Ages of Atlanta: Faith

Metro area faith leaders work
to bridge generational divide

At Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School, a dozen or so students are learning about the similarities between the popular film “Ironman” and Obadiah, a book in the Old Testament.

It’s teacher Stephen Jayaraj’s (pictured in an AJC file photo) way of helping them connect the Gospel with superheroes in a class called God and Humanity.

The aim is to make the Bible “more accessible, more relevant to them and how it connects to their lives,” he said. “We’re into giving them that spiritual journey. A lot of churches tell you, but we’re not into telling them. We’re into being open. Being an academic class, I’m not afraid of open dialogue.”

“It’s a better visual,” said 15-year-old John Gibson, one of Jayaraj’s students. “I guess the Bible can be viewed as a little antiquated, and it’s hard to visualize what life was like back then.”

The class paints a more “relevant, visual picture,” said Gibson, who goes to a Catholic church regularly.

He said the class “has definitely opened up my mind. When the pastor is reading the Gospel or talking a Bible verse, I try to … make it connect to something I understand.”

Conversations about how best to bridge the gap between younger and older generations can be found taking place in quite a few churches and faith-based organizations these days. Some are struggling, and, as a result, their attendance numbers are dropping.

Photo: In 2003, the Georgia Dome hosted a five-day Lutheran Youth Gathering in Atlanta, bringing about 40,000 high-school-age and adult Lutherans to town.

In 2013, three Presbyterian churches in Cobb County — two in Marietta and one in Mableton — dissolved and formed a new congregation. Southminster Presbyterian, Calvary Presbyterian and Woodlawn Presbyterian churches formed Light of Hope Presbyterian Church.

Combined, the churches had about 190 members. However, the average age of all three congregations is about 60 years old.

In an interview at the time, the Rev. John Spangler, then pastor of Woodlawn, joked that “nobody in the youth group is under 55.”

Others are being more innovative in reaching out to diverse groups of worshipers through extensive use of videos, concert-quality music and a laid-back worship service where congregants can sip Starbucks coffee and wear jeans or shorts. At one North Fulton church, people who were about to be baptized were featured in slick videos talking about their faith walk.

It can be a real balancing act. The 10-county metro area is in the midst of a huge generational shift. Between 2000 and 2015, for example, the number of people up to age 19 grew 23.7 percent, compared with those ages 20 through 34, which rose by 10.9 percent, according to Atlanta Regional Commission data. The biggest jump, though, was for people ages 50 through 69, which jumped 87.2 percent. The number of people age 70 and older also showed a significant increase of 67 percent.

That shift traverses all aspects of life, from music to how people communicate and get news and even how they worship.

When United Methodist Church Bishop Sharma Lewis was district superintendent, she had to merge three churches with declining older memberships with three churches that were growing. One church was down to five people.

“You cannot wait until everyone dies off,” she said. “You have to be creative, cutting-edge and innovative. Nobody is going to church just because you have a sign out. Church today is different.”

She said churches have to respond to the younger generation, but also “you can’t forget Aunt Susie, who is sitting there.”

“I think a lot of millennials make the journey through community first,” said Steve Pruitt, senior pastor of the Bridge Church, a nondenominational congregation in Lawrenceville that has a Sunday attendance of about 250 people, ranging in age from babies to 80-year-olds.

Pruitt grew up in a Methodist household in eastern Tennessee. His family was “very big on going to church. That was it. I didn’t have a choice. Church was assumed. Everyone I knew went to church; now, that’s not the case at all. For many young people, it’s almost counterculture to go to church. We’re in the Bible belt, so it’s a little different, but it’s changing here, too.”

At the Bridge, Pruitt, 45, holds regular gatherings for younger members at a local Taco Mac restaurant. “I’m most effective with them when I’m outside the building, like I might have a party here at the house.”

Older members seem to prefer small group meetings in various homes, he said, where “they build a sense of community. They do a lot of things a small church would do, like take care of you when you’re in the hospital, be there for celebrations and for times of struggle.”

Research bears out the generational divide when it comes to religion.

Seventy-two percent of the “greatest generation,” those born in 1927 or earlier, said religion is very important them, and 51 percent attend religious services weekly or more often, according to the Pew Research Center.

Fifty-nine percent of baby boomers think religion is very important and 38 percent attend religious services weekly or more.

