When the young adult members of Harvest Bible Chapel in Olathe gathered there one recent Thursday night, the meeting room had a party vibe: white Christmas lights glowing overhead, snacks set out, people standing around talking, laughing.
After they sang and prayed, they nestled into big comfy couches to talk about Philippians. At the back of the room, pastor Jeff Terrell pulled out his well-used Bible. Everyone else? They pulled out their cellphones to follow the lesson electronically.
When Terrell, 39, a former minor league baseball player, considers the future of his flock, he knows he needs these 20- and 30-somethings, that demographic sweet spot known as millennials.
“If we want the church to continue, if we want our biblical foundation to continue, this is the key generation,” he says.
But the millennials are a tough nut to crack, theologically speaking. American adults between the ages of 18 and 34 are largely churchless and religiously unaffiliated. Going to church? That’s boring, they tell survey-takers.
Churches and synagogues in Kansas City and across the country are moving heaven and earth to figure out how to get the millennials — who say in surveys they view religious institutions as judgmental, too political and out of touch — back into the fold.
For some faith communities in Kansas City that means setting up shop where young adults live: downtown, midtown, Westport.
It means downsizing for a generation no longer interested in megachurches, creating small groups so young adults can meet and talk about faith in one another’s homes.
It means offering lots of service projects because millennials grew up as a generation of volunteers.
It means Jewish congregations offering reduced membership fees for young adults and getting the word out that synagogue is for singles, too.
“I think in the Jewish community the synagogue is really viewed as a place for families,” says 30-year-old Rabbi Rebecca Reice at Congregation Beth Torah in Overland Park.
“I understand that is the perception … that our peers look at synagogue and say, ‘Oh, I’m not married, I’m going to be there by myself.’ Or ‘If I’m not married and we don’t have children, it feels awkward to me.’
“I think the synagogue, just like the church, is seen as a place that is not for me because … I don’t have kids, I don’t have money.”
Pastors who tweet and blog and post on Facebook are also putting out the word to a generation more skeptical of religion than previous ones that it’s OK to ask questions. Bring ’em on, let’s talk.
A soft sell works with them, too. As part of its young adult ministry, the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph offers year-round sports leagues and Masses followed by fellowship at Boulevard Brewing Co.
What churches refuse to undersell? The faith part.
“We think that the reason Redeemer has grown as a young church has very little to do with the strategies we’ve adopted,” says Andy Bean, director of communications for Redeemer Fellowship in Kansas City, where the average age of members is around 30.
“We think the church’s job is simple: We exist to preach Jesus as the hope of the world.”
In a recent study by the Pew Research Center, only 36 percent of millennials identified themselves as a “religious” person.
That 64 percent of nonreligious millennials “is the highest for any age group we’ve ever measured,” Paul Taylor, Pew’s executive vice president and co-author of the study, said when it was released in early March.
“On Sundays, my favorite thing to do is nothing,” says Ann Marie Pugh, 33, an IT specialist for the Internal Revenue Service who lives with her husband and two small children in south Kansas City.
Raised in a Mexican-American Roman Catholic home, she turned away from religion when a favorite gay uncle killed himself. “It was instant,” she says. “It was like ‘I’m done with everything that religion has ever promised to me. I have to go on my own journey.’
“You wake up and say, ‘What else is out there? I want to be a part of it.’”
She and her husband are raising their children to be “free thinkers, to question and to understand before they decide what they’re going to put their faith in later on. Right now, I have little scientists on my hands. They watch ‘Cosmos’ with me, and they really want to learn about their world.”
Author Rachel Held Evans touched off a firestorm last summer when she wrote an essay on CNN’s Belief Blog titled, “Why millennials are leaving the church.” The post generated hundreds of responses and was passed around on Facebook like a GIF of the Day. People called her a church-hater.
“What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance,” she wrote.
“We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith.
“We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.
“You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around.
“We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.”
Genavieve Gilbert, 30, found Jesus at Bridgeport Church.
The nondenominational community that pastor Sam Newby has built over the last few years started out with about a dozen people who met in a photo studio in the Crossroads Arts District. Now, with 200 to 250 members, it just moved into Kansas City’s old Cowtown Ballroom.
