It's a reality for most religious leaders: To keep congregations vibrant, you've got to refresh the flock with a steady stream of young adults. Many people leave after high school, no longer under the control of their faithful parents. They go to college, get jobs and move to a new city. Intentionally or not, life blocks their spiritual path.
But forward-thinking leaders are increasingly finding a place for these adults, ages 18 to 35. It's often not the church their grandmother grew up in — fun, lively, even hip. Scripture still tells the truth, but usually over pizza, coffee and (imagine!) beer.
In recognition of Easter and Passover, tbt* reached out to active young adult groups in Tampa Bay, and to people under age 40 in notable religious roles.
Socializing, not Scripture
They put together happy hours at SoHo bars, Mahjong nights and volunteer projects. When an issue about Scripture comes up, they defer to local synagogues.
The JCC's Young Adult Division acts as a gateway to Jewish life in Tampa for people ages 21 to 45. Its events, many of them social, aim to strengthen Jewish identity and reinforce core values.
The group targets young Jewish professionals new to the area and operates nationwide. People often hear about it while in other cities and seek it out when they land here.
"Many people move to Tampa because of jobs," