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Utah churches reach out to 'lost' generation

Published November 8, 2011 7:16 pm

Worship • New tunes, new tone are bringing 20- and 30-somethings back to the fold in Utah churches.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A year ago, Tyler Pruitt was skeptical of Christianity.

When the now-26-year-old thought about Christianity, images of television evangelists flashed before him. Feelings of judgment, condemnation and boredom came to mind. He considered himself agnostic, unsure of God's existence.

But when he saw a notice on Facebook for free beer and pizza at a new Salt Lake City church about a year ago, he was intrigued. He went to the event, at EastLake Church, where he found other 20-somethings in jeans and T-shirts listening to Christian rock and sermons about relatable topics.

"For the first couple of months, it was kind of hanging out with cool people and more of a self-help program for me," Pruitt said, "because, aside from the religious part, it's got some really good advice for living your life."

Earlier this year, Pruitt was baptized.

"I feel like I'm growing each time I'm here," Pruitt said after a recent Sunday service.

EastLake is one of a number of churches — some new, some traditional — taking different tacks to appeal to people in their 20s and 30s. It's an age group that faiths find increasingly difficult to keep interested amid a changing society in which people are delaying marriage and children, distrustful of institutions and finding social networks online.

Churches like the new, nondenominational EastLake offer short services punctuated with drums and electric guitars. Other more traditional churches such as Mount Olympus Presbyterian Church on the valley's east bench have added looser, more relaxed young adult services to their repertoire. And this year, Utah's predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, dissolved its student congregations, creating new Young Single Adult wards partly to stem the loss of active Mormons between ages 18 and 30, LDS apostle M. Russell Ballard said earlier this year.

A number of evangelical churches, including The Rock Church, with locations in Salt Lake City, Sandy and Provo, and college-based groups also are working to appeal to younger adults with a different style, said Greg Johnson, president of the Standing Together Ministries coalition of evangelical churches across the Wasatch Front.

Faith leaders have long struggled to hold on to young adults, but often assumed that they would return once they had children. It's an assumption, however, that may no longer hold true, said David Kinnaman, author of the new book, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church … and Rethinking Faith.

Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, a private California-based research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture, recently led a five-year project, which found that 59 percent of young Christians either left their churches for extended periods or permanently after age 15.

It also appears a higher percentage of today's young adults are religiously unaffiliated than young adults in decades past, according to a 2010 report from the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life. Nearly a quarter (23 percent) of young adults reported being unaffiliated during the past decade, compared with 12 percent in the 1970s and '80s.

"They're leaving at earlier ages, staying away longer," Kinnaman said, "and many of the social changes taking place in terms of when to get married, when to have children are redefining whether faith will matter to this generation in the same way."

Many churches, he added, simply are unprepared to deal with these new "urban digitally connected tribes."

"What's missing from churches if they can't engage young adults is not only the energy and vitality those young adults bring," Kinnaman said, "but also the moral authority to speak to the generation as they're making significant life choices about finances and careers and relationships and meaning."

Sermons at The Mount • Kinnaman's research revealed six major reasons young Christians said they stopped going to church: They saw churches as overprotective; antagonistic toward science; overly simplistic and judgmental on issues of sexuality; unfriendly to doubters; exclusive; or shallow, meaning they felt bored or as if the messages didn't apply to their own lives.

"The fact that so many young people believe communities of faith aren't places where they can ask their most pressing life questions," he said, "is really a tragedy."

Many churches agree and are striving to make services more accommodating.

On a recent Sunday evening, about 75 mostly 20-somethings gathered at Mount Olympus for a version of Sunday services, dubbed The Mount.

Worshippers grabbed coffee or tea in the lobby, sipping as they listened and prayed. They wore shorts, T-shirts, flip-flops and jeans. Several easels stood in a corner alongside bottles of acrylics and watercolors for those who preferred to paint rather than sit.

And a band played Christian rock from the stage throughout the service. Visiting singer Aaron Strumpel suggested worshippers stand for the first song, but emphasized that it was their choice. Most stood. About half a dozen remained seated. Some bobbed their heads or swayed to the songs, much as they might at a concert.

Between songs, worshippers were asked to focus on four prayer topics: hope, rescue, healing and peace.

This type of service started five years ago to provide a place to go for those between high school graduation and parenthood.

"A lot of college kids and a lot of 20- and 30-year-olds kind of just disappear and so we started asking a lot of questions, 'Why stop going?' " said Matt Cain, a 22-year-old who helped start The Mount. It seemed people in that age group were uncomfortable with some trappings of traditional services, so The Mount eliminated them.

"It's easy to come when there's free coffee and you know you don't have to get dressed up and you can show up in the evening after a day of skiing or sleeping in," Cain said. "It's relaxed enough that you don't have to show up and put on any gimmicks or faces."

Cain said it can sometimes be easier for young people to form a relationship with God when they're comfortable and feel free to explore.

Vitor Souza, 27, said The Mount's atmosphere puts him at ease. Souza, who grew up Catholic in Brazil, came to Utah about two years ago as a Fulbright Scholar and is now a graduate student at the University of Utah.

"For me, you need to have a serious relationship with God, and there's no way or form or formula for you to talk to God, so you don't need to memorize anything," Souza said. "You just need to talk to him, and here they preach this."

Many traditional churches also aim to appeal to young people through helping others. The Mount encourages worshippers to sign up for service opportunities, and Catholic churches also offer ways for young people to volunteer through spring-break projects, clothing drives, food collections and efforts to teach about the faith, said Susan Cook Northway, director of the office of religious education at the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.

