By Monte Sahlin
Two key agenda items dominated the discussions and planning that I participated in this week: (1) publishing the findings from case studies from among the very few congregations that are successfully engaging young adults these days, and (2) preparing for a major survey in 2015 which will gather more information. All faiths in America are concerned about the Millennial generation and if it will sustain our grass roots religious organizations.
The group I met with this week is the steering committee of the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership (CCSP). This is the interfaith group of scholars that coordinates the Faith Communities Today (FACT) series of survey projects which is the largest research enterprise in America that focuses on local religious groups. I serve as executive secretary of CCSP.
The last two years we have focused on the 16 percent of congregations in America (among all religions) where 21 percent or more of the congregation is 18 to 34 years of age. Only 16 percent (one in six) of congregations have a significant number of young adults who attend, which means that five out of six do not. Some have no one at all under 50 years of age. Religion is "aging out" in many places in this country.
We have gathered a dozen case studies where a researcher takes a careful, close-up look at one of these congregations. Together with the general survey data that identified and profiled the 16 percent, a review of the previous research on this topic and a summary of what leaders of congregations can export from these case studies and use in their own group, these dozen case studies will be published in both eBook and paperback formats as soon as I can make the arrangements with a publishing organization.
The FACT 2015 survey will include a panel of new questions designed to dig deeper into this topic. We talked about what questions to ask and if you have some questions you would like to see included, please let me know in the next few weeks. The questionnaire will be finalized by early summer.
You can see most of the papers here. One or two will be added in the near future and some more editing done before they are pulbished.
As the discussions went on and I had some time to meditate on them, it became clear to me that the real question is not if but how; not if the new generation of young adults will sustain religious congregations, but how they will change the nature of religious life in such gatherings/groups. Despite the growing numbers of young adults who say that they do not identify with any organized religion, they express considerable interest in spirituality.
Jesus Christ once observed that new wine splits holes in old wineskins, that to avoid spilling the new wine on the ground and losing it, one must provide new wineskins. My hunch is that this is the precise thing that is happening in our time.
The next event where I will have opportunity to address this topic is on February 15 at Loma Linda University. At 3 p.m. that day a panel of young adults will share their faith journeys in an event cosponsred by the Adventist Today Foundation and the School of Religion at Loma Linda University.