Naomi Schaefer Riley sums up what she learned about getting post-college millenials back to the church, mosque, and synagogue in the final paragraph of her latest book: Got Religion. How Churches, Mosques, and Synagogues can Bring Young People Back.
Little of what she offers strikes me as new. Peruse the various blogs on Patheos and you will find them all. (And I’ll list them at the end for those who read reviews and not books.) Yet gleaning wisdom from observing programs that actually work across different religions and though interviewing their participants gives needed nuance to the sound-bite/repeat-after-me kinds of programs often offered (or forced) on dying churches.
Moreover she offers the much needed observation that young adults actually have complex wants and needs in relation to religion – so that no silver bullet with slay their apathy toward institutional religion. And the even more needed observation that technology isn’t high on the list of means to bring young people back. It isn’t a solution to the problem, rather it is an assumed commodity that needs to be competently managed.
But rather than concentrate on what she says – and what she says is excellent – I want to notice what she doesn’t include in her conclusion. First, all of these success stories have a creative, energetic and entrepreneurial individual behind them, or in the case of One Church in Charlotte, in entrepreneur willing to recruit a team of such individuals.
Secondly, with the exception of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens they aren’t limited by a large installed user base and its incessant demands.
And finally, as she alludes, they are free of the expectation of addressing the structural problems either within American religious institutions or the world. And it is these structural problems that make churches, synagogues, and mosques ineffective in reaching young people, and make young people dedicated to service ineffective in actually eliminating poverty, corruption, illiteracy, and violence.
The first of these two noted-but-unobserved problems are directly related to her big question of how to re-engage young adults in religion, and therefore need to engage her readers.
The third raises a question that American religion has been loath to address, but may cut to the heart of its current situation. Should religion fundamentally change the world to be more godly and righteous? Or is that hope a hangover from Christian and Muslim imperial dreams and thwarted Jewish hopes of emancipation channeled through idealistic Zionism?
So to the first of the matters that Riley offers but does not observe: Where do you find the kind of leaders that can create innovative communities that provide what young adults need and justifiably want? For most of the last century American religious institutions didn’t need or want entrepreneurial, creative leaders for their churches and synagogues (and later immigrant mosques.) What they wanted were managers of an altogether comfortable, socially useful, and spiritually satisfying status quo. And it is such managers that religious institutions recruited as pastors and rabbis and (and later imams) that is how it trained them.
So to the answer to the question implied in the title: How can churches, mosques, and synagogues bring young people back. Well first find leaders with insight into human nature, the courage to take risks, and the ability to communicate effectively. American religious institutions continue to live in the illusion (shared by most aged institutions) that programs will bring success, when in fact its people, specifically leaders, that create the framework for renewal. When Rev. Soaries of First Baptist Lincoln Gardens considers continuity he’s concerned with succession of leadership, not the endurance of programs. Or more properly, he realizes that the first assures the second, and not visa versa.
The problem of an installed user base is equally difficult. Young adults, according to Riley are reluctant to financially support the infrastructure of even a community that benefits them directly. Are they likely to support their parent’s churches, mosques, and synagogues? And those institutions of their parents undertake almost daily increases in debt precisely to lure in young adults, even as their most generous supporters die off. Which only exacerbates their problems.
Those of us in the religion business need to be honest. Those huge investments in larger sanctuaries and family life centers and mega-campuses for mega-churches and large new HQ’s for denominations may have been a gamble on a losing bet that will pull congregations and denominations into oblivion. And it must be noted, unlike Europe’s empty cathedrals, the big box churches out on the highway have neither aesthetic value nor historical significance to redeem them once they are emptied of people.
Fortunately, amid my glum reflections, Riley offers quite positive observations – and all the basis upon which entrepreneurial leaders, young and older, can continue to draw young adults into a deeper relation with their creator and their fellow humans.
“Young adults want community, they want a neighborhood. They want a critical mass of people their age. But they want to see older people and younger people in their religious institutions too. They want a way to serve, and many of them want a way to serve sacrificially for longer periods of time. They want the racial and ethnic diversity of the country reflected in their religious community. They want a message, (in English) that resonates and helps them tackle the practical challenges they face, of which there are many. They want to feel welcome whether they are single or married (my note, or gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, or transgendered)And while they may appear to be experiencing an extended adolescence, when they are given responsibility; they are often inclined to take it.”
When I travel I frequently find myself among smartly dressed young men and women of the generation of which Riley speaks, a generation that includes my own children. And I realize that these frighteningly young-looking people are trying cases in courtrooms, closing large business deals, opening businesses, managing agencies, discovering new medicines, and yes, raising children. They are not the “leaders of the future.” They are the leaders of right now. Naomi Schaefer Riley makes her greatest contribution in reminding us of this simple fact, upon which the future of religion depends.