Giving young adults opportunities to volunteer isn't a new idea, but it's one that may become increasingly important.

"It's a generation of people who want to be doers, not just hearers of faith," Kinnaman said. "I think there's a real opportunity for churches that want to help people put feet to faith."

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Inclusive is in • A number of new, nontraditional, nondenominational churches have also sprung up to entice young adults to connect with God.

EastLake Pastor Robin Gattis said being nondenominational is one of the things that makes worshippers comfortable at his year-old Salt Lake City church. He estimates about 80 percent of the those who attend EastLake are in their 20s and 30s.

"They particularly want to make sure that nobody is excluded and want to be in a situation like most of us do where there's an openness and a kindness to everyone," Gattis said of young adults. "For some reason, when something has a real strong sort of denominational flavor, they sort of see that as more exclusive than inclusive."

EastLake in Salt Lake City is modeled after other EastLake congregations around the country.

EastLake holds hourlong services each Sunday morning at Bennion Elementary. A bass and drum-heavy band starts and ends each service, and the pastor gives a sermon to which young people can relate, like recent talks given under the theme "Relationships: There's an App for That."

A basket of purple and orange earplugs sits near the door for those who find the music too loud.

Chelsea Wesner, 28, said the inclusive atmosphere of EastLake is one reason she returns each Sunday. Wesner grew up going to a Southern Baptist and then a Methodist church but stopped attending around age 19 or 20. It was a time when, as a college student, she was meeting new people and learning about other faiths, cultures and philosophies. She became less convinced one religion was right and all the others were wrong.

"I realized I didn't want to be exclusive," Wesner said. "I didn't really feel that I felt that way anymore about the world."

It's a common sentiment among young adults, according to Kinnaman's research, which found that 29 percent of young Christians said "churches are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths" and complained that they felt "forced to choose between my faith and my friends."

K2 the Church, another relatively new church in the Salt Lake City area, also appeals to worshippers with its nondenominational approach, live music, multimedia and small groups for members centered around common interests. Lad Chapman, Life Together pastor at the church, said people in their 20s and 30s make up about 40 percent to 50 percent of the members.

"The majority of people who come to K2 are looking to pursue God and ask questions about God, coming out of other situations where they felt hurt or abandoned by their church," Chapman said. "Young people … aren't so interested in being part of an establishment but really more interested in being part of a movement that's going to change the world."

Selling without selling out • Still, Kinnaman warns, churches must take care not to appeal to young adults so much that they risk alienating older ones. He said the generations can benefit from serving God together.

"Anybody who's serving the spiritual development of humanity," Kinnaman said, "would say they're not just trying to create a couple of years' worth of engagement, they're trying to create lifelong pattens and help people create a spiritual legacy."

It's a goal many churches aim to achieve, along with a balance between appealing to young people while still getting across a message and core values.

It's a sweet spot The Mount tries to hit each week, said Chad Whitehead, director of The Mount.

"We address some of those kinds of logistical, practical things to make things more relaxed and more open … but we haven't dumbed down the message of Jesus," Whitehead said. "I think at some churches, you go so far to reach out to people you end up giving them very little substance, or you swing so far the other way, giving them so much substance and rigidity, it just crushes them."

Cook Northway said the Catholic Church also aims to "listen and try to serve the needs of people and still maintain our integrity."

For example, the St. Catherine of Siena Newman Center near the University of Utah offers a Sunday Mass at 7 p.m. to accommodate students, but the service remains the same. She also noted that the trend of young people leaving churches seems to be reversed when it comes to Spanish-speaking young adults, whose church attendance continues to grow here.

Cook Northway hopes young people understand the Catholic Church is a place that welcomes their questions and dilemmas. She said, in turn, the Catholic Church also seeks to teach young people to question the societal values around them.

Churches that hope to hold on to their young people, Kinnaman said, need to understand that young people question everything around them — religion, media, Wall Street, education. They need to respect those inquiries and show young adults how faith intersects with their careers and life goals.

And they need to start young, he said. "It's much harder to save someone who's already lost than to prevent someone from leaving."

lschencker@sltrib.com

Six reasons young Christians leave church

David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group and author of the recently released You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church … and Rethinking Faith, recently led a five-year project into the reasons churchgoing teens stop attending services sometime after age 15. The research revealed six themes explaining why 59 percent of young Christians stop going to church either permanently or for extended periods.

Churches seem overprotective • 23 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds said they mostly or completely feel that "Christians demonize everything outside the church."

Their experiences were shallow • 31 percent of young adults said "church is boring," and 24 percent said "faith is not relevant to my career or interests." Twenty percent who attended church as teens declared that "God seems missing" from their church experiences.

Churches come across as antagonistic to science • 35 percent of young adults said, "Christians are too confident they know all the answers," and 29 percent of young adults with a Christian background saw churches as "out of step with the scientific world."

Their church experiences related to sexuality are simplistic, judgmental • 17 percent of young Christians said they "have made mistakes and feel judged in church because of them." Among 18 to 29-year-old Catholics surveyed, 40 percent said the church's "teaching on sexuality and birth control are out of date."

They think Christianity is too exclusive • 29 percent of young Christians viewed churches as "afraid of the beliefs of other faiths."

They feel church is unfriendly to doubters • 36 percent of young adults with Christian experience said they don't feel able to "ask my most pressing life questions in church," and 23 percent have "significant intellectual doubts" about their faith.

Source: Barna Group