Faith in Our Town: Millennials

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WUSA 9 is in the middle of an interesting series – called Faith in Our Town. We examine different religions, stereotypes, trends, statistics, issues surrounding religion, the people who attend church and those who preach about it. I was honored to be able to tell the stories of two groups of people in the DC area, the Archdiocese of Washington’s Theology on Tap program and Vine Church in Dunn Loring.

The first part of my piece involves millennials and how they worship. Are they leaving the church? How do they worship? What drives millennials to religion, and what pushes them away?

The life blood of any religious institution is the people. Spiritual leaders across the country know they need to bring in young people especially, in order to survive.

Millennials, people between the ages of 18 and 33, are one of the most coveted groups in any industry. TV shows want them, political parties recruit them and yes, religious institutions. But getting young people to a brick-and-mortar church, that can take some out-of-the-box thinking.

When Amy Maxwell moved to Northern Virginia, her first task was finding a place to live. After that, it was finding a place to worship. “I looked at the building and I looked at the steeple and I thought, that can’t be for me,” Amy remembers as she was searching for a church to call home.

Amy’s concerns are typical among many millennials, they want more than just a building.

“Many people I’ve talked to they’re interested in faith, in Jesus and to some degree they’re interested in Christianity but they’re not interested in church,” says Pastor Todd Schlechty, with Vine Church in Dunn Loring, Virginia. “They have no interest in going to church on Sunday morning and they have no interest belonging to a church.”

According to a Pew Research Center study, millennials are generally becoming less religious. Forty-one percent believe religion is important, but only 27% attend a weekly religious service.
The question is, why?

Pastor Schlechty says he always hears the same three answers: “They think church is irrelevant to their life, they think church is hypocritical, that we are just judgmental of everyone else but we do the same thing everybody else does, or that the church is only interested in their money.”

Which is why this age group is looking for more than just the standard church experience.

“I don’t think it’s so much that young people don’t care, they want to connect,” Amy. “They want to go somewhere and have a relationship with the people there.”

That sentiment is echoed in a Pew Research study about millennials being more spiritual vs. religious. Forty-six percent say they feel a deep sense of wonder about the world. Fifty-five percent say they think about the meaning and purpose of life on a weekly basis.

Across the river at the Archdiocese of Washington, they’re reaching millennials in a different way: at the bar.

“I think it’s the idea that we meet people where they are,” says Jonathan Lewis, the Director of Young Adult Ministry and Evangelization Initiatives at the Archdiocese of Washington. In Washington, D.C., that often means at a bar. “Happy hours are a natural spot. Being able to invite a friend to a bar is a great first step. That, ultimately for us, at the heart of our faith is a relationship with Jesus.”

Here, booze and Jesus go together, as part of a series called “Theology on TAP.” The topics include faith, marriage, finance and even zombies? Yes, zombies. “The zombies strive for brains as Christians strive for Jesus,” remembers Rita Marie Reardon with Saint Peters in Olney, Maryland. “It was out there,” she says.

“People are always in a different place in their faith journey and so it’s really easy especially with Theology on Tap to be like, hey do you want to go to a bar with me? There’s going to be a talk.’ People are more open to that than, ‘hey do you want to go to mass?'” says Rita Marie.

The series aims to break down the barriers of going to church, which to some, can be intimidating. The meeting-in-the-middle point is at a bar.

“Coming to catholic church, that could be very intimidating,” recognizes Jonathan Christ with Immaculate Conception. “But this is actually a very low-barrier way for people to maybe make their way back into the church. It’s a pretty low-risk, low-intensity environment.”

The bar is still open to outsiders during the program, which can sometimes lead to unintentional, but welcome guests. “Definitely, there’s been a few times too when people have poked their heads in and been like, what’s going on in here? What’s happening? Why are all these people so happy to be here?” says Bevin Kennedy, with Saint Thomas the Apostle in Woodley Park. “Sometimes they stay, sometimes they don’t.”

For millennials who are already involved with the church, Theology on Tap is a way to bring friends, without the feeling of pushing their religion.

“I mean I don’t want to scare you right off the bat, like ‘how’s your prayer life, do you believe in God?'” says Caitlin Dorman with Saint Joseph’s on Capitol Hill, who attends Theology on Tap. “There will be people who join who didn’t know what they were coming into that will stay or go.”

Since Pope Francis’ visit to Washington, Jonathan says their mission is now even clearer. “We are in a period of our church where we can’t stay inside the church, and so Pope Francis is sort of calling us in a unique way to go out to accompany people on their road to faith,” says Lewis.

Theology on Tap is open to everyone, regardless of religious affiliation. It happens in three 4-week series a year. The sessions are held twice at a bar in Dupont Circle and one at a bar on a rooftop downtown. The series range depending on what’s going on in the world, but the spring series will be on interfaith relationships.

The next series starts February 23rd. For more information on the program, click here.


My colleagues, Debra Alfarone, Bruce Johnson and Garrett Haake also contributed to this series. To see more pieces, click HERE. 

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