and Families?

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If your congregation wants to grow, as most congregations today probably do, and if you think the best way to grow is to attract young adults and families with young children—because “young people are the future”—I have a few things I want you to know.

First, understand that while you may be invested in the survival of your congregation, most young adults are not. It used to be true that each succeeding generation of young adults readily affiliated with and pursued the success of existing religious and social institutions, but that era has passed. Few of today’s young adults have the time, the energy, or the interest to invest in joining and fixing existing organizations, whether they be local churches or national service clubs.

Spiritual but Not Religious

We know, though, that many young adults still think of themselves as spiritual. According to a recent Pew survey report on spirituality among Americans, 70% of all American adults describe themselves as spiritual in some way, with belief in spirits or a spiritual realm particularly widespread. Many young adults think of themselves as spiritual but not religious (SBNR); 21% of respondents age 18-29 and 37% of those ages 30-49 fall into this category. Compared with the general population, SBNRs of all ages are more likely to see spiritual forces at work in nature and less likely to believe in God.  They express more negative views of organized religion, attend fewer religious services, and are more likely to be religiously unaffiliated.

Today’s young adults are less likely than previous generations to join large organizations as members, but they do like to gather in groups (creating connectional rather than institutional associations). Many are adept at finding their kinds of people and organizing themselves, a countertrend already recognized by Robert Putnam 25 years ago when he first wrote about the decline in voluntary affiliation in his book, Bowling Alone.

Groups but Not Institutions

In my own circle of family, friends, and associates, I’m aware of:

  • Groups that gather monthly for hours-long sessions of role-playing games (RPGs) in which a single campaign can go on for months or even years.
  • A group that gathers multiple times a week to learn new ice-skating skills and play pickup hockey.
  • A group that trains for marathons together, encouraging new distances and personal bests.
  • Multiple groups that read together, sometimes reading the same book separately, and then gathering to discuss it, and sometimes quietly reading different books in the same room.
  • A group that formed an orchestra specifically to play video game music together.

If young adults are interested in spirituality, then, but are very much do-it-yourself about participating in groups, what kind of group might they want to be a part of when, or if, they decide to focus on their spiritual lives?

What Would It Take?

One way to find out, of course, is to ask. I recently got a chance to read an answer offered by a young adult related to members of a congregation I am working with, who said that to be of interest to someone like them, a church would need to be:

  • First and foremost a close community of like-minded people interested in exploring their spiritual/religious journey together.
  • Led from within the community rather than by professionals, with any professionals functioning primarily to build community and be fellow spiritual travelers rather than preachers.
  • Centered on a variety of events that people could choose from based on availability and affinity rather than being centered on a Sunday morning service.
  • Focused on doing the work of spiritual justice together.
  • Supportive of the whole array of kinds of people and families.

From my own observation, I would add:

  • A safe space in which people could be heard and seen as they truly are, not as the people they must so often pretend to be.
  • Without a building or with one that is not too “precious” or expensive to regularly flex and change.

This kind of religious group would probably be very different from the congregations most of us are used to. But to the extent that younger generations who grew up in the former Protestant Mainline are looking for “church” at all, this may be the kind of thing they’re hoping to find. They’re probably not looking at existing congregations, however, either because they like to form their own groups or because they don’t really believe the kind of connectional associations to which they are drawn are something their parents and grandparents understand.

Iris Apfel's 100th birthday
Iris Apfel at her 100th birthday

Catching Up

I’m convinced that some congregations will be able to catch the tail of this kind of generational change, even if it means jettisoning buildings, changing models, or starting over. But for many congregations, this kind of change will be too much to ask.

And that’s OK.

For all those congregations who can’t easily become something other than who they already are, I want to suggest that you consider Iris Apfel. Far from being the newest author of church self-help books, she was a well-known interior designer who died recently at the age of 102. In her 80s and 90s, Apfel became a worldwide fashion icon known for her color, her feathers, her huge glasses, and her extraordinary capacity to shine brightly and be her best self even as she aged. If your congregation is no longer up to major change, you are not doomed to be dusty and sad. Like Iris, you, too, can put on your brightest garments and commit to being the very best selves that God created you to be, with or without adding young adults.

Sarai Rice is a Presbyterian minister and a retired non-profit executive. She consults with congregations on a variety of issues, including planning, staffing, and governance. Sarai loves to work with congregations that are exploring anew their role in the community as well as congregations seeking new energy in the face of decline. She has a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.

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