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How Successful Faith Communities Attract, Keep Young Adults

Several demographic factors are creating impediments to young adults participating in faith communities. One is the increasing gap between leaving home and getting married. “The average age of first marriage for women in America is 27. For men, it’s 29, and for college-educated young people, it’s even higher than that,” said Naomi Schaefer Riley in an interview conducted for Faith & Leadership, an online offering of Duke Divinity School. Riley is a journalist who has published a book from her research into Christian, Muslim and Jewish faith communities and their successes and failures in drawing and keeping young adults. Compounding the problem of late marriages, she says, is the tendency of American parents to shepherd their children through early years of religious education, and then abandon them to their own decisions. In addition, many parents stop attending church after their youngest child leaves home. The fact that today’s young adults may be unemployed well into their 20s can lead congregations to think of them as immature, and refrain from inviting them into full-adult participation in church life and leadership — ironic given that many congregation are looking for new leadership energy while young adults, raised to find ways to give back to their communities, may have more time than working 30- and 40-year-olds.

So what do congregations do that successfully draw and keep young adults? Riley distilled them into a short list of do’s and don’ts. The do’s involve treating young adults as adults, focusing on the people in a specific locality, getting new people coming at the same time, incorporating singles into messages and structures, and being culturally American. On the last point, Riley said, “I’m not telling anyone to remake their theology,” but “it’s certainly true that this generation is much more tolerant of homosexuality, for instance, and supportive of gay marriage,” and what they do not like is “the kind of hatred that they felt was coming from the pulpit when it came to these kinds of ideas. It just didn’t jibe with their sense of what it meant to be tolerant.”

Also among the don’ts: don’t go overboard with technology, avoid slick marketing campaigns, don’t segregate the generation into their own worship services and social settings, and don’t underestimate them. Also, recognize that young people often think they don’t belong in worship communities if their lives are not fully in synch with the teachings and preached behaviors of the faith community; find a way to welcome imperfect and seeking persons, and assure them that they are not alone in their imperfections. “Young people are longing in many ways for the kind of spontaneity and community that their grandparents’ generation had. The idea that you can walk through a neighborhood and run into people that you know at the coffee shop or the bar or the church is really something that appeals to them greatly,” Riley said, so find ways to embody, enhance, and promote that kind of intimate and ordinary community. For more on this topic, see our feature article, “Reversing the Exodus: 7 Traits of Churches That Successfully Attract Young Adults,” and the list of “Do’s and Don’ts for Attracting Young Adults to Worship,” and the Faith Communities Today study from which it was extracted. You might also want to explore the resources noted in our article, “Best Resources on Youth and Youth Programming for Congregations.”

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