Churches keep millennials close with outreach, programs

Young Catholics listen to the Rev. Pat York talk about obedience during a monthly meeting called “Theology on Tap” at the River City Brewery. (June 9, 2015)
Young Catholics listen to the Rev. Pat York talk about obedience during a monthly meeting called “Theology on Tap” at the River City Brewery. (June 9, 2015) The Wichita Eagle

On a recent Tuesday night, a man with a microphone stood in front of a group of 20-somethings at River City Brewery in Old Town.

He joked about how, if he had had kids, his “would’ve been the first ones to smoke dope” and that his golf game “sucks” so bad a priest he was playing with told him to quit.

The man speaking was not a comedian, but the Rev. Patrick York of the Church of Magdalen, who was delivering a talk about the importance of being obedient at the monthly “Theology on Tap” lecture series put on by young Catholics in Wichita.

“The vast majority of you I hope get married,” York said. “And have a bunch of little freaky mini-mes that look just like you and have lots of babies for Jesus.” But, he said, they had to be obedient to their church leaders first and make sure the person they wanted to marry was the same person God wanted them to marry.

This is a far cry from a church still frequently known for its imposing architecture, masses spoken in Latin and the ornate clothing of its clergy. But for many local leaders, attracting youth to the church has taken on a new level of importance. A new Pew study found that more than one out of every three millennials – defined by the study as between 18 and 34 years old – no longer identifies with a religion. The younger they are, the less likely they are to believe.

While the trend was most pronounced among the young, it held true for all ages and demographics. In 2007, about 8 in 10 Americans believed in a religion, most of them Christianity; in 2014, only seven in 10 did. If the trend continues at its current pace, religious adherents could in a single generation find themselves in the minority.

The results of the study held true for every demographic: whites, blacks and Latinos; men and women; residents of the East Coast, Midwest and South; Catholics, Protestants and, to a lesser extent, even evangelical Christians. In Kansas, 17 out of 20 adults identified with a religion eight years ago but that dropped to 16 of 20 in 2014.

From the Bible Belt to the Beltway, in the past seven years millions of Americans stopped identifying with a religion.

“In the past it was easy to be Lutheran and assume your kids would be that way or similar,” said Scott Goltl the director of outreach at Ascension Lutheran Church. “You can’t assume that anymore and probably shouldn’t have beforehand.”

So some local religious leaders are trying to find new ways to attract the next generation of believers.

Teachers as students

At Holy Savior, a small Catholic parish, four college students were trying to round up 30 children to teach them about saints. It was the first day of a weeklong religious camp at the beginning of June, so the students were just getting to know their teachers and the teachers, between 19 and 20, were just learning how to teach.

The youngest children were coloring a small picture of St. Bernadette, “like a baseball card” and were told they could write the word “faith” on the card if they wanted to.

“But what if you can’t spell it?” a Hispanic girl in the class asked.

“Is Mother Teresa brown?” asked Elizabeth Mboya, 8, who is black. The room was full of almost entirely black and Latino children and Mboya wanted to know what color crayon to use.

“So, like, tan?” she wondered after learning that Mother Teresa lived in India.

Minorities make up a greater proportion of most religious groups now than they did in 2007, according to the Pew study, but Catholics in particular have relied on an influx of immigrants and minorities to dampen the impact of the 13 percent of all Americans who were raised Catholic but no longer are, according to the study. The results show that, of those who say they were raised Catholic, two out of five no longer identify with the church, the biggest loss of any church.

So in some respects, the most important impact for the program at Holy Savior wasn’t on the children who were being taught: It was on the four college students teaching the classes.

They are part of a broad effort by the local Catholic diocese to invest young people in the church more deeply through experiential learning and college communities. The diocese leadership has realized for a while that it needed to do more with college students and young adults, according to Christine Edmonds, program coordinator in the office of Faith Formation.

She is hiring adult leaders at local colleges to create communities to correct a previous misconception of the church that once someone went through confirmation, their spiritual formation was over.

