How religious leaders reach out to Nones
It’s a Sunday afternoon in Fort Worth, Texas, and a herd of youngsters are wandering around a bar chilling out a few beers, rocking to live music, and mingling.
And then, they recite the Our Father.
It is quite different from the traditional services, which have taken so many people away from the church in recent years. There is no confession, no fire and brimstone, and no one wears their Sunday bathing suit.
“It’s laid back and non-threatening,” said Reverend Kristin Klade, 33-year-old pastor of Kyrie Pub Church. The Lutheran congregation has met weekly at various bars for the past 12 years, most recently at Shaw’s Patio Bar & Grill.
The out of the box style aims to engage a generation that doesn’t adhere to the same religious conventions as their parents, many of whom spent their weekend mornings on wooden benches.
âWe love the idea that a person walking down Magnolia Avenue can hear the music and walk into our service. Even the bar owner and some bartenders are listening and taking Communion,â Klade said.
As a growing number of Americans are leaving organized religion, the clergy are trying an assortment of tips and tactics to attract them again, even mixing alcohol and the Bible.
Nones – the demographic language for those who describe their religious identification as “nothing” or “none” – are among the fastest growing elements in the American religious firmament. Nearly one in four people identified themselves as no (pronounced “Nones”) in a landmark study released this summer by the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute.
This matches the results of many other opinion polls over the years, including a Gallup poll in March which found less than half of American adults belonged to a place of worship, up from 70% in 1999.
Leaders of all regions and faiths are looking for a counter-strategy. In many ways, the future of American religion, in the midst of a secular culture that tends to marginalize worship, depends on their success.
Studies show that the greatest erosion has occurred among the younger generations, so the clergy increasingly seek to connect with potential parishioners through unconventional means.
They offer a more relaxed, more inclusive and less doctrinaire worship. They seek to meet the most mundane needs of subscribers, offering job fairs, happy hours, and volunteer opportunities designed to engage in new ways.
Experts say that many young people who leave organized worship are not necessarily anti-religious; they are always looking for spirituality. But they find traditional churches, mosques and temples stuffy and unwelcoming. They want environments that seem more relevant to their lives.
âPastors need to think about the social aspect of religion as well as the theological aspect,â said Ryan Burge, a Baptist pastor who is also a professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University. âThey should invite the community to just come out and enjoy the camaraderie with the people without worrying about being religious. They can organize barbecues and potlucks. Over time, people will begin to realize that ‘they want to be part of a community like this. ”
All over America the clergy are listening. They settle in cafes, bars and parks, by going online or offering prayers in person with a nightclub vibe.
Young people today want to “choose what is important to them, cafeteria style,” said Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Woodland Hills, Calif.
âWe are looking for new ways for people to connect in a Jewish way,â said Vogel, who heads the Rabbinical Assembly, an international association of conservative rabbis. The aim is to reach those “who are otherwise disconnected from Jewish institutions but who seek a sense of purpose and belonging.”
A “pub church” in Fort Worth that brings church services to the bar
One of those new ways is an app, OneTable, which connects Jewish hosts and guests who want to share the traditional Friday night Shabbat dinner – it’s like Airbnb with a side of challah and potato. kugel. So far, the service has hosted more than half a million dinners and makes the Sabbath more accessible to Jews looking for a tradition “that feels authentic,” said Eva Laporte, director of marketing and communications by OneTable.
Muslim leaders are also stepping up awareness: in New York, the Long Island Islamic Center holds painting parties and basketball tournaments; in Teaneck, New Jersey, the local mosque offers taekwondo; the Islamic Center of Maine sponsors programs in schools, colleges and hospitals.
With polls showing Nones leaning politically to the left, some are seeking to rekindle faith by taking more vocal stances on political and worldly issues.
âWe need to reach the Nones wherever they are – with a focus on social justice and the climate,â said Rabbi Joshua Hammerman of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Connecticut. It focuses “not only on prayer, but on the prayer that leads to reparation – of the world and of the soul.”
His conservative temple has entered into a dialogue with a local African-American church following the murder of George Floyd last year. The two congregations have organized several programs exploring the roots of racism.
Reverend Robert Stagg, pastor of The Presentation Church, a Catholic congregation in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, says his church regularly brings in unaffiliated people. He organized a huge âinclusion massâ for LGBTQ parishioners and their families.
âWe were overwhelmed by the number of people who showed up – probably around 500,â he said. “The feeling in the room was electric. People felt comfortable being a part of the church community.”
The hope is that “this will enable them to come to mass regularly,” he said. “I’ve seen proof of that before.”
Stagg, who has had to preside over dozens of COVID funerals in the past year, said he had seen a thrill with death or family trauma spark change among non-religious people.
âA lot of Nones, once their mother has cancer, once their father loses his job, once they have a fear or threat of death, you would be surprised how they turn around and say ‘de What is it ? “And they look for more meaning in life than a Sunday morning jog in the park.”
His message to them: âWe have a very temporary life, with a beginning, a middle and an end. we all come home to eternal life … i often ask people: is this just the life i can see or is there more?
Other efforts target the more tangible needs of parishioners.
âI have had conversations with my youth to see what their needs are,â said Rev. Preston Thompson Jr. of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Englewood, New Jersey. “I want to know what it’s like to be 20 and over in 2021.”
The church runs programs to help young people in the area find employment and gain financial independence. Thompson said young adults want to see a church involved in the wider community, “fighting for their civil rights, for their right to vote” and “against police brutality.”
Rabbi Yosef Wilhelm and his wife, Devora, held Holy Hour-Happy Hour at their Chabad Center on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to attract millennials to Friday night services. The weekly event includes a moving prayer service with song, followed by a short Torah and Kiddush class, or a blessing on wine.
There are cocktails, appetizers and an open bar.
Since the debut of Holy Hour-Happy Hour in 2010, the Wilhelms have attracted 15,000 newbies to their center. Many have returned for other religious events, said Rabbi Wilhelm, who co-leads the Chabad Young Professionals program with his wife.
Roberta Rosenthal Kwall, professor of law at DePaul University and author of “Remix Judaism: Preserving Tradition in a Diverse World,” says “gadgets” like bar worship are not a lasting answer to filling the benches.
Rather, religious leaders should focus on celebrating their traditions “with consistency and emphasizing the joys of observance rather than the prohibitions,” she said. “They have to show them that religion can provide a path and a direction in life that people find meaningful.”
Yet the concept of “bar blessings” is gaining momentum at Kyrie Pub Church, whose congregation has grown in recent years.
One Sunday in mid-July, Klade offered his homily. âReciting prayers is not what faith is – faith is something to be experienced here and now,â she said.
Then, the faithful lined up in front of the makeshift altar in the center of an outdoor patio and took Communion.
Worshipers, who appeared to come from all walks of life, groomed cocktails and beers throughout the hour of service. No collection plaque was distributed – donations are a drag on young people, the church found – but advice for the musician was encouraged.
âWe don’t have a lot of rules and the pressure is low,â Klade said. “People who have been hurt by the church or who have received a scary version of the church come here and feel accepted.”
She hopes to âchallenge assumptions about what the church is. We need to reach out to people who say ‘this is not for me’, âshe said.
“We have to get the church out of the church walls if we ever want to reach people outside the church.”
Deena Yellin covers religion for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his work covering how the spiritual intersects with our daily lives, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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