But just 41 percent of millennials consider religion very important and 27 percent say they attend religious services at least once a week.

“Younger people are less likely to be affiliated (religiously) than the older generations,” said Jessica Martinez, a senior researcher at Pew, a Washington-based nonpartisan think tank.

“Faith leaders are profoundly challenged to serve intergenerational populations,” said Robert Franklin, a president emeritus of Morehouse College who now is with Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. “Many feel this is an ethical dilemma. On one hand, older people pay the bills and provide volunteer hours; on the other hand, young people represent the future vitality of the congregation. A few creative, innovative leaders are capable of speaking effectively to both groups’ interests and manage to tie them into a single garment of strength and beauty.”

Besides those who attend church and pray less frequently, there is a growing segment who do neither. In metro Atlanta, those who are unaffiliated rose from 16 percent in 2007 to 23 percent in 2015, according to Pew Research Center.

Pruitt of the Bridge said he is convinced that younger people can be reached by religious organizations, “they just need somebody to listen to their story. Their initial search is not to answer so much the question whether there is God, but to find out where they belong. Generations before me and you answered the question first.

“I think we’re trying to do more community building, and that usually looks like spending more time outside of the building. Preachers struggle with how do you connect with different groups in the same setting.”

Victor Mbaba, 59, of Stone Mountain sees that struggle in his own family.

A lifelong Christian, Mbaba, who was born in Nigeria, goes to church every Sunday. His seven children range from 18 to 33. Some regularly attend church, others not so much.

When he discusses religion with young people, he often asks them if they have a gym membership.

“If they say yes, I ask them, can you stay home and still experience the benefit of exercise?” he said. “It’s the same thing with church. If you’re a Christian and stay at home, it’s just not the right way. You have to go and fellowship with one another, and you’re in God’s house. You’re drawing inspiration from the word and preaching.”

However, Amanda Tate, 29, of Sandy Springs said she doesn’t feel she needs to be in church every Sunday to experience God.

Tate, an ophthalmic technician, grew up in the Baptist church. She regularly attended services and even served in the leadership of the campus ministry.

“I don’t feel as though my faith changed,” she said. “I still believe in God and Jesus Christ.”

Her faith experience now is based “more one on one. I pray and read the Bible and I don’t feel I have to go to church every Sunday. Many of my friends do believe in God and do not attend church. That community aspect of attending church, in my mind, is met through some of my Christian friends and our relationships. Reading books and listening to podcasts takes the place of regularly attending church.”

She also feels some churches are out of sync with cultural shifts such as greater acceptance of gay marriage.

If she wants to delve deeper into spiritual and biblical teachings, there are “books, videos and talks I can go to if I wanted to think something out.”

It’s the opposite for Lindsay VanZyl, a 29-year-old marketing director for Catalyst Conferences, which helps develop Christian leaders through conferences and other events.

VanZyl attends Northland Church, a nondenominational church in Norcross.

“My faith is the core of my identity,” VanZyl said. “A lot of millennials are accused of not doing things in the community. We’re call the entitled generation.” Her faith, though, has helped her dispel that myth.

“It’s kept me from being too internally focused,” she said. “It’s broadened my scope and world view. What’s really cool about Atlanta is there there are a lot of churches and church leaders who have been very intentional about building churches that are multi-generational. When you look at church leaders, a lot of them are older, but they continue to build churches that bring in and attract millennials like myself.

“You have the wisdom of the older generation and the energy of the younger generations coming together. A lot of them are focused outward, as well. They reach out to the community, and it’s not just on Sunday morning.”

It’s also not just Christianity.

Asmarah Yaqoob is a senior at North Gwinnett High School. She regularly attends a masjid.

“My parents are very religions and have always encouraged me to be the same,” she said. “I pray five times a day and read the Quran. It’s always been a big part of my life.”

Several of her friends are also Muslim. “It’s great to have people who think the same way you do and have the same values.”

Her non-Muslim friends are supportive and want to learn more about Islam, she said. Her faith gives her life stability. “Whenever something is going on, I have God to rely on,” she said.

Photo by Curtis Compton, ccompton@ajc.com

AGES OF ATLANTA

This is the third in a five-part series about how age shapes life in Atlanta, from faith and food to music and media.

In part one, read about how baby boomers and millennials are shaping the way we live in Atlanta

In part two, we look at how music is a common tie for Atlantans of every generation