The changing church: Congregations reach out to stay relevant with a younger generation

On a cloudy fall Sunday at Wilde Lake Interfaith Center, congregants gathered in the sanctuary for morning mass at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church.

The service began with a video of two teenage girls playing on a big screen above the pulpit. They joked and informed the congregation of upcoming events.


Toward the end of the service, a special offering was collected for EDGE, LifeTeen and Hispanic Youth Ministry, programs geared toward middle and high school students and young people of Hispanic heritage.

During a time when fewer young people are regularly attending church, St. John the Evangelist is among the churches that have introduced special ministries and programs to engage a younger generation and a new wave of immigrants.


“The church makes us feel like we are not alone and they help us through our spiritual belief and our faith,” said Dayana Calderón, 16, of Columbia, who arrived in the United States from El Salvador 14 years ago and has been attending St. John the Evangelist for the past four years and is part of the Hispanic Youth Ministry. “We would not have known what to do if the church had not helped us.”

Research shows what churches are facing as they try to stay relevant: Thirty-six percent of Americans said they attend religious services at least once a week, down from 39 percent in 2007, according to the 2014 Religious Landscape Study. The decline is attributed to the increase in those who do not identify with a specific religion, primarily millennials, or those born between 1981 and 1996. Among millennials, 27 percent said attend religious services each week.

St. John's Catholic Church in Columbia is celebrating its 50th anniversary and its Spanish congregation is celebrating its 40th anniversary on Sept. 9.

The Rev. Paige Getty, 47, senior minister at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, a congregation of about 300 families housed at Owen Brown Interfaith Center, said when it comes to the decline of young people attending the church, she tries not to worry.

“We can see it across a lot of religious demographics,” she said. “Young people in their 20s are typically invested in other ways in that part of their lives.” It is a problem, she said, when young people who grew up in religious communities choose not to attend when they get older.


Community service

St. John the Evangelist has made it its mission to provide youth and young adults opportunities to practice their faith by serving the community.

“We have a project for young adults called the Appalachian Project,” said the Rev. Leandro Fazolini, 34, associate pastor of the 6,000 household congregation. “Every summer they go to Appalachia and build and repair houses for people that are poor and need assistance.”

Appalachian Service Project, according to stjohnscolumbiamd.org, is an interfaith project that allows the young people of St. John the Evangelist to serve alongside the young people of St. John United Church -- the other church housed at Wilde Lake Interfaith Center, one of three in Columbia designed by developer James Rouse who used his faith as a motivation to plan a city, according to biographer Joshua Olsen.

“Young people are committed to social justice,” said the Rev. Ferdinand Ezenwachi, 48, associate pastor at St. John the Evangelist. “Reaching out to people who are in need is something that they want and like.”

Similar to Wilde Lake Interfaith Center, Oakland Mills Interfaith Center provides opportunities for young people to serve the community.

Columbia Jewish Congregation, one of the five congregations housed at the Oakland Mills center engages young people through BBYO, a program geared toward ninth- through twelfth-graders. The program, according to dev.columbiajewish.org, strives to promote social justice by helping the needy.

“[We] provide social outreach, benevolent acts of loving kindness and social action work,” said Sonya Starr, 55, rabbi of the 250 household congregation. “We have done a lot of work around microaggression and immigration issues.”

BBYO, according to bbyo.org, provides young people the opportunity to serve domestically in Alaska, Chicago and Washington, D.C., and in Argentina, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic.

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia similarly tries to engage young people through social action and social justice opportunities.

“[UUCC] hosts Grassroots Cold Weather Shelter, prepares meals and other volunteer jobs,” Getty said. “Rise Against Hunger packs meals to get shipped to those in other countries who are hungry and [our] food insecurity ministry packs bags of food for students who are hungry.”

Additionally, said Getty, the church provides bag lunches to those who are homeless in Baltimore City and offers its facilities to the Howard County Chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), an organization supporting family and friends in the LGBTQ community.

Howard County residents gathered at Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia on Monday evening for a vigil to remember those lost in the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh.

Millennials are the most “politically progressive” generation and have a strong desire to “change the world,” for the better, according to “Their Highest Vocation: Social Justice and the Millennial Generation” by Helen Fox. Despite their desire to make a difference, when it comes to social justice, millennials rarely take to the streets, but instead, use social media as a tool to challenge societal norms.

