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Keeping The Faith: Xers, Ys Seek A New Way To Worship

Religion has made significant strides recently toward reaching younger audiences.Faithbook launched as the first interfaith page on the popular site Facebook in an effort to foster greater understanding among people of different religions.

Religion has made significant strides recently toward reaching younger audiences.Faithbook launched as the first interfaith page on the popular site Facebook in an effort to foster greater understanding among people of different religions. While there are other faith groups on Facebook, Faithbook is the only page that welcomes people of all faiths to join.The Movement for Reform Judaism, responsible for Faithbook, hopes the page will “engage the younger generation,” inform them about people of other faiths, and engage them in constructive debates. Members can upload photos of themselves and others, view images of sacred texts, and view prayers for international and interfaith understanding. Faithbook already has 498 fans.Also, the Bible found a new home-on Amazon Kindle, a wireless digital reader. The Contemporary English Version of the Bible (CEV) is available on Amazon Kindle for $3.99 and can be instantly accessed through the Amazon device without the use of a computer. A high resolution screen displays the text and the CEV Bible is searchable. The simplicity of the Kindle device is a plus for those looking to get specific books of the Bible or the entire Bible itself. This makes the Bible into a highly portable library.The director of licensing and product services at the American Bible Society said the digital platform will allow readers to share scriptural texts with all of those interested in the Bible—especially new readers and younger readers. Other current innovations include putting the Bible on cell phones and the prospect of special ring tones on cell phones.Why all the recent technological and social networking advances? Because religious organizations and faith leaders nationwide are observing declines in membership, largely due to the lack of participation of younger generations.Consider this:

  • The Southern Baptist Convention will take place in Indianapolis this week. As the nation's largest Protestant denomination, the religious organization made headlines when the outgoing SBC president issued a warning to Baptists saying that unless the SBC wakes up, in the next two decades more than half its member churches could vanish. The SBC president told reporters in an interview that SBC is comprised of “small groups of older white people” who must embrace diversity if it hopes to survive and must be more welcoming to ethnic groups and younger generations.
  • The Episcopal Church has suffered a net loss of 115,000 members over the past three years. Nearly 60 percent of Episcopalians are reportedly over 50.
  • In 2007, the United Methodist Church reported its membership was at its lowest since 1930 with just over eight million members.
  • Lutheran Christians in North America decreased about 1.41 per cent, while the Lutheran World Federation witnessed a 1.73 per cent drop. The second largest LWF member church– the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – accounting for 4.85 million members–saw about a 1.6 percent drop in the same year.
  • Membership in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. declined sharply in 2003. Figures released by the church show the denomination had 2,405,311 active and confirmed members at the end of 2003—a drop of 46,658 from 2002.
  • Jewish synagogues have also observed declines. A World Jewish Digest article recently observed, “Leaders have had any number of reactions to the noticeable absence of young adult Jews in synagogues. … In the past, Jews showed their support for synagogue life by paying dues— whether they were enthusiastic participants or not. Today, that sense of obligation is gone: young adults do not feel compelled to join a synagogue if they have no intention of attending. However, when they to do decide to join, they participate as active, invested members.”

Regardless of religious affiliation, young adults attending churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious organizations will strongly influence the direction of religious life in the United States over the next 25 years. It remains to be seen whether religious organizations can successfully engage Xers and Ys in their communities.

Generations X (1965-1981) and Y (1982-1995) have challenged religious organizations to become more intentional and strategic in the ways they serve their members because they are the first generations to want new ways to worship.

Religious organizations everywhere are struggling to understand this generational shift. As a result, they are observing a decline in membership among younger generations.

I recently wrote an article about this decline for Church Executive magazine, which will be published in next month's issue. Here are a few of the tips I outlined for religious leaders to consider in the article:

  • RelationshipsBuilding relationships with Xers and Ys is imperative. These generations rely only on the people who take the time to earn their trust and express care for them. Your church will successfully engage them when it becomes concerned about their needs and actively engages in developing programs and services especially for them.
  • Positive EnergyYounger generations often refer to church as boring, time-consuming, judgmental, and hypocritical. If Xers and Ys don’t feel positive, inspired, welcome, or engaged in their church experience, they are likely to run for the door. Churches have responded by introducing shorter services, musical instruments, and humor in the sermon. And if you don’t know what younger generations dislike about your church – ask them!
  • Family FocusXers are having children and Ys will be starting families soon. A commitment to an outstanding children’s program and a family-friendly environment is essential to attracting and keeping younger members.
  • PurposeYounger generations want to make a difference and to know their participation has purpose and value. Explain how their involvement is making a difference. Gen Y has an especially broad worldview and would prefer to join a church where there are ample mission and service opportunities.
  • RespectContrary to popular belief, Xers and Ys are not slackers. They are multi-tasking high-achievers, but they don’t like obligations that intrude on family life. Be respectful of their time, don’t guilt them into taking on volunteer roles, and understand their participation will be more episodic. They like to take the lead a single project and then that’s it for a while.
  • TechnologyUtilize technology to provide access to the church and its worship and faith-building opportunities 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Consider podcasting sermons or worship music or the minister’s message for the day, post video testimonials featuring younger members, use Webinars for Bible study, or launch a blog or bulletin board where people can engage in discussions about the church.

While the Traditional and Baby Boomer generations have sustained religious organizations for quite some time, many organizations have made the mistake of ignoring the Xers and Ys or waiting for them to conform to the traditions and the values of previous generations. Xers and Ys are actively seeking a place to belong, and they will abandon the idea of going to church or synagogue altogether when religious organizations don't meet their interests and needs.

There’s a tremendous opportunity here for the religious organizations that can find meaningful ways to integrate their involvement into young people's lives, and literally focus on the next generation of faith leaders and members.It’s important to understand that younger generations haven’t lost their faith. Research repeatedly indicates this is not the case. Xers and Ys are faithful and spiritual generations–they are simply seeking new ways to worship than the generations that came before them.The question is: Will your organization be the answer to their prayers?

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

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