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Got Religion?

How Churches, Mosques, and Synagogues Can Bring Young People Back

Naomi Schaefer Riley

Why are young people dropping out of religious institutions? Can anything be done to reverse the trend? In Got Religion?, Naomi Schaefer Riley examines the reasons for the defection, why we should care, and how some communities are successfully addressing the problem.

The traditional markers of growing up are getting married and becoming financially independent. But young adults are delaying these milestones, sometimes for a full decade longer than their parents and grandparents. This new phase of “emerging adulthood” is diminishing the involvement of young people in religious institutions, sapping the strength and vitality of faith communities, and creating a more barren religious landscape for the young adults who do eventually decide to return to it. Yet, clearly there are some churches, synagogues, and mosques that are making strides in bringing young people back to religion.

Got Religion? offers in-depth, on-the-ground reporting about the most successful of these institutions and shows how many of the structural solutions for one religious group can be adapted to work for another.

The faith communities young people attach themselves to are not necessarily the biggest or the most flashy. They are not the wealthiest or the ones employing the latest technology. Rather, they are the ones that create stability for young people, that give them real responsibility in a community and that help them form the habits of believers that will last a lifetime.

Preface / vii

Introduction / 1

1. Location, Location, Location: / 17
How the “Th eology of Place” Is Plugging Young Adults Back into Their Communities and Their Churches

2. The All- American Mosque: / 35
How Shedding Immigrant Ways Can Reshape Islam in the United States

3. Joining the Service: / 55
How the Catholic Church Is Training a New Generation of Laypeople to Be Spiritual Leaders

4. What’s NEXT? / 73
Channeling the Enthusiasm of Birthright Israel into a Permanent Jewish Commitment

5. A Ward of Their Own: / 91
How the Mormon Church Is Turning Twenty-Somethings into Community Leaders

6. When No One Needs Church Anymore, How Do You Make Them Want It? / 107
The Relevance of the Black Church in the Twenty-First Century

7. The End of Sheep Stealing: / 123
How Churches Can Collaborate to Bring Twenty-Somethings Back into the Fold

Conclusion / 139

Notes / 155

Index / 157

If you want a book with pat answers to the ‘problem’ of millennials and organized religion, you’ve come to the wrong place. If, however, you want to consider the many ways that adults in their 20s and 30s engage with religion, God, and peoplehood, if you want a book that holds just as many questions as it does answers, then pull out your highlighter and get comfortable. Riley takes us on a fascinating journey that traverses religious, geographical, racial, and cultural boundaries. Learn from those who may share a different understanding of God but a similar drive to create a meaningful life. I know I did.

Rabbi Shira Stutman, director of Jewish programming at Sixth & I

Riley is one of the keenest analysts of American religious life today. In this book, she takes up a question that every religious community is asking. Not everyone will agree with everything in this book, but everyone who cares about American religious life will find a provocative and fruitful catalyst for conversation and action.

Russell D. Moore, president, Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission

Riley is an astute cultural observer and critic, and a very good interpreter of the larger meanings and implications of social science research. For those concerned about the religious live of emerging adults, Got Religion? will be essential reading.

Christian Smith, Wm. R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology and Principle Investigator, National Study of Youth and Religion

Got Religion? offers two reassuring messages to those worried that the under-thirty generation is running away from religion. First, it shows that the problem is not confined to particular faiths. Second, it demonstrates that creative programs can succeed in luring young people back to religion. There is reason for hope. Chock full of ideas and insights, this is a book that anyone interested in ‘youth engagement’ should read.

Jonathan D. Sarna, president, Association for Jewish Studies and the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History, Brandeis University

In researching and writing Got Religion? Riley has accomplished a difficult task. She has managed to make fairly dense millennial generation demographic material both interesting and understandable. She has also connected the dots in illustrating how such material is relevant and instructive to those who seek to ‘bring young people back’ to their various faith traditions.

Dr. Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary

No one writes about the religious experiences, beliefs, and practices of contemporary Americans more astutely or with greater insight than Riley. She explores the factors that tend to draw young adults into, or alienate them from, communities of faith. This is far from an exercise in merely academic sociology of religion. It contains valuable lessons for faith communities and their leaders about what they can do to give young people, including young couples with children, stability and responsibility, helping them to deepen their spiritual lives and form habits that will serve them well in every dimension of their lives.

Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, Princeton University

The precipitous drop in religious affiliation among young people in the United States has been covered to the point of exhaustion—often generating more heat than light. In Got Religion? Riley weaves together a compelling counter narrative that focuses on the best examples of how various communities are successfully engaging young people. It is a study in American ingenuity, insight and reinvention as it applies to faith communities and it should be read by anyone in the field who believes that studying what works is the best way to fix what’s wrong.

Bill McGarvey, author of The Freshman Survival Guide

The Weekly Standard-July 14, 2014

"Riley is a refreshingly genial guide. Although Jewish herself, she is equally sympathetic to the Christian and Muslim groups, which won’t surprise anyone who has read her previous books on religious colleges and interfaith marriage. . . . Got Religion? is the perfect playbook for religious leaders (or anyone else) looking to reach out to millennials.”

David Skeel

Catholic World Report- September 9, 2014

“What may begin as a conversation at a wine and cheese social hour might ultimately lead to real conversion—or at least that’s the hope, dare we say, and faith that religious leaders are aiming to achieve. Rather than spending thousands of dollars on outside consulting agencies, these leaders would do well to first invest in Got Religion? as they set out to reclaim and reenergize members of their flock. The wisdom offered here will not only serve pastoral staff, but also parents who seek to pass on their faith to future generations and fellow congregants aiming to more actively contribute to the faith life of their own community. Such effects, if successful, might not only prove beneficial in the here and now, but in the hereafter, as well.”

Christopher White

Evangelicals for Social Action- October 28, 2014

“Riley digs deep into the reasons behind why young adults are shying away from religion and how these institutions can bring them back. This is not a read only for young adults; if you’re finding yourself without a religious home, consider Got Religion?

Kimberly Zayak