Ministry among millenials: When worship works

By Jason Evans
Posted May 8, 2013

[Episcopal Diocese of Washington] This blog is the first in a series on ministry with young adults that the Episcopal Diocese of Washington will be featuring in May.

Like many of you, I’ve read the studies that document the decline in church attendance among young adults. And while I am aware of the anxiety this can often create, I am uncertain as to how helpful anxiety is at resolving a problem. Almost every Sunday, I visit a different parish within our Diocese. Most of the time, I meet at least one or two young people who have found their way into the Episcopal tradition. Each time, I make it a point to talk with them about what brought them to their church. Whenever I listen to their stories a sense of hope rises up within me.

This article begins a series of articles dubbed, “Ministry Among Millennials.” In the series, myself and others will attempt to bring hope to this subject and task, diminish some of the anxiety you may be experiencing, and offer some practical input to assist you in your ministry to this generation coming of age.

In his book, You Lost Me, David Kinnaman writes that there is a “43 percent drop-off between the teen and early adult years in terms of church engagement.” The Pew Research Center reported that more than 25 percent of millennials were unaffiliated with a faith community. This is enough to concern any rector or vestry member. But it isn’t a complete picture of what is happening amongst emerging adults. The National Study of Youth & Religion tracked the religious transitions of young people over a five-year period. Sociologist Christian Smith wrote in his book Souls in Transition that the study found mainline Protestants were “… relatively good at attracting new emerging adults who grew up in other religious traditions–good enough, in fact, to hold their own over these five years in terms of overall ‘market share.’”

Referring to anyone as a “market share” makes my skin crawl a bit. But you get his point–enough emerging adults are finding their way into the Episcopal Church to abate what would otherwise be a steeper decline. So, what are we doing right? In order to answer, I thought we should ask some of those I’ve met in our Diocese.

I met Dongbo Wang, a young scientist, a few months ago. He is a member of Church of the Redeemer in Bethesda, MD. Dongbo did not grow up Episcopalian. But he clearly remembers the first time he walked into an Episcopal parish while in graduate school. “When I walked through those doors, I thought to myself, this is what church is supposed to feel like,” he told me during our conversation. “It was something I couldn’t analyze as a scientist. It was something that felt right–I felt connected. The year before I had visited more than 20 churches and never felt that.”

Like Dongbo, Tiffany Koebel is a young adult who did not grow up Episcopalian. Today, she is a member of All Saints in Chevy Chase, MD. For Tiffany, the Episcopal Church provided a consistent, reliable religious culture that countered what Tiffany referred to as, “a culture constantly fixated on the ‘next big thing.’” She discovered more of a depth of theology in the liturgy during one worship service at All Saints than she had experienced in years attending churches of other traditions. “I was struck by the richness of the liturgy,” she shares, “and the central role of Scripture in the service.”

Recently, I met with a group of young adults for dinner. Over pizza we discussed political issues of the day. Eventually, I asked, “Do your views on such issues relate to your spiritual life?” Each of them saw a complete correlation between their political and spiritual convictions.

Emerging adults often find in the Episcopal Church a respite from a stage of life that is transient, instable, and distracted. I might summarize their appreciation in one attribute: Integrated. There is something genuinely holistic in Episcopal worship that young people often find attractive. Yet, too often that integration stops with our worship. What young people desire is to continually discover how Sunday morning affects their everyday life.  Whether or not they are conscious of it, they are searching for an over-arching narrative to sew together the dislocated aspects of postmodern life.

Like most things in life, it is often the aesthetics, the veneer that initially attract us.  What commits us to something is determined by how integrated that affection becomes. I’m a devoted customer of Apple because the company’s products have become a part of how I live. In a similar way, young people need our guidance in discovering how the ancient ways of worship shape–even transform–our lives.

— Jason Evans is the Diocesan Young Adult Missioner with the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. Share your thoughts and comments on Facebook.