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Reaching out to young adults: What are we doing right?

Reaching out to young adults: What are we doing right?

Jason Evans, young adult missioner for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, is writing a series of articles for the diocesan blog called Ministry Among Millennials, which he hopes will take the edge off of some of the unhelpful anxiety loose in the church over its difficulties in connecting with people in their twenties and thirties.

In his book, You Lost Me, David Kinnaman writes that there is a “43 percent drop-off between the teen and early adult years in terms of church engagement.” The Pew Research Center reported that more than 25 percent of millennials were unaffiliated with a faith community. This is enough to concern any rector or vestry member. But it isn’t a complete picture of what is happening amongst emerging adults. The National Study of Youth & Religion tracked the religious transitions of young people over a five-year period. Sociologist Christian Smith wrote in his book Souls in Transition that the study found mainline Protestants were “… relatively good at attracting new emerging adults who grew up in other religious traditions–good enough, in fact, to hold their own over these five years in terms of overall ‘market share.’”

Referring to anyone as a “market share” makes my skin crawl a bit. But you get his point–enough emerging adults are finding their way into the Episcopal Church to abate what would otherwise be a steeper decline. So, what are we doing right? In order to answer, I thought we should ask some of those I’ve met in our Diocese.

He concludes:

Emerging adults often find in the Episcopal Church a respite from a stage of life that is transient, instable, and distracted. I might summarize their appreciation in one attribute: Integrated. There is something genuinely holistic in Episcopal worship that young people often find attractive. Yet, too often that integration stops with our worship. What young people desire is to continually discover how Sunday morning affects their everyday life. Whether or not they are conscious of it, they are searching for an over-arching narrative to sew together the dislocated aspects of postmodern life.

Like most things in life, it is often the aesthetics, the veneer that initially attract us. What commits us to something is determined by how integrated that affection becomes. I’m a devoted customer of Apple because the company’s products have become a part of how I live. In a similar way, young people need our guidance in discovering how the ancient ways of worship shape–even transform–our lives.


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Eric Bonetti

I like the approach of this article, as I think it’s usually better to “walk on the sunny side of the street.” TEC is doing many things right, including standing up for our beliefs around inclusion, versus simply giving lip service to equality and social justice.

At the end of the day, even those who disagree with us will, I think, come to respect a principaled stance and the courage of our convictions. My sense, too, is that these issues are particularly important for young adults, especially at a time when it is hard for so many to have economic and career stability.

Eric Bonetti

Harriet Baber

I’m very interested in this because I’m on a team of faculty organizing an LLC (“living learning community”) for a group of incoming undergraduates on the theme “Faith and Reason.” We’ll be presenting programs on the topic, broadly construed, including one on the rise of the “Nones.” We’ve toyed with the idea of a build-your-own-religion workshop in connection with this, the idea being: if you’re a None, if you don’t like the religions currently on offer, what would you like? Build it!

My impressions is that current traditional-aged college students drop out because they see religion as a system of obligations for both belief and behavior without any significant payoff that they can’t get elsewhere: they can get, e.g. “community” in bars and clubs, campus organizations, social media and just informal contact. They perceive religion as a constraint. And those who are interested in “spirituality”–AND MOST ARE NOT–want to assemble a syncretic collection of doctrines and practices customized to their preferences. They assume that “religion” precludes that–that it means committing a particular doctrinal package. On top of that, Sunday morning is very inconvenient for them.

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