“Social identities that had seemed strange or divisive to many in previous generations: race, gender, sexual orientation, culture, seem, to the millennials, to be ‘normal’ or ‘no big deal,’” said Fox, former professor of Social Theory and Practice, Peace and Social Justice at the University of Michigan, in an email. “In theory at least, they have been more comfortable around ‘difference’ than older generations. In addition, they are said to be the first generation to think of themselves as global. The internet and social media have brought the world much closer to them than it had to previous generations.”

Harnessing social media

Eighty-eight percent of 18 to 29 year-olds indicated that they use any form of social media, according to Pew Research Center, Social Media Use in 2018. Although, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter are more widely used among adults of this age group, Facebook and YouTube are the most used among all adults.

St. John the Evangelist has also engaged youth and young adults through the internet, video announcements and social media. EDGE and LifeTeen each have a page on the website where young people can find links to the Facebook page and Youth Ministry e-Newsletter. Additionally, the church provides a streaming service where the mass can be viewed from a mobile device.

“We are trying to use social media to make ourselves present to young adults who go to church and young adults who do not go to church,” said Paul Gifford, 72, deacon at St. John the Evangelist.

EDGE and LifeTeen, according to lifeteen.com, are "parish-based" curricula used in 31 countries by the Catholic Church. The programs engage young people through their Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube accounts and offer social justice opportunities in Haiti.


“We view [social media] as an electronic doorway into the church,” said Scott Miller, 60, youth pastor at St. John the Evangelist. “If we are going to communicate the message of love to people, we cannot wait for them to come to our doors, we have to reach out to them through their screens.”


Like St. John the Evangelist, Columbia Jewish Congregation has used social media by engaging young people through Facebook and Instagram.

“[We] post on Facebook and boost some of the events depending on what they are,” said Robin Rosenfeld, 53, administrator at Columbia Jewish Congregation. Facebook, she said, is used as a tool to “drum up conversation.”

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, uses Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to engage young people.

“The youngest member of the staff, who is 23 years old manages social media and [determines] what on these public media platforms will attract energy from young people,” said Getty.

The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia held its first services in its new 400-seat sanctuary in the Owen Brown Interfaith Center on Sunday, May 8. The congregation will formally dedicate the new sanctuary on Sunday, May 22.

Millennials, and more recently, Generation Z, or those born between 1996 and 2011, are much more likely to be ethnic or racial minorities, according to Pew Research Center. Fifty years ago, the country was less racially diverse, however, due to the influx of immigrants from Asia and Latin America and the rise of interracial marriage, the country has a much more ethnically and racially diverse generation of young people. In 2017, fewer than 56 percent of millennials were “non-Hispanic,” compared to 84 percent 50 years ago.

Columbia Jewish Congregation has addressed this shift by implementing programs to include those of diverse backgrounds.

“For two years, we have been working to make our community more respectful of people who have come to our country,” said Starr. “We support all of our neighbors regardless of their immigration statuses.”

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, similarly, has shifted to create an inclusive environment.

“[This] is an ongoing challenge that we have enthusiastically embraced, us being an overwhelmingly, but not exclusively white and upper middle class congregation,” Getty said. “We do not reflect the diversity of Columbia, but what we have the most experience doing, is justice and advocacy work around racial justice, dismantling white supremacy and organizing the monthly Black Lives Matter Vigil at the Columbia Mall.”

Over time, St. John the Evangelist too has introduced programs to engage those of diverse backgrounds. In 1977, the church held its first bilingual mass for the Hispanic community, which later expanded into weekly Spanish language masses in the 1980s. Today, the church offers three Spanish language masses and Hispanic Youth Ministry, a program where young people of Hispanic heritage can experience church in their own language.

Hispanic Youth Ministry, said Fazolini, has served as a refuge to young people in the Hispanic community who have not been able to find it elsewhere.

“There is so much hatred because of so many things going on regarding the undocumented,” said Fazolini. “Many young people did not respond [to help] because they did not want to see their families separated. We tried to respond to that by talking to the police so they could get a sense of security in the community. Many of the people were scared their parents would be deported if they called the police. The church itself is a voice for their needs and we get a very good response from that.”

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