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Anna G. Larson, Published December 22 2012

Faith in Focus: As church populations decline, pastor strives to reach younger generation

Today is the final installment of a four-part series titled “Faith in Focus,” featured in The Forum every Sunday this month.

Today’s package looks at what churches are doing to reach out to youth.

FARGO - Cody Schuler likes indie folk rockers Mumford & Sons, and he’s an NPR junkie. He’ll have a beer at a bar with friends, and he looks like he could blend in on any college campus.

Schuler is also a pastor at First United Methodist Church with a very specific mission to connect young adults with church.

As the church-going population ages and declines, young people might be the key to thriving congregations.

Thirty-two percent of adults younger than 30 are religiously unaffiliated, compared with 21 percent of people ages 30 to 49, 15 percent of people ages 50 to 64 and 9 percent of those 65 and older, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.

But churches, in general, aren’t connecting with young people, Schuler said.

Many people he meets say they are spiritual instead of religious and that’s why they don’t go to church. Some share that they were hurt by the church or asked to leave. Schuler said he, too, has felt unwelcome before and even considered quitting his role as a pastor.

“There’s a real disconnect going on,” Schuler said. “It’s clear that the way we do ministry doesn’t connect with young people.”

Schuler is working to reach young adults by connecting with people at coffee shops, bars and social events. He usually makes small talk with people and gets to know their story. If religion comes up, Schuler might pass on his business card and invite them to join him and friends for discussion. If religion doesn’t come up in conversation, that’s fine too, he said.

“It’s about rethinking the E-word,” he said. “I think evangelism turns people off. Your faith life isn’t contained in one hour on Sundays. It’s a way of life that you can live with other people.”

The people who the church is trying to reach usually fall into three general categories, Schuler said. The first category of young people have never been exposed to church; the second have some degree of connection with religion but don’t attend church; the third group grew up in the church and left.

“It’s almost like a subculture,” Schuler said.

The new ministry approach that Schuler is trying to create at First United will be lay-driven rather than clergy-driven, and could be in small groups or in peoples’ homes, Schuler said.

While the new approach doesn’t have a name yet, Schuler said, a website and name will be announced in the New Year once there’s a core group of young adults.

Other local churches are also trying new ways to attract young parishioners.

Trinity Lutheran Church in Fargo launched a young-adult outreach program in early 2012, and the group is still going strong.

The group, called The Side Door, gathers at 5:30 p.m. every Sunday for non-formal worship.

Lefse and Indian flatbread sometimes replace communion wafers. Attendees range in age from 18 to 39, and not all are Christian. There are atheists and people of other religions who regularly attend. Ministers don’t wear collars. Anyone is welcome, and people are encouraged to be themselves and ask questions.

“What we’re doing at The Side Door is very authentic, it’s worship but not churchy,” said Elise Tweten, 22, the co-coordinator for The Side Door. “We recognize that the 20 and 30-somethings aren’t going to church.”

Tweten started at The Side Door as an attendee and became a co-coordinator this fall. Young people are attracted to The Side Door because of its openness, Tweten said. Questions are encouraged, although the group might not find all the answers, she said.

“A lot of people lose their faith because they feel lied to, they witness hatred and prejudice, or they aren’t allowed to question anything,” she said. “It’s attractive to have all the answers for people, but it’s not real. That’s where most churches are missing out.”

Schuler, too, noticed that young adults have a lot of questions about religion.

“I want people to ask questions,” he said. “It reminds me of the quote ‘Faith is in the questions.’ ”

The goal of youth outreach groups isn’t to increase attendance numbers, Schuler said. The goal is to reach out beyond the church’s walls.

“We’re going to do church in a new way that reflects the people who are drawn to the new ministry,” he said. “It will be rooted in the DNA of the church we are already part of.”

Letting people know that it’s OK to be human is important, Tweten said.

“You can’t tie everything up in a nice little bow. Life’s messy,” she said. “Jesus’ ministry was not about perfection and having all the answers.”

Appealing to an alternative crowd

FARGO – Recovery Worship, a weekly gathering at First United Church’s south Fargo site, is another faith-based group that attracts a sizable young population.

Recovery Worship provides spiritual growth for people who are in recovery from addiction. About half of Sunday worshippers are ages 18 to 30, Branstiter estimates.

“We don’t target young people; they just happen to be the people who come here a lot during treatment,” said the Rev. Ray Branstiter, known to attendees as Pastor Ray.

The service is casual, with smoke breaks and a “come as you are” dress code. Attendees share stories, and Branstiter describes the environment as welcoming and non-judgmental.

“People shake your hand the minute you walk in the door,” he said.

Young adults, and other people, find solace at Recovery Worship because they’re not judged, Branstiter said. The service attracts people from smaller surrounding communities, and some people continue to worship at the church after they’ve completed their recovery program, he said.

“I had someone tell me that he can’t go to church in his hometown because everyone still calls him the town drunk. That’s what he’ll always be to them,” he said. “We’re not perfect, and we’re all broken. But, we are honest. I’m firmly convinced that if we weren’t here, 90 percent of these people would not be in church.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525