The remodeling wasn’t done yet when the congregation met there for its first Sunday service this month. The band played on a stage of bare wood, and some of the doors around the place were missing knobs. But the coffee was hot, the doughnuts fresh and the chatter enthusiastic as a crowd of mostly young adults, many with babies in tow, arrived.
Newby believes that churches must adapt if they want millennials to show up like that. For example, “we found that millennials look for a church that is an authentic expression of community,” he says.
“So we created smaller groups throughout the city, gatherings of eight to 15 people, where they gather to study and pray and just hang out and share meals together and just be together.”
Gilbert and her husband, Arin, 32, parents of 7-month-old Anneliese, were searching for “a smaller community of believers.”
She found Bridgeport through a Facebook post.
“I think there really has been a loss of reverence for the holy and divine,” she says. “We live in a world of relativism. Absolute truth is something that seems to have passed away with antiquity.”
Come as you are
When life-long Roman Catholic Renee Winkel, 28, a high school teacher who lives in Overland Park, considers her millennial peers she refers to them as “kind of a lost generation.”
But, she says, they basically want the same thing that everybody else does. They want to belong to a community. They want to be accepted.
And, contrary to what surveys say, she believes, as does Gilbert, that “they also want to be close to their God.”
Yes, for all the gloom and doom about their religious habits, or lack thereof, one-fourth of 18- to 29-year-olds are said to be practicing Christians who go to church at least once a month. And a majority of millennials claim in some surveys that they pray every week.
Scott Chrostek ministers to a lot of those people. Half of his 2-year-old congregation at Resurrection Downtown is younger than 35. The church just south of the Sprint Center is the downtown location for the Leawood-based Church of the Resurrection.
“One of the things I’ve experienced is that there’s a lot of excitement, a lot of passion, a lot of commitment and energy in the center of the city,” says Chrostek, who is 35.
“So my experience has been not one of (millennials) disappearing or one of indifference, but more of intrigue, a whole group of people who want to be part of something bigger.”
He stokes that fire in their belly with Saturday morning service projects that begin with coffee and fellowship at the church before members head out to volunteer around the city.
The faith community has discovered this about millennials: They know the value of community service. Feed that desire and more of them stick around.
“The things that draw the most from this age group are our service projects,” says Reice at Congregation Beth Torah, which runs food drives and provides meals for homeless shelters in its commitment to feed the hungry.
“Hunger programs are profoundly motivational. So when we have service projects going on, there’s a trend we see of millennials showing up.
“What I have experienced as a millennial and what I have always seen in my peers is that we are a people seeking meaning. I have grown up in a time when to volunteer is a great passion among my peers, whether it was our high school or our honor society required it. To me, volunteerism and service to others was a key part of my spirituality.”
We want people to come and do the things they’re passionate about, says Dave DiNuzzo Sr., director of young adult and campus ministry for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
“We work with the homeless, we do street ministry, we do a lot of pro-life work, we do outreach … It’s not just an entertainment thing, ‘Hey, I’m going to show up and you’re going to feed me,’” DiNuzzo says.
“I guess our hope is to form these young adults into real, true leaders who can certainly be focused on their faith as the foundational part of their life, but who can take it beyond themselves and spread the gospel … and bring other people happiness.”
Matt Cox was one of those millennials tired of the same-old-same-old.
When he was living in Seattle a few years ago he found a church where he felt people weren’t talking down to him, where people weren’t excluded because of sexual orientation, where the congregation emphasized what it stood for rather than what it opposed.
That’s his blueprint now.
Young, casual and come-as-you-are describes the church that Cox, a 34-year-old ordained minister, founded in Lawrence four years ago.
His nondenominational EastLake Church is based on the premise that it’s not the church’s job to “change people, it’s our job to love people. That is our mission.”
The congregation of 400 to 500 meets on Sunday mornings in what he calls a “portable church,” a community theater on the west side of Lawrence.
In the welcome video on the church’s website, Cox, wearing a Royals T-shirt, describes the church as a “safe place for regular people to explore faith in an accepting community where you can belong before you believe.
“It doesn’t matter what you would score on a Bible test. It doesn’t even matter who you voted for in the last election.”
To reach Lisa Gutierrez, call 816.234.4987 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.