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Religious institutions have long struggled to attract young adults to active religious practice. It's even more difficult today as young adults spend more time experimenting with careers, cities, and even life partners before they settle down and return to regular religious practice. The lack of young adults in America's houses of worship is even more noticeable these days because the number of people in this age group has declined, as tiny Gen X moves through this life stage. To combat the drop, religious leaders have ramped up their marketing efforts, and are tailoring religious practice to meet the needs of today's thirtysomethings. Welcome to the next phase of marketing faith.


“Want to feed your soul?� implores a subway ad for Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. “We've got a great menu.� Indeed, as the ad proceeds to detail, Marble has something on its plate for almost every type of hungering spiritual consumer. There are ministries for senior citizens; young singles; older singles; gays and lesbians; entrepreneurs; artists, actors, and writers; men; women; children; and people who love singing gospel music, to name a few. Long the pulpit of the late Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, the church is currently at work on yet another program — created specifically for those unlikely to ever darken the door of a church. Called the New Spirit Café, it's a hip kind of spiritual oasis-cum-eatery designed to feed the souls — and stomachs — of those who may be disillusioned by organized religion. “Dr. Peale used to say that the six most important words in the English language are “find a need and meet it,� says Marble Senior Minister Dr. Arthur Caliandro. “That's what we've tried to do. And, as our ads suggest, the result has been a wonderful smorgasbord.�

Marble is not alone in its find-a-need-and-meet-it approach. As religious organizations seek to maintain their flocks in this fragmenting world, they're increasingly tailoring their core product — religion itself — to the needs of specific demographic groups. In the face of flat religious attendance, churches and synagogues have long borrowed marketing tools and tactics from companies selling more worldly goods to attract people to their congregations. During the last decade, however, the task has become more urgent. Instead of just convincing people who are not religious to come back to faith, religious institutions now have to scramble just to keep their flock away from the church down the street. Today, Americans treat religion much the same way they treat anything else that requires an investment of time: with a pragmatic, consumer mentality. “We don't join churches just because we've always been members, or because our parents have always been members,� says Donald A. Luidens, professor at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. “We look for places that are going to serve our needs and interests.�

The group that religious institutions are especially eager to attract is young adults in their so-called “pre-household-formation years.� It is in this spiritual life stage — the years between leaving the nest and building one's own — that adults are the most likely to experiment with religion, and the least likely to commit to one church or synagogue. In fact, according to the Gallup Organization, just one-third of 18- to 29-year-olds say they've attended a religious service in the last week, the smallest share of any age group. “Kids are pretty religious, teens are incurably religious, but then when young people head off to college, the practice levels definitely fall off,� says George Gallup, Jr.

A key reason for the drop-off: The time between leaving the nest and starting a family has lengthened. Since 1960, the median age of first marriage has increased by four years for men, to 27, and by five years for women, to 25. And as marriage gets pushed into later life, so does childbearing. In 1960, 80 percent of women aged 25 to 29 had a child at home. By 1998, just 57 percent had a child at home. Because today's young adults take longer to establish their own stable households than young adults of decades past, they are also taking longer to return to active religious practice.

This is true across faith groups, and likely true across ethnic groups. When Dean Hoge, professor of sociology at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., surveyed a nationally representative sample of Presbyterians aged 33 to 42, he found that a whopping 75 percent had dropped out of church between the ages of 16 and 22. About half returned, by an average age of 37. He found a similar trend in a separate study of Catholics, 59 percent of whom became inactive at some point since their confirmation. He also conducted a separate study of Latino Catholics and found that 62 percent had dropped out of active religion at some point in their teens. There's a similar pattern for Jews, says Sherry Israel, associate professor of religion at the Hornstein Program in Jewish Communal Service at Brandeis University. “People go in and out of their Jewish connection, and their connection to Jewish institutions, in particular during their post-college, pre-family years, where there's so much mobility,� she says.

But while churches and synagogues are accustomed to young adults drifting away from religion as they sort out their adult lives, the problem looks worse today because of demographics: There are fewer young adults overall than during the days of the Baby Boom. In fact, between 1997 and 2000, the number of adults aged 25 to 34 declined by 6 percent. Combine this with the fact that it's taking longer for today's young adults to settle down, buy a house, and have children, and it's easy to see why religious leaders are eager to recapture as many young adults as they can, as soon as possible. The task for today's religious institutions is to establish their “brands� with this group, so that when they're ready to stop drifting, they'll park their time and dollars in their church or synagogue. This means investing in young adults without the hope of immediate reward. “Young adults are consumers of religion,� Hope College's Luidens says. “They are much more ready to go to another church, wherever their jobs may take them, or the wind may take them. Most are relatively early in careers, and have little to give to the church, but a whole lot of expectations of what the church should give to them.�

As a result, religious institutions are making adjustments — large and small — to attract the younger generation. Father Benjamin Fiore, head of religious studies at Canisius College in upstate New York, for example, recently changed the time of Sunday Mass from the morning to the evening, and found that attendance more than doubled. Iron Hill Community Church in Newark, Delaware, tries to attract young adults by promising that they can wear jeans to church. “God doesn't require suits and ties, so why should we?� the church's direct-mail piece reads.

