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Posted June 12, 2005

Young adults of all faiths
have similar needs, wants, study finds

By Nancy Frazier O'Brien
Catholic News Service

Whether they are Christian, Jewish or Muslim, young adult professionals want a faith community that makes them feel valued, a worship experience that moves them and learning opportunities that allow them to question, a panel of young adult scholars said June 1.

In a presentation at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington on "Congregations That Get It: Understanding Religious Identities in the Next Generation," the panelists spoke about their recent study on how faith communities in major U.S. cities have successfully integrated young adults.

"There's an expectation that people will go through this 'black hole'" of separation from religious institutions after college, and then return after they marry and have children, as many in earlier generations did, said Tobin Belzer, a Jewish scholar and author.

But as more young adults pursue postgraduate education and tend to marry later, "we don't really know if that will happen," she added.

Each of the panelists had at least one postgraduate degree and was a research associate at the University of Southern California's Center for Religion and Civic Culture.

For the study, the team interviewed about 100 people in 15 congregations -- Jewish, Protestant, Catholic and Muslim -- in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Detroit and Washington. Each of the congregations had a thriving young adult membership, although none was made up exclusively of young adults.

The Catholic churches in the study were St. Monica in Santa Monica, Calif.; American Martyrs in Manhattan Beach, Calif.; St. Clement in Chicago; and Holy Trinity in New York.

Many of the activities for young adults at the Catholic parishes were social events, from kickball to movie nights, said Richard Flory, associate professor of sociology at Biola University, an evangelical Christian university in La Mirada, Calif.

But in all four Catholic churches, young adults were "well integrated into the larger church," Flory said.

That is not always true in Jewish congregations, where large fees are sometimes associated with full membership, said Belzer. She cited one synagogue in which young adults had their own thriving subgroup but "found a lot of gatekeeping" when they wanted to serve as leaders or board members in the larger congregation.

Nadia Roumani, an American Muslim and a senior associate with the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs in New York, said the four Muslim congregations studied in the project ranged in membership from 200 to 10,000 people, and included those with both African-American and Arab-American majorities.

Young Muslim adults "want honest discourse; they don't want the rhetoric," said Roumani. "They want to know, 'How does this apply to my life?' They want the religious understanding to be put into context."

Brie Loskota, a senior project manager at USC's Center for Religion and Civic Culture, said the study found that young adults of all faiths "are not satisfied with participation of the show-up-and-watch variety."

Nor are they particularly interested in theological debates, "especially those that disparage other religious traditions," said Roumani. "Nothing turns off young people more."

Among the research team's recommendations for attracting and retaining young adult congregants were:

-- Create leadership positions for young adults both within their peer group and within the larger congregation.

-- Underwrite the group's activities, and reduce fee structures so that membership is financially viable.

-- Fund an engaging and young staff person who can cultivate a community of young congregants.

-- Create social, educational, spiritual, cultural, emotional and religious points of entry for young adults, and organize affinity groups to help young congregants find like-minded peers.

-- Facilitate interfaith and interdenominational exchange, with clergy setting a precedent of nonjudgment by not disparaging other religious traditions or denominations.

-- Offer adult learning opportunities that are directed specifically to young congregants and their needs, backgrounds and interests.

The project, funded by the Lilly Endowment and carried out by the USC research associates, was a joint initiative of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Omar Ibn al Khattab Foundation, and USC's Office of Religious Life and College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.