Not Your Father's Church

Every Sunday morning, Nepean’s Algonquin Commons Theatre fills with almost one thousand students and young people. Music blares from the speakers, as the band plays their smooth rock riffs. A group of singers stand across the front of the stage, belting out songs while sporting trendy streetwear. Throughout the theatre, people dance, sing, and clap along with the band, joining the singers in chorus as colourful lights flash around the entire theatre.

No, this is not one of the chart-topping concerts that often fill this popular local theatre. This is Hillsong Church: one of the many religious organizations charting new paths to engage the youth of today in religion.

According to a 2017 study by the Angus Reid Institute, only approximately 25 per cent of Canadians ages 18 to 34 consider themselves faithful in any way. This statistic does not present much promise to religious organizations hoping to engage young Canadians. However, as statistics show from the Jewish community, where the Environics Institute reports notable causation between youth religious education and adult religious participation, there are methods to combat these statistics.

In the 2018 study "Renegotiating Faith," it’s reported that young adults today form their adult identities five to seven years later than in decades prior. This shift has created a considerable opportunity for religious organizations to capitalize on. While students look to understand themselves at university, faith leaders are now looking to help them understand their faith identities as well through a variety of unique forms of religious engagement.

At university, many students experience newfound forms of independence that help shape their identity. Evan Traylor, associate director for college engagement at the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), says many students struggle with balance at this time in their lives.

“A lot of students go through a process of understanding all the different pieces of their identity and how they come into play,” he said. “For a lot of Jewish students, identity is also religion.”

URJ is the largest Jewish movement in North America, and engaged with 23,000 unique North American youth through their over 60 youth programs in 2016. In his work, Traylor says he is most often focused on community building.

"The mission for the URJ is building a more just, whole, and compassionate world," Traylor says. "How we do that is by doubling down in Jewish community."

Traylor says he believes all students are in search of community. In his work to build Jewish community, he says the methods are no different than with other students.

“Any student, not just a Jewish student, is looking for community," Traylor says. "People that they feel comfortable around, connected to, lifted up by, and people they can count on.”

Joe Smith is a staff member at Hillsong Church Ottawa, part of the charismatic Hillsong denomination of Christianity. He puts a similarly strong emphasis on building community for young people. Smith spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing repercussions from authority figures within the Hillsong Church organization.

“If you can get them plugged into community, it’s amazing,” he says. “When you can create an environment that’s just fun, people want to be a part of it.”

In building faith communities, listening to the current desires of the youth is important. According to a study conducted by researchers at Queen’s University and York University, young people place high importance on personal freedom and autonomy in their religious identity construction. Traylor and Smith say they account for these sorts of factors in their programming.

“A huge slogan over our church is ‘come as you are; welcome home,'" Smith said. “That is literally what we embody in our youth programming.”

Traylor similarly says that openness is important in providing students with freedom and autonomy in their religious journeys.

“(In the URJ) there’s a real commitment around being inclusive, and welcoming everyone that is interested in being a part of the community,” he said.

The former participant in URJ youth programs also adds “giving people the tools to create community on campus” is key to his organization’s strategy.

Beyond encouraging attendance and participation, religious organizations must also incorporate the teachings of their faith into their youth programming. Faraz Maqbool, youth programming coordinator at the South Nepean Muslim Community (SNMC) Mosque in Ottawa, says it is very simple to connect average activities back to Islam.

"Everything in my opinion is rooted in religious texts," he said. "Nothing comes from my side per se, it’s all connected to the religious guidance."

Maqbool, who was born in Saudi Arabia, says relationship building has been important for him to be able to teach Muslim concepts in things such as soccer games, which teaches values like companionship and empathy.

“At first, it was not easy," he says. “Over time, I started slowly and surely getting to know them so that I could start talking about Islamic topics related to them.”

Dalraj Gill, events coordinator for Experience Sikhi, a Sikh youth organization in the Greater Toronto Area, says the Sikh faith is uniquely easy to incorporate into young people’s modern lives. 

“Equality rights, gender rights, etc. were all principles laid down in the early days of Sikhism,” he says. “That makes it easier, because people understand the principles. All of this is happening in mainstream society now.”

Gill also says he believes Sikhism is easy to understand because it is a fairly young religion with universal values that are “not just applicable, they’re understandable.” 

While Gill says he is firm in his beliefs about his religion, even he admits that he faces many of the obstacles that other religious leaders face in engaging young people, like connecting personally, and garnering interest in deeper religious issues.

But beyond faith, what keeps so many religious leaders invested in working to engage young people is their willingness to try new things. According to "Renegotiating Faith," 78 per cent of students who did not connect with a Christian university campus group were open to the idea of it. Additionally, as cited in a 2013 study published in “Current Directions in Psychological Science," university-aged adolescents are approximately 50 per cent more willing to take risks if surrounded by a group of their peers.

Considering this, it is confusing to see the continuation of statistics touting that young adults are less likely than their 40 plus counterparts to say they pray daily in 71 of the 105 countries and territories surveyed by Pew Research Center, and less likely to attend religious services weekly in 53 of 102 countries.

However, in many religious organizations today, the boundaries of faith and prayer are being pushed in new ways, redefining traditional concepts of what prayer and religious services are to appeal to young people.

“If college students are going to be in religious or faith organizations, they want to do it in a way that is really unique and special to them,” said Traylor. “We create really accessible opportunities for people so they can experiment and explore.” 

Traylor, a resident of Washington, D.C., also says he recognizes that students today are more likely to identify as spiritual but not religious, or SBNR. According to a 2018 study by University of Alberta and University of Ottawa researchers, 50 per cent of SBNR youth also identify with a religion or religious traditions, differentiating between belonging to a religion and being religious.

Traylor says he and his organization are cognisant of this in their youth engagement strategies.

But as is the case with all religious issues, there are some who are more attached to tradition. Matt Schmid, student ministries pastor at Ottawa’s Woodvale Pentecostal Church, says it is important to stay true to the values of the church.

“I think the Christian faith is very inviting and is a very inclusive narrative as it is,” he says. “The one thing that our church is really motivated by is our enthusiasm to spread the gospel and do what Jesus said: make disciples and raise them up.”