“They’re only going to have a high school knowledge of faith after confirmation,” Edmonds said. “We keep saying it’s just the beginning of your faith formation as an adult.”

The summer education program, “Totus Tuus,” was founded in Wichita but has since spread across the Midwest. About 50 college students, including the four at Holy Savior, are traveling around Kansas to teach their faith for seven weeks over the summer.

The days are packed. The four college students at Holy Savior start praying together at 7:15 a.m. They teach classes to young children all day, pray some more, and then run programs with adolescents in the evening. On the weekends they move on to the next parish to recruit more students.

“There is no way we’re going to survive this summer without prayer, said Logan McCully, 19, a sophomore at Benedictine College in Atchison. He is teaching for the third summer in a row, but acting as the lead teacher for the first time. Logan and many other Catholic youth like him are looking for ways to live out and experience their faith, rather than just hear about it on Sundays.

McCully has attended Catholic school from when he was young and told the teenagers on the first night at Holy Savior: “Everyone has a hole inside them that is infinitely deep,” he said. “And only a being infinitely large can fill it up.”

But even the young people who already know this, he said, still need a community to help them stay on the divine path. He told a story about how his freshman year roommate at Benedictine was wavering in his faith, but was counseled at night by friends and sometimes dragged out of his dorm room to church by senior mentors, until recently his roommate tearfully recommitted to his faith.

“Me and my five friends, we all have these sparks and these five small flames create a bigger flame that just engulfs,” McCully said. “If I was just by myself, it would’ve died out.”

But not all universities have a tradition of Catholic support groups.

When Laura Weixelman, 20, another summer teacher, attended her first college, she said she saw a number of borderline Catholics fall away from church because they didn’t understand their religion, and they didn’t have a strong group of Catholic friends to support them.

At Wichita State University, Weixelman’s new school, she said the opposite occurs: those borderline Catholics become strong Catholics when they are exposed to the well-established St. Paul Catholic Student Center on campus.

“If you don’t have that community with you, you’re just going to be eaten up (in college),” Weixelman said.

Edmonds said she has been recruiting professors and religious leaders to run college ministries on more campuses, such as a new group at Butler Community College that meets on Sundays. The hope is that more students like Laura will attend a college with a support network like WSU’s.

As a result of these efforts, Edmonds said she has seen more and more young people involved in local Catholic programming. She used to struggle to get a dozen young adults to sign up for a retreat. Now she fills all 50 spots with a waiting list of 10.

Loss of millennials

The loss of young people has occurred everywhere. At Ascension Lutheran Church, the number of children who participate decreases at each age level as they get older, according to Scott Goltl, the pastoral director of outreach.

“And then in college, it’s a huge drop off,” he said.

Even the theologically liberal churches in town, which tolerate issues such as gay marriage that young people tend to support, don’t attract college students, according to Kent Little, the senior pastor at College Hill United Methodist Church, not far from Wichita State University.

“That’s a really difficult age group to get ahold of,” said Karen Robu, associate pastor at Plymouth Congregational Church, another liberal-leaning church. “They’re getting off on their own and doing their own thing.”

Goltl, the pastoral director of outreach at Ascension Lutheran Church, attributed it partly to the secularization of universities.

“A college professor at a public institution used to be able to quote Jesus, and it was considered a worthy person to quote, and now you would be in trouble and laughed at,” Goltl said. “So what you’re seeing is just the natural fruit of what’s been sown.”

Most of the churches said they tried to reach out to young people on social media and their websites. But many atheists said they were also finding support online: the Internet has become necessary but not necessarily a winning strategy.

“(Social media) is the primary way young people are communicating with each other,” said Kyle Fleet, the youth pastor at Central Christian Church. “And we can engage in and tap into it or naively and fearfully set it aside.”

The African-American churches remain relevant for the older generations – who show up to hear not just the gospel but also what to do about recent political events in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo. But young people are staying away, according to Junius Dotson, senior pastor at United Methodist Church.

