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An Innovative Ecumenical Ministry to Millennials

According to the Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project, 25 percent of adults under the age of 30 are not affiliated with any religion, making them the most non-religious age cohort. A 2007 Pew Forum survey confirmed the trend, showing that only 1/3 of adults under age 30 self-reported as church attendees “at least once a week.” The rate for those over 30 was 41 percent.

Why do mainstream churches seem to be losing the battle to reach and keep young adults? Karen-Marie Yust, a professor of Christian education and spirituality at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, who studies digital culture and spirituality notes that the mainline church’s strength is in connecting with young families with young children, but have not sufficiently recognized the growing trend among young adults to establish their careers first, then to marry and have children later. As a result, most churches are failing to speak to millennials. She also thinks young adults are turned off by the ongoing debate over what the Bible says about today’s hot-button issues. Views on topics such as homosexuality cause young adults to conclude churches are “either judgmental or irrelevant,” she said.

According to the Rev. Ross Chapman, the decline of young adult church attendance is because many churches are stuck in liturgy and traditions from 40 years ago. Chapman, the worship leader of Charlotte/One, an innovative interdenominational ministry in Charlotte, North Carolina, says the Tuesday night worship service has a goal of connecting young adults to local churches by providing a means for millennials to connect with one another outside of bars and clubs. “We want to introduce them to Christ and to the significance of church,” he said in an article written for Faith & Leadership, an online resource for clergy and worship leaders from Duke Divinity School. One of the volunteer greeters at Charlotte/One said of the Tuesday service, “This keeps me involved, not like some boring church thing you come to.”

Charlotte/One is an effort to speak to 20-somethings in their vernacular. Started in 2006 by an ecumenical group of youth pastors frustrated by their respective churches’ failure to connect with young adults, the service quickly grew, peaking at 450 weekly worshippers in 2011. Current (2014) attendance averages 300. The program’s founder, Hickman, suggests the decline could be from the fact that Charlotte/One is no longer the hot new thing in town, or it could be that Elevation Church, a rock-style, upbeat worship service founded in 2006, is drawing from the same pool of young adults, who no longer need Charlotte/One because they have joined the now 14,000 worshippers in 10 locations that comprise Elevation Church. For additional perspective on why some churches attract young adults while others fail to do so, see our feature article, “Reversing the Exodus: 7 Traits of Churches that Successfully Attract Young Adults.” 

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