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Finding Faith Under 40

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - As baby boomers grow older, local church congregations are aging. Some of those congregations have noticed an overall decline in worship attendance without younger members to fill the pews. With buildings to maintain and programs to fund, church leaders know they need to reach out to the faithful in their 20's and 30's to ensure the future of the church.

Marion Christian Church pulls from the younger population in Marion. Pastor Peter Mitchell says the challenge is finding ways to stay relevant to his younger members. "There's a lot of distance between the population in general and the church, and we wanted to try and bridge that."

His church is part of the Disciples of Christ of the Upper Midwest, which includes Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. He says between 2000 and 2010, worship attendance dropped 40% in his region. "As people go, so does money and activity and if you've got a building to maintain, that becomes a bigger and bigger piece of your budget," Mitchell said. "Your financing becomes a big source of anxiety."

Pastor Mitchell said Marion Christian Church is fortunate to draw a young crowd. His church offers three Sunday services, one of which is only 20 minutes long. Called the "Simple Service," the congregation gathers at 10 a.m. for one hymn, a prayer, one scripture, a sermon, offertory and communion. "The time frame and format made it possible for families to attend worship relatively quickly, and then get on their very busy lives," said Mitchell.

There's also a weekly bible study at Cocktails and Company on Blairs Ferry Road in Marion. Pastor Mitchell understands the idea of scripture with a beer may raise an eyebrow, but says it offers a unique environment to explore faith. "The church sanctuary environment or the church fellowship hall environment for a lot of people is a little stifling, a little intimidating," he said.

His younger members agree. "I really enjoy it," said Ryan Thompson. "It's calming, it's easy going."

Thompson says the Tuesday night meetings also fit better into his schedule. "Sundays are one of my only days off work. This is the best option for me; to come to a setting like this or a service during the week because it fits into my schedule better," he says. "And I think that's the way a lot of people my age think about it."

Research shows it's not a matter believing in God. In a 2010, a Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project found differences in religious affiliations and worship attendance for Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and Millennials (born after 1981). The study shows 26% of Baby Boomers attended church regularly in their 20's and 30's. Only 18% of young Americans today do the same.

"Sometimes, it does feel like you're in the minority, as a young family," says Luke Bishop, a 32-year-old member at First Lutheran Church in Cedar Rapids. "Scheduling is never easy, but we definitely try to reserve Sunday mornings."

"The median age of our congregation is 39 years old, but you just don't seem them," said Associate Minister of First Lutheran, Reverend Craig Brown. "They're the future of the church, and we need to reach out to them or there will be no church."

Social media has been a great way for First Lutheran to connect with younger members. "We have to find ways to reach out to these people, like social media and the website and different groups because we'd like to reach out to them just like God does," said Rev. Brown.

"If you're on vacation, you can watch the sermons online or, it's just really nice to know what else is going on in the church," said 32-year-old Nicole Keating.

Ruth Ehrhardt grew up in the church. Now at 59, she makes church a priority. "It's the most important hour of my week from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Sunday morning," she said. "I think people start to come into touch with reality that this life isn't forever. And as you lose friends around you, maybe classmates, people younger than you, people start exploring or get in touch again with their religious background."

In the Catholic church, younger parishioners are listening to the messages of Pope Francis. Time called him the "People's Pope" as editors named him Person of the Year in 2013. His modern take on traditional views has the attention of young people around the world. Father Dustin Vu works with students at Xavier High School and a young congregation at Blessed John XXIII. "I don't think the message has changed, but the method has changed," said Father Vu of Pope Francis. "It's not the what, it's the how."

He said the Pope's take on the message of the church will resonate with young people. "He acknowledges the complexity of the culture. And he said that the culture is what it us, so in a way, we need to be the quote, witness of joys."

Church leaders acknowledge the need to be flexible and adapt to stay relevant to its younger members.

"The church will not continue to be 10:30, Sunday morning," said Pastor Mitchell. "That will still exist but that will not be the defining factor of what it means to participate in a Christian community."

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