“We stream our worship experience on Sunday mornings, and we have a sizable number of people who watch that stream,” Dotson said. “So they may be participating in church but doing it in younger ways.”

Turning water into beer

Catholics experienced a 5 percent decrease in Kansas membership, more than any other religious type, according to the Pew study, followed closely by mainline Protestants, such as Methodists and Presbyterians.

But events focused around beer and friendly banter are a long way from the Catholic Church that Christine Edmonds, 56, the young adult coordinator for the local Catholic diocese, grew up in. Then, a defining image was of strict nuns who hit childrens’ hands with a ruler. There was less effort then to reach out to young adults. That wasn’t working but, she said, the next generation’s attempts to attract youth with funny skits and pizza parties didn’t work either.

Even though past events were fun, she said, the results of the National Study of Youth and Religion in 2008 at Notre Dame, showed that young people were frustrated that they couldn’t answer basic questions about being Catholic.

“They don’t want a social club,” Edmonds said. “They’re having a hard time explaining their faith, and they really don’t know scripture well.”

So now, instead, they go on retreats where they learn about what it means to be Catholic. They do service projects and attend conferences. And they meet at River City Brewery.

In his “Theology on Tap” talk, Rev. York, the speaker that night, explained some of the reasoning for some doctrines that young people get confused about: why priests have to be celibate (he couldn’t possibly balance a family with all his duties); why wives have to be obedient to husbands (husbands have the harder job and, besides, women secretly run the house anyway); and the relationship between church and state (obey the state unless it becomes immoral, such as Nazi Germany and Iraq.)

After his talk, young people in the audience challenged him to answer their questions. Rev. York struggled to explain controversial stances, including, whether the U.S. was right to invade Iraq. He tried to explain the seemingly contradictory approach of looking to his young followers to know how best to serve them, and yet still be their boss and leader.

Millennials won’t go to a church “program” organized from above, Edmonds said, because it sounds too official. This is because the church forgot about the importance of personal relationships in the past, according to Tara Elpers, 26, who has organized “Theology on Tap” the past two years.

While Rev. York said that his favorite part of being a priest was the classic triumvirate of mass, confession and the forgiveness of sins – Elpers emphasized face-to-face conversations. Catholic friends can only really help each other with the challenges in their lives when they’re in conversation, she said.

“Even if a priest is standing up here for an hour talking about faith and God, my question is are you any closer to God?” Elpers asked. “The chances are that in that hour you didn’t get any closer.” Catholics need to focus on their personal relationship with Jesus, she said, rather than just intellectual teachings. Oftentimes, the speaker at “Theology on Tap” is a layperson speaking about how to navigate marriage or being single.

A side benefit to “Theology on Tap” is that it’s a good place to meet a potential wife, according to Caleb Rogers, 22, who said he prays more because of the energy he gets from these monthly events. He was so moved by York’s talk about obedience that he was thinking just as seriously about the priesthood as marriage.

Rogers and Elpers, in contrast to the majority of young people in their generation, support the church even on issues such as gay marriage. Elpers spent two years trying to find out why the church couldn’t support gay marriage. At the end of two years, she said she finally accepted the church’s answer.

Even though a priest is just as likely to tease you about texting while he’s talking as tap you with a ruler, Elpers said, the church is fundamentally the same one as her parents attended. “It’s the same gospel message, the same church, the same beliefs, the same Jesus, the same religion,” she said. “But a different approach to sharing that with people.”

Many people her age have not been spending such an effort to understand the church, she acknowledged, and are dropping out of the church. But she said that now was a time to close ranks and deepen the faith of the ones who do show up. Later, the ones who have left can come back because, she said, they’ll need it so desperately.

“They’re starving to be loved,” Elpers said. “They’re starving to have that personal connection.”

Reach Oliver Morrison at 316-268-6499 or omorrison@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @ORMorrison.

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