By the same token, many churches and synagogues are using entertainment as a lure. At Makor, a New York City religious center charged with helping young Jewish adults reconnect with their faith, Rabbi David Gedzelman, creative director, conducted 20 focus groups with his “target market.� He realized that a religious service wouldn't be enough to lure a young urban Jew away from the bars, theater, and restaurants that Manhattan has to offer.

So he decided not to compete. At least not with a traditional religious service. At Makor, you'll hear a religious message. But it goes down easy with the help of a glass of good wine, a gourmet dinner, and top-rate entertainment, ranging from comedians to musicians to live bands. Don't trust the good Rabbi's taste in music? To borrow a little cool for Makor, Gedzelman partnered with one of Manhattan's premier hip jazz clubs, the Knitting Factory.

In the same spirit, Hillcrest Church, an evangelical institution in North Dallas, Texas, has invested in building an 8,000-square-foot performing-arts center, which features everything from ballet to opera to gospel music. Morris Sheats, founder and senior pastor, calls the fine-arts programs “bridge events� that introduce young adults to the church in a more secular context. The church, which is interdenominational, with 14 pastors of diverse religious and racial backgrounds ranging from the liberal to the conservative, offers 300 special-interest groups, including a gourmet dining club. “If you're marketing a product, you have to start listening to where people are,� says Sheats. “The message must be relevant to how we're living today — and how people want to live on Monday.�

To that end, many churches have begun to discard the notion of church as a once-a-week phenomenon. Marble's New Spirit Café, to be located in New York's “Silicon Alley,� home to many dot-coms and casting agents, will offer its fare of hot food, snacks, and seminars six days a week. The café, which will function as its own nonprofit community charity, was purposely located several blocks from the sanctuary to attract spiritually minded people in their 20s and 30s who may be wary of conventional religious organizations. “These are young people who probably will never come to a church building but are open to coming to a place where they can explore the possibilities of faith in an open, accepting, nonjudgmental atmosphere,� says New Spirit Café executive director Dr. Florence Pert. “We won't be doing all the talking. This will be a ministry of listening.� Providing this level of religious variety combined with secular activity is exactly what churches and synagogues should do to capture the attention of today's young adults, says Michael McKenzie, professor at Keuka College in Keuka, New York, and a church growth consultant.

To get the message out, many churches have anointed Madison Avenue advertising agencies as their missionaries. The result has been slick marketing campaigns with hip, youth-oriented messages. One ad in Marble Collegiate's campaign, created by John Follis of Follis Advertising in New York, urges potential parishioners to “Make a friend in a very high place.� Exhorts another: “Not crazy about church? You're perfect for ours.� The ads go on to invite readers to the organization's Web site.

How well are the new approaches working? Hillcrest's congregation is 5,000 members strong and has grown by 25 percent over the last five years, says Senior Pastor Sheats, with much of the growth coming from the young-adult segment. Marble Collegiate's Web site traffic has increased by 30 percent since its ad campaign launched, and the church has had its highest attendance in more than 30 years. At Makor, since the center opened in October of 1999, 22,000 young adults have been to the center and signed up for Makor's mailing list.

Given these kinds of successes, are organizations like Hillcrest, Marble, and Makor the future of religion? Perhaps not everywhere. Considering that religion has always taken its program direction from a higher source, this new market mentality “drives institutionalists absolutely nuts,� says Luidens. “If you're in the business of promoting a religious institution, you're pulling your hair out right now.� The mass customization of religion will likely happen largely in places with rapid population growth, says consultant McKenzie. While young adults who live in the nation's major metro areas and in the fast-growing West and Southeast will be affected by the trend, religious institutions in rural areas where population is flat or on the decline will behave much like they have in the past. “People who live in growing areas will be able to have this experience, while those who don't will not,� says McKenzie.

But in the nation's major population centers and growth areas, the shape of religious practice will continue to change, as religious institutions target their offerings to the interests of young adults. And religious leaders will turn to sophisticated market research tools to divine how they should shape their programming, says Jerry Scheider, a demographer at DeskMap Systems, Inc., in Austin, Texas, and author of Churches and Change: How to Use Demographics and Mapping to Revitalize Your Ministry and Evaluate Locations (Paramount, 2002). The good news for places like Hillcrest, Makor, and Marble is that the next generation of the faithful are not likely to abandon religious practice if it is tailored to their needs. “Young adults want to come together in a live setting. In churches, and in community, that's where the power is really felt, and that's what young people are looking for,� says George Gallup, Jr. Will that live religious experience resemble anything close to what their parents would recognize? Only heaven knows.

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