Officials at St. James Catholic Church in Arlington Heights say that, like many other religious organizations, it has been battling a diminishing membership.
"It's the same issue we all encountered," said Pastor Matt Foley, who leads one of the largest churches in the village.
St. James, at 820 N. Arlington Heights Road saw a slow decline in membership over the last 20 years, but that trend appears to have hit a plateau, Foley said. Currently, about 2,500 people attend its six Sunday masses.
And in light of aging demographics, pastors and rabbis across the region have been ramping up efforts to attract young families to the folds of their respective communities.
There doesn't appear to be a one-size-fits-all solution and approaches vary from full-blown marketing campaigns to strategic planning straight from the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Their efforts seek to turn the tide against a national trend that shows an increasing number of people disengaged from organized religion.
"We're trying to give our community a little bit of a face-lift and send the message that this is a fresh and vibrant place to be," said Rabbi Annie Tucker, who leads the Beth Hillel Congregation Bnai Emunah, a Conservative synagogue in Wilmette.
When Tucker, 36, replaced the retired Rabbi Allan Kensky almost two months ago — as Beth Hillel's first female rabbi — it was hoped she would bring a new youthful energy to help draw young families.
Tucker has wasted no time. Beth Hillel recently launched a "colorful and contemporary" marketing campaign, manifest in mailers and online communications, and is overhauling its website too.
"It is an investment of time, sweat equity and some money," Tucker said. "But we feel in this digital age that it's a good investment."
Tucker also started new programs, like a scavenger hunt at the Old Orchard Mall aimed at families, in addition to maintaining popular programming, such as Shabbat at the Beach. And she's worked hard early in her tenure to build relationships with young families, both prospective and new members.
In the past few weeks, Beth Hillel has gained about eight new members and has 10 more "in the pipeline," Tucker said, adding to its membership of more than 550 families.
After recent success with a program for mothers and their newborn babies, St. James Parish this year started a new Sunday school program for pre-schoolers.
"Newborn babies, pre-school – all the way up the food chain," Foley said of the expanded programming. "We're trying to get more action for the children. Usually if the children are active, the parents follow."
About one-fifth of the American public, or 46 million people, are unaffiliated with religion — a number that has steadily risen over the years, according to a 2012 report from the Pew Research Center Religion and Public Life Project.
More than one-third of adults under age 30 said they had no religious affiliation, the report said.
But it's an oversimplification to say Americans are losing their religion, said the Rev. Steve Grunow, a priest who works as CEO of Word on Fire, a Skokie-based Catholic evangelical nonprofit group.
"I don't think that's the case," Grunow said. "What you see is a disassociation from particular religious traditions."
Some of that can be explained by the cycles of life, Grunow said. People who grow up in the religion of their parents may drift away as they get older, only to return years later with families of their own.
But there are also other demographics to consider, Grunow said. While there is undoubtedly a graying of the religious population in the Western hemisphere, compounded by a decline in the birth rate, he said, there's also significant growth among Catholic membership in Latin America and in Asia.