How are San Francisco congregations repackaging themselves to appeal to everyone’s most coveted demographic?
By Heather Wood Rudulph
Bruna Maia grew up Catholic in a very Catholic place—Brazil—where the religion is so entrenched in the culture that the country’s most famous landmark isn’t its stunning white beaches or the world’s largest rainforest, but a 125-foot statue of Jesus Christ, which towers over Rio de Janeiro as a reminder to go to church. Maia’s faith wasn’t a choice for her when she was younger, but after moving to the United States, she started to form a different kind of religious ideology.
“In school I learned about the power and influence of the Catholic church, and the ego behind that, which really surprised me,” says Maia, 29, who lives in Lower Pacific Heights. “I had a lot of questions. When I was about 13, my Dad introduced me to the larger idea of spirituality. We would sit for hours talking about things like Why are we here, and what’s our purpose in the universe? Why are people dying of AIDS and I’m not? What is our destiny and what is fate? I started molding my belief system. I kept believing in Jesus Christ, but I knew Catholicism was not the whole picture. What my Dad and I were talking about was a lot more enjoyable than sitting in church for hours.”
Maia is a part of the world’s largest generation, Millennials, who are aged 20 to 36. Their participation in industries from tech to government is key to the future. Churches, too, must recruit and retain young adults if they want to grow and remain relevant within the community. They have their work cut out for them. Recent research shows that Millennials have been steadily drifting away from traditional religion.
In November 2015, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of 35,000 Americans from all 50 states analyzing their beliefs, practices, and social and political views. In states such as Washington and California—and particularly the cities Seattle and San Francisco—one trend is clear: Young people are waning on religion. While nearly half of adults surveyed in San Francisco identified as Christian, 35 percent identified as atheist, agnostic, or unaffiliated. Compare that to Chicago, where 71 percent identify as Christian, and only 22 percent as unaffiliated.
The number for Christians could be still shrinking for the Bay Area, a region that attracts young people from around the world for its natural beauty, culture and career opportunities, and then consistently drives them out because the cost of living is just too high. In March 2017, the Bay Area Council conducted a poll of registered voters in all nine counties, talking to them about a range of issues including employment, housing, education and economic growth. Among the Millennials who were polled, 46 percent said they intended to move away within the next few years.
San Francisco’s congregations are taking notice. Churches understand the importance of Millennials, and many have begun to actively recruit them. The challenge is finding a way to make religion—perhaps the most traditional system of all—appealing to a group of young adults who have made their mark on the world by writing their own rulebook.
Every Tuesday night, one of San Francisco’s famous landmarks, Grace Cathedral, the third-largest Episcopal cathedral in the nation, is transformed into a yoga studio. Colorful mats encircle the church’s iconic marble labyrinth built into the floor; they line the aisles, surround pews and sometimes crowd right up next to the pulpit. Attendees come by the hundreds, yet they still seem dwarfed by the stunning stained-glass windows and soaring arched ceilings that have echoed sermons, songs of worship and prayers for the past 53 years.
Yoga night is a far cry from Sunday service. There is no sermon, only a brief dharma talk to introduce the yoga lesson. The group that attends changes week to week—Christians, Muslims, Jews and those with no religious identity are all welcome—but one characteristic remains constant: a majority of them are young adults. Many have never been to this church before, others have never been to church at all. Over eight years, the weekly program has grown from a few dozen attendees to more than 750 in every class.
“In my experience with younger generations, there is a desire for something beyond the traditional religious landscape,” says Reverend Jude Harmon, Director of Innovative Ministries at Grace Cathedral. “They want something more, and their desire to have it on their own terms, paired with a pretty strong suspicion of institutions generally, and especially religious institutions, definitely means people are looking in other directions [for spiritual fulfillment.]”
Harmon, who at 36 would be classified as an older Millennial according to Pew Research, has focused his work at Grace on offering new avenues for young people to sample the church. He co-founded the yoga program in 2009 as part of a larger modern outreach program, called The Vine, which bills itself as a contemporary worship community for urbanites and spiritual newbies. Programs include social talks on topics ranging from theology to reproductive justice, and shorter evening services with live, contemporary music as opposed to a traditional choir.
“When I first started doing yoga here, I don’t think I grasped how much, for many people, this weekly practice stands in for their primary spiritual community,” Harmon says. “People would come up to me afterward and say, ‘I really loved your sermon,’ or ‘Church was so great tonight,’ and I would be so confused because I don’t give a sermon at all. It really keyed me in to what was actually going on for people. Everyone yearns for spiritual community of some kind.”
As Millennials have grown up, the way they define their faith community has steadily shifted away from the traditional. While Christianity remains the dominant religion across all age groups, according to Pew, Millennials now make up 40 percent of Buddhists, and 44 percent of those who are unaffiliated with any religion, compared to just 23 percent of Christians. Practices such as yoga and meditation—which have exploded in urban cities—act as a congregation to young people, offering fulfillment and a sense of purpose and belonging. These are some of the same reasons many cite for going to church or having faith to begin with.
Religious communities that are able to attract and retain Millennial congregants have identified this key desire: Young people just want to be seen, and to feel a part of a community that is natural and unforced.
Congregation Emanu-El, San Francisco’s oldest synagogue, has a series of programs aimed at recruiting young Jews to join, such as meditation night, community volunteer opportunities and a book club. The temple’s most successful way to reach more Millennials is to use the ones they have as ambassadors.
“Once a young adult in their 20s or 30s joins our congregation, our staff connects with them in a one-on-one meeting to help understand their interests and what opportunities we have for them here,” says Monica Pevzner, Emanu-El’s assistant director of community impact. “We then look for ways for them to engage the community.”
The temple, which has a robust social media presence, also makes it clear in its messaging that they are an interfaith organization, positioning itself more as a community than a synagogue. Emanu-El’s Rabbi Beth Singer is also hopeful that Millennials who have perhaps strayed from religion will find their way back.
“I love the importance of listening and hearing what people aren’t finding in religion,” Singer says. “The onus is on all of us in our religions to provide something authentic, transparent, compelling, better that being on your device so that you can take a break from that for a couple of hours and really be a part of a community. We’re actually in the room looking each other in the eyes and talking to one another. So I think we have a good product, you know?”
Maha Elgenaidi, executive director of Islamic Networks Group, a San Jose-based nonprofit that works with religious organizations to combat bigotry, also emphasizes providing what she calls “third spaces” for people to connect to their faith, whether for the first time, or as a re-entry later in life.
“That’s a growing movement within the American Muslim community, where people may not feel comfortable in institutional Islamic facilities, but they’re very comfortable going to third spaces,” Elgenaidi says. “They’re coming because they need community. In the process, they’re deepening their understanding of their faith, because they’re now having to explain it and respond to it.”
Even spiritual leaders at rigidly traditional institutions are recognizing a need to change the way they speak to and seek out younger members. St. Ignatius Parish, which historically recruits members from within its strong educational network in the Bay Area and across the nation, recently added three Millennials to its staff. Father Greg Bonfiglio has experimented with using texting and meditation apps in his sermons as a way to engage young congregants. He admits it’s a baby step. “I think there is a need [to reach out to Millennials], and we’re not addressing it well here,” says Bonfiglio. “It’s clear this younger generation requires a different approach, and my job is to ask questions and listen.”
For Maia, yoga has become her religion. She recently earned her yoga teaching certification, and is hoping to use her practice to introduce more in her peer group to its benefits. “I practice yoga and meditation for the same reason people go back to church every Sunday and hear those messages over and over again,” she says. “They make you feel better. It doesn’t matter what religion you practice, everyone wants to feel connected to their soul.”