Churches reach out to the Millennial Generation
Andrew Wampler admits he felt like a fish out of water during his last church experience in Springfield as a young single adult among mostly married couples.
“The church did have a group for young adults, but you could count the single people on one hand,” says the 31-year-old Wampler, an information systems specialist for the state of Illinois. “It’s difficult for single people to be around married people because you always feel like that third wheel.”
A member the past two years at his new church, Springfield’s First United Methodist Church, Wampler is active in an alliteratively named group for young adult men: Boys, Bibles and Burritos. It is one of several outreach groups the west-side church has for 20-somethings, also known as the Millennial Generation.
The group, which meets weekly at Xochimilco, has discussed works such as Vince Antonucci’s “I Became a Christian and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt” about the dangers of letting one’s faith life get stale. Wampler says it also gives young adults — First UMC has similar groups for women, parents and married couples — a chance to talk in “a non-threatening environment.”
Despite such efforts, Wampler and others have a more realistic take on where young adults fit in, inside and outside the church scene.
“They’re the hole in the doughnut,” Wampler claims.
Studies point out that the Millennial generation, roughly 18 to 32 years old, is the group least likely to attend church services. It’s a group facing many life-shaping decisions, such as careers, college, where to live, marriage and children.
Millennials also are more likely to shop for a church and stray away from the church of their childhood — though now, more than ever, it isn’t a given they were even raised in a particular faith.
Churches such as First UMC that have tried to reach out to Millennials still recognize the group as “underserved and dramatically under-represented in the church,” says the Rev. Vince Rohn, the church’s pastor.
That hasn’t stopped others from trying.
At West Side Christian Church in Springfield, a component of the Young Adult Ministry called Serve! has done everything from holding luaus for residents at local retirement homes to handing out water bottles at the Illinois State Fair.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield started a Sunday night Young Adult Mass over a year ago, based on a model at Saint Louis University, that has gained a popular following.
Rohn says First UMC last fall reformed the Young Adult Network, which includes a number of small groups, most of which meet in members’ homes.
Still, Rohn says a variety of issues about young adults confront the church. The church is asking several questions, including “Are we offering what they need?” and “Are we meeting them where they are?”
Kyle Holtgrave, an associate director for youth and young adult ministry for the Springfield diocese, says parishes have focused well on families and children.
“Young adults don’t have the same community,” he says. “They don’t have something to keep them involved.”
The Young Adult Mass, which is held at Ursuline Chapel draws about 60 or so people and has spawned service projects, discussion groups and even some activism. (The current Web site, maintained by a Young Adult Mass committee, urges young Catholics to fight the Freedom of Choice Act, or FOCA. The bill in Congress would state that the nation’s policy prohibits the government from interfering in a woman’s decision whether to have an abortion or to deliver a child.)
The Mass has stirred some controversy among local pastors, though Holtgrave says that it’s not designed to compete with parishes.
“We’re not trying to take people away (from those churches),” he says. “We’re just trying to be realistic (about how this community is ignored.)”
Rohn says community — “real authentic community” — is at the heart of what the church offers and what most young adults are seeking out.
“You can develop a sense of community online, but there are limits to it,” Rohn says. “The same with Starbucks or the office workplace. There are limits to the depths of those relationships.
“If you can offer that relationship, that loving community, that’s something young people will have a hard time finding someplace else.”
Shannon Barnhart didn’t have an immediate focus on finding a church after moving to Springfield from Cattarauga, N.Y. The 26-year-old aviation planner for Crawford Murphy & Tilly, Inc., was active in a United Methodist church in her home. When a co-worker’s wife mentioned First UMC, Barnhart decided to check it out.
“I do have that level of comfort at First United Methodist,” though Barnhart concedes that the church is much larger than the one she attended in New York. She now plays on the church’s softball and soccer teams and helps run the Power Point presentations for the church’s services.
Barnhart, Rohn concedes, may be an exception: a young adult who has come back to the denomination of her childhood. With young adults, “I can’t assume anything about (their past experience with church.) I have to assume everyone is unchurched.”
Adds Patrick Barnthson, a volunteer leader in the Young Adult ministry at West Side Christian: “At this point, the majority of people (here) have had some background, good and bad. But we’re seeing it more and more here, people less aware of things ‘church.’”
Millennials also bring in a fair amount of suspicion and disillusionment, whether it’s with the institutional church or hierarchy, or with a local church, says Sarah Cunningham, author of “Dear Church: Letters from a Disillusioned Generation.”
Cunningham, speaking from her home in Milwaukee, said disillusionment can swallow a person and work against the very solutions to their concerns.
“When I talk to 20-somethings, I call for them to get past their disillusionment,” Cunningham says. “I also challenge them to stay part of their local church experience.”
Barnthson remembers one visitor to West Side who was trying to find as many reasons to stay away as to stay.
“I think part of the reason he was disillusioned with the church was that he had bad information,” Barnthson said. “I think he was honestly searching for the truth, but he definitely found reasons not to believe. You have to be open to believing, that there is a church to help you grow spiritually.”
With 20-somethings, Cunningham adds, church allegiance is viewed differently.
Twenty-somethings are just as likely to view participation in a Bible study group or working on a service project as a substitute for church, she says.
“They separate church attendance and faith,” Cunningham says.
They’re also less likely to be “brand loyal,” says the Springfield diocese’s Holtgrave.
“Like finding a job, you stayed with it 30, 40, 50 years. Now the feeling is, I’m going to do this until something better comes along. And there’s almost an expectation that something better will come along,” Holtgrave says. “With church loyalty, it’s the same thing: things aren’t developing, so I’m going to shop around. Where you belong, what you feel most comfortable with, that’s where you’re going to land.”
Shannon Barnhart says some of her friends were never introduced to church. For them, “I think it’s intimidating not knowing what to expect. I have tried to get them to go with me, since that is the way I started going, but there’s no interest.
“I don’t think that it’s the same for everyone, but I do agree that there are people who don’t pursue church, that just weren’t brought up with it and it wasn’t a priority in their life and it’s definitely not a priority for them now, either.”
More than ever, Holtgrave says, churches are facing distrust. Spiritual interest is there, but it’s not necessarily translating into seats in the pews.
“For the Millennial Generation, the single most defining character is that there is no single most defining character,” he says. “There’s a whole new perspective of person as authority, not institutions (like church.) The church as an authoritarian institution is looked down upon.
“The spirituality is there, but they’re rejecting it in the form of organized religion.”
David Kinnaman, author of “Unchristian” and president of The Barna Group, a marketing research firm serving Christian groups, says that disenchantment has raised questions for churches in areas such as discipleship, the use of art and technology in ministry, teamwork, leadership hierarchy and stewardship.
Rather than waiting for — or hoping to see if — this community of 20-somethings returns, Kinnaman says “the real issue is how churches will respond to the faithquakes that are reverberating through our nation’s young adults.”
First UMC’s Rohn says the church is seeing an uptick in young adults. Younger church leadership, an updated Web site and a contemporary Sunday service have helped.
“The real challenge,” he admits, “is getting them in the door in the first place.”
Steven Spearie can be reached at (217) 622-1788 email@example.com.