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Young, single, and spiritual: can traditional religions reach out to the MySpace generation?

"Unless religious leaders take younger adults more seriously, the future of American religion is in doubt," warns Princeton University sociology professor Robert Wuthnow in his new book, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty-and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion.

He argues that, faced with slightly declining overall attendance numbers, despite a 40% U.S. population increase since 1972, American congregational leaders should focus on meeting the needs of young adults. To do so, they'll need to create church and synagogue experiences that respond to the cultural shifts taking place.

Young single adults pose a special problem, according to Wuthnow. Though a substantial number of them choose to attend religious services, many more do not, because today's organized religions typically emphasize traditional family values. As a result, children, married couples, and the elderly can easily find the support they need through their congregations, but there are very few programs and social opportunities available for singles between the ages of 20 and 45. Nor do they share with their married counterparts one of the main reasons to go to services: to set a good example for their children.

If post-boomers generally take a more individualistic, improvised approach to spirituality than did their grandparents prior to settling down, then they are conforming to trends set by the baby boomers themselves--with one significant difference. In general, post-boomers are postponing marriage and children until later in life. The longer that individuals postpone involvement with organized religion, the less likely they are to include it later.

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As a result, Western religion's influence over mainstream U.S. culture may continue to wane. In order for congregations to prosper, they must find ways to cater to the needs of young singles, or what Wuthnow terms "the unmarried majority," as well as newlyweds and families.

"Religious congregations could be a more important source of assistance and support for young adults than they presently are," Wuthnow argues. "Instead of investing so heavily in programs for children and the elderly, they could focus more intentionally on ministries to young adults. They could be less content to provide activities for married couples with children and work harder at programs for single adults with questions about marriage, work, and finances, or with interests in serving their communities or building relationships. To meet these challenges, though, religious leaders would have to reflect seriously on what it is that might attract young adults."

Some denominations of the major Western religions are already forging ahead and finding new ways to appeal to what they perceive to be an increasingly disenfranchised and disillusioned group. The Concord First Assembly in Concord, North Carolina, is an evangelical megachurch that reaches out to everyone--including younger single adults--and adjusts its marketing strategies accordingly. In the case of the MySpace generation, this means appealing to their collective sense of individuality, as well as their technophile tendencies. Concord's "Underground" community for young single adults offers espresso, pool tables, satellite TV, and free wi-fi. They meet Sunday evenings, rather than Sunday mornings, and Underground's profile can be found on the social networking sites MySpace and Facebook. Significantly, Underground presents itself as a small, intimate group, separate from the rest of the megachurch's congregation.

Reaching out via the Internet is a relatively simple approach that congregations can take to attract younger members. It is highly likely that a young person seeking a congregation in his or her community may shop around on the Internet beforehand, since a majority of American households now have Internet access at home. But the potential for religious organizations to recruit the younger generation via the Web is just beginning to be realized, as religious Web sites by and/or for the younger generation beging to appear. Christians can find a virtual online community at TheOoze. com (founded by a disillusioned former megachurch pastor and self-described postmodernist), and also at FermiProject.com. If you're Jewish, Aish.com is there to answer your questions. The popular Internet dating site JDate.com is dedicated to helping young Jewish singles connect with their community and faith, and Beliefnet.com is a popular inter-religious site.

However, while the Internet will likely become the medium that people turn to most often when seeking religious information, it is unlikely that the virtual church, synagogue, or mosque will replace its real-world counterpart anytime soon. According to Wuthnow, younger people are more prone to seeking out religious Web sites if they already happen to be churchgoers, as a way to supplement their churchgoing experiences, network with other members of the faith, and enhance their religious lives. Listening to religious podcasts by priests or rabbis may augment, but not supplant, the church or synagogue experience.

Sources: After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty-and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion by Robert Wuthnow, Princeton University Press, 2007.

The Barna Update: Media and Technology, www.barna.org.s
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Title Annotation:Society
Author:Cohen, Aaron M.
Publication:The Futurist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2008
Words:811
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