Pastor William Sofield has a message for newcomers to the Christian faith at Grace Community Church in Carrboro.
“You don’t have to be a Christian to be a part of our community,” Sofield tells attendees at services each week.
Sofield said his church makes a concerted effort to welcome those who are not Christian. Since he began preaching there in 2010, the church’s congregation has increased from about 45 members to more than 100.
“We’re still a small church, but we’ve more than doubled in size in the last couple of years at a time when most churches are declining,” he said.
Churches big and small are grappling with a decline in religious affiliation among the U.S. population, especially young adults — a trend with broad social implications locally and nationally.
According to data from the General Social Survey, a national study that monitors social change, 12 percent of young adults aged 18 to 29 declared that they were not affiliated with a religion in the 1970s. By the 2000s, the number of unaffiliated young adults had increased to 23 percent.
The growing separation between churches and residents in their communities has led scholars and religious leaders to offer numerous explanations for the trend.
‘Who we are’
One possible explanation is waning trust in religious institutions.
Scandals involving religious leaders have received heightened scrutiny in recent years, and surveys suggest divergent views between churches and the public on social issues such as gay marriage.
Many mainline Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church continue to officially oppose same-sex marriage. Support for same-sex marriage among those unaffiliated with a religion rose from 61 percent to 77 percent between 2001 and 2013, according to polls conducted annually by the Pew Research Center.
Elizabeth Queen, a masters student at Duke Divinity School who is also pursuing a dual master’s degree in social work at UNC, said she thinks young adults who want to express doubts about religious beliefs might not feel welcome at churches.
But she said religious leaders have shown a willingness to address these concerns, such as Methodist churches’ recent varied stances on the issue of gay marriage.
“It’s good that the church is willing to admit that it’s political and scary to talk about, but it’s important,” Queen said. “We have LGBT members in the church and we need to think about how we can love everyone.”
Still, some experts say focusing on social issues ignores broader cultural shifts.
Arthur Farnsley, associate director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, said that though more research needs to be done, involvement in religious groups or community associations in general appears to be much less important than 50 or 100 years ago.
“There’s this sense that maybe if religion just got its act together, affiliation would increase. I’m not positive that’s right,” he said. “I think something big has happened in who we are.”
A social network
As young adults move away from memberships in traditional religious and community groups, they are finding new ways to interact.
Thomas Frank, an American religious history professor at Wake Forest University, said some people have speculated that social media might be filling a communal void for younger generations.
But Frank said joining an organization on Facebook with a simple click or conversing on Twitter doesn’t exactly replicate walking down the street and attending a local meeting.
“The way community relations have always worked is that people give their personal time and energy to causes in the community. They put their body on the line, and it actually changes their behavior,” he said. “I’m not sure if social media could accomplish these things.”
Churches help to form meaningful relationships and bind communities together, providing a source of what is known as social capital, Frank said.
A national survey of 40 communities, conducted in 2000 by the John F. Kennedy School of Government to measure dimensions of social capital, found that N.C. regions surrounding Charlotte, Greensboro and Winston-Salem ranked in the top five nationally for giving and volunteering.
Communities with less faith-based engagement, such as Boston and San Francisco, ranked near the bottom.
“It sounds trivial for some people to say, ‘This is a great way to network,’” Frank said. “But (joining a church) gives you a connection to a community that helps you care about and get involved in that community.”
In efforts to encourage more young people to join congregations, some churches have adopted a more contemporary style of worship.
These include large churches like Elevation, which features loud music, social media promotion and even movie-style trailers for sermons, said Ashley Bowers, a sophomore media production and sports administration double major who attends one of Elevation’s branch campuses in Charlotte.
Bowers said that, despite the size of the church, it offers small groups and volunteer teams at the campuses to promote communities.
“It’s a church that has over 10,000 members, but when I go there it doesn’t feel like that,” she said.
Sofield said American culture has become more and more individualized, and younger generations feel compelled to find their own path.
“Young people are encouraged by so many places in our culture to focus on defining themselves by themselves,” he said. “Religion — binding yourself to a group of people — is antithetical to that idea.”
Yet young adults seeking independence often end up adopting other’s conceptions about them, he said. Churches aim to provide an alternative to youth by encouraging them to define themselves through their community.
“If we all have to get our identity from other people, let’s be intentional about who we get it from,” he said.
Regardless of the strategies churches use, leaders agree that the time is ripe for change.
“We have our work ahead of us to do the work that God has called us to and be creative and innovative in ways we can do church differently,” said Rev. McKennon Shea, director of admissions at Duke Divinity School.
“The way that church has been done clearly needs to be rethought.”
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