Brooklyn churches look to tradition, community building to attract young adults

July 24, 2011

The ongoing struggle to get young people in the pews at churches across Brooklyn is motivating some clergy in the Diocese of Long Island to develop new ministries that challenge the popular way of how churches reach out to 20-somethings.

Predominate tactics -- a rock band, projector screens and altars stripped of traditional decors -- have failed to resonate with 20-somethings. Instead, it's the traditional aspects of the Episcopal faith and its liturgy that young people are now drawn to, clergy say.

The Rev. Robert Griffith, who has been working with St. Paul's Church in Carroll Gardens, has created an initiative called Imago Dei, or Image of God, that is working to understand the Millennial Generation -- those born after 1980 -- and its views of faith in hopes of devising new ways to bringing them closer to Jesus Christ.

"It's not that they aren't interested. What they are looking for is the traditional -- silence, reflection, candles," Griffith said.

One in four members of the Millennial Generation is unaffiliated with any faith, according to a 2010 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. However, the study also shows that young adults are rather traditional in their religious beliefs and practices. For example, nearly 50 percent of those ages 18 to 29 surveyed say they pray daily.

In August 2009, Bishop Lawrence Provenzano of the Diocese of Long Island appointed Griffith to develop a ministry in Red Hook, a gritty industrial turned artsy neighborhood that was tied to the Imago Dei initiative. The project was an incubator for new approaches that would engage 20-somethings. Monthly meet-ups at a local pub, plans for an artist gallery in St. Paul's and Sunday evening services were in the works, but the project was stopped in May after Provenzano ended funding.

About 30 people were involved in various parts of the Red Hook project, and Griffith said he felt the project was on target. Nonetheless, Griffith, who has a background in campus ministries, plans to take those ideas and continue work on the Imago Dei initiative with help from participants in the Red Hook project.

Leadership in the Diocese of Long Island continues to study its options.

Myra Garnes Shuler, director of Youth Ministry and Formation for the Diocese of Long Island, said she is planning a meeting in September at which clergy and other diocesan leaders will brainstorm more ways in which the church can garner more participation from 20-somethings.
"We need to develop a bigger movement," she said.

Michael Eckblad, 28, an artist who attended meet-ups and evening worship services with Griffith, said the church needs to focus on its roots and its tradition.

"A lot of what (Griffith) is doing is simply getting these ideas out there, talking to people, building relationships," he said. "I hope to continue this dialogue."

Griffith also wants the Imago Dei initiative to be a resource for other churches. But he cautions clergy: "This is always evolving. We need to change as the emerging generation changes," he said.

The Rev. Michael Sniffen is taking a similar approach in Clinton Hill and Fort Greene. Sniffen, the priest-in-charge at the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew, is hoping to develop a ministry that includes an artist-in-residence program, gatherings at area pubs and a volunteer green space initiative in the front of the church.

"It's about relationships and community rather than being entertained," Sniffen said.

Sniffin, who is 30, also said the church needs to listen more to younger parishioners.

"Instead of asking what should we do for them, we need to ask what are they doing to inspire the church," he said.

Both Griffith and Sniffen agree that Brooklyn is an ideal location to test these new approaches. In a borough of 2.5 million, about a quarter of the population is between the ages of 20 and 34, according to 2010 Census data.

And all Episcopal churches are looking to boost membership.

About 725,000 people attend Sunday worship service on average, according to a 2009 study by the Episcopal Church. The study also found that congregations in which more than 75 percent of the members are 50 or older are unlikely to grow.

"What is really going on? It's about getting back to loving your neighbor and coming to the table together. Let's begin at that point," Griffith said.

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