Refashioning faith traditions

Steven Harbaugh

Churches opt for new ways to recruit youth

Elizabeth Miller and Kristen Negele live in the Luther House beside the Lutheran church on East Main Street.

Credit: Andrew popik

Today’s churches face a challenge to recruit teenagers and young adults. A recent ABC News poll found the largest gap in church attendance is between the oldest and youngest age groups. Sixty percent of people ages 65 and older report attending religious services at least once a week, compared to 28 percent of 18- to 30-year-olds.

Some young people have a transient and often vague interest in spirituality. The struggle for today’s churches is to create a sincere religious conviction grounded in a life of faith. Here are some stories about local religious institutions that may or may not choose to push the limits of tradition to appeal to young people.

Reforming the church through youth

Roger McKinney, a former pastor at First Christian Church of Kent and a regional minister throughout Ohio, said churches have to change to cater to young people, or their futures could be in jeopardy.

“I tell people that the church doesn’t exist for the people that are there. It exists for the people that are not there yet,” McKinney said. “People get very complacent and are just content with church as it is because it meets their own needs. They forget that is a recipe for failure and that if they don’t change to meet the needs of people that are not there, then the church will fail.”

McKinney said many churches throughout Ohio are trying to attract young people through new, innovative ways. More churches are incorporating contemporary Christian music, multimedia presentations and discussion groups that address controversial topics such as sexuality.

Encouraging out-of-the-box thinking is key to McKinney, and he likes to try new ways of worship when he does summer church camps for high school students.

“I try to challenge [high school kids] with deep spirituality, teach them how to pray, teach them Christian meditation, and I teach them how to do yoga in a Christian environment. High school kids respond well to those kinds of things.”

Loren Mead, a religious scholar, wrote about how churches are changing to accommodate young people.

“The church of the future may not include our favorite liturgy or hymn, our central theological principle, or even our denomination,” Mead wrote.

This change can be a heated topic, McKinney said.

“For generations, church-goers have done things one way. Moving away from that is difficult for those in the church now,” McKinney said. “That’s why some denominations are starting new churches as well, ones that appeal to younger people. It’s easier to appeal to youth with a new church sometimes than to expect people in a very traditional congregation to change what they’re comfortable with.”


Holding on to tradition

Dave Williams, a guest minister at Black Horse Baptist Church, which is located in Ravenna five minutes from campus, said forging separate youth ministries at churches is bad for fellowship and not the right direction for churches to take.

“As kids, you have the cliques in schools, and you want to feel accepted in the church,” he said. “In some churches [young people] just don’t feel like they belong.”

Debbie Eckert, a member of the church, said the key to making young people interested in religion isn’t changing the structure of churches. Instead, the key is bringing religion back into schools.

“Nowadays, it’s a battle from home to school,” she said. “They get this conflict from one source to the next.”

Williams has a similar philosophy — he remembers that his parents’ history books used to be their Bibles.

Regardless, small changes are filtering their way into the traditional church.

A digital keyboard beat floats through the small church. Jackie Eckert, Debbie’s 22-year-old daughter-in-law, stands at the microphone and belts out the contemporary Christian song, “The Redeemer,” by Nicole Mullen.

The church recently hired a new music director who has incorporated some contemporary Christian music with the more traditional hymns. Pastor Loren Roberts said he hopes this will increase youth turnout.

“They’re the church of tomorrow,” he said. “And it’s very difficult nowadays because so many other things attract them. It’s not like it once was 40 or 50 years ago.”

Despite the fact the music is still Christian, some older, more seasoned attendees of the church have been upset about the more youthful changes, Roberts said.

“The older folks want the hymnals, and the younger folk want the newer stuff,” Roberts said. “We have a mixture, but we’re learning.”

Eckert, whose fianc‚ is a minister, said she used to attend New Testament Baptist Church in Ravenna, but she moved to Blackhorse Baptist Church. Her previous church hired a new pastor who axed contemporary Christian songs, and that decision played a part in her leaving the church.


Home sweet church

Some churches promote youth involvement by providing separate youth ministries.

Kristin Negele, senior fashion merchandising major, and Beth Miller, senior political science major, are Kent State students. They go to parties sometimes, watch R-rated movies and go out with friends. They are open-minded and accepting of all kinds of people. But unlike most students, they live where they worship — in the Lutheran House Christian Student Center behind the Lutheran church on Main Street in Kent.

The Christian Student Center, which is open from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. everyday, is a place for Kent State students to go if they want to talk, participate in activities or even just do laundry for free.

“You have to find a church that fits your ideals,” said Negele, President of Lutheran Campus Ministries. “There’s a church for everybody, I think.”

Although the girls both attend regular Sunday services, they also attend a Wednesday night youth service with contemporary Christian music. Negele and Miller also organize activity nights, such as theater, where students do skits of various Biblical stories in mime fashion, and nights for international students where a variety of cuisine are served.

Despite the breadth of activities in the girls’ home, Miller and Negele said it isn’t difficult to balance their duties to the church with their duties to school and personal life.

“We’re students first,” Negele said. “You have to realize where your priorities are. You have to have a sense of balance between religion and school.”

Contact religion and culture reporter Steven Harbaugh at [email protected].