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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Spiritual nomads

Exploring the landscape, points of interest of young adults in worship

When we read the Gospels in worship, we typically encounter a Jesus in his early 30s: a young adult, something of a spiritual nomad, moving in and out of places of worship.

Yet for a church so focused on the ministry of this young adult, we're often perplexed by questions about young adults in worship. What are today's young adult spiritual nomads seeking in worship? How do they differ from previous generations? Why aren't more of them in worship?

By pursuing any of these questions, we don't just risk overgeneralizing — we guarantee it. But any map of unfamiliar terrain (whether we're mapping a city or the patterns of North American young adults in worship) leaves out some detail in order to highlight landmarks and keep us from being overwhelmed.

Here are some basic landmarks on the wide terrain of North American young adults and worship, as well as three points of interest:

Low worship attendance

In the U.S. about 18 percent of the millennial generation (born between 1980 and 2000) attends worship weekly or almost every week, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life (Religion Among the Millennials, 2010).

So if you're randomly approaching young adults trying to find some who worship frequently, you're out of luck 82 percent of the time — a weak batting average of .180. By comparison, if you randomly approach Americans over 65, you'll meet weekly attenders around half the time — a batting average of .500.

In general, the trend in America is that adults attend worship more frequently as they age. But the type of church people attend is a better predictor of how often they go to worship than how old they are.

For example, older evangelicals attend worship more often than young adult evangelicals. But even young adult evangelicals attend worship more frequently than any age demographic in mainline Protestantism.

In other words, different churches seem to develop different cultures around the frequency of worship attendance that are more significant than differences related to age.

Members of St. John Lutheran Church,
Members of St. John Lutheran Church, Atlanta, do a step kick liturgical dance around the altar during their Easter Vigil. The specific steps are "step right, left foot step behind, step right, left foot step in front, step right, left kick, right kick" then repeat.
St. John, Atlanta (Druid Hills and Emory University area)
Average worship attendance: 125
Best young adult draw: Blended and creative worship (including contemplative elements); social justice and outreach.
Words that describe your congregation: Accepting, lovers of new experiences, ever-changing (due to creativity and demographics — near Emory University and Candler School of Theology), courageous, embracing the words of Marty Haugen’s hymn “All Are Welcome,” inclusive, innovative, social justice conscious.  
Words that describe your church’s young adults: Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered; professionals; pursuing seminary-related careers; parents; unchurched or other-churched.
Most new members learn about the congregation through: Our reputation for inclusivity, other members, website.
When young adults enter your congregation, where do they get involved? Social justice, worship, outreach.
Gifts young adults bring to your congregation: Energy, open-mindedness.

— Myrna Lance, secretary

'Less religious'

For the past few generations, young adults (more than any other age demographic) have described themselves as "less religious." Today millennials not only describe themselves as less religious but increasingly as not religious.

More than 1 in 4 young adults belongs to the "nones," those who state their religious preference on surveys as "none." These "nones," the fastest growing religious demographic in the U.S., are disproportionately comprised of young adults.

As for those millennials who do report a strong connection with a religious community, sociologists tell us they tend to be healthier, have a more positive self-image, participate more frequently in volunteer service, are more empathetic and achieve highly in academics. They also are less likely to participate in risky sexual behavior, abuse drugs or alcohol, or engage in criminal activity.

The sociologists would tell us: the young adults who are in worship are an interesting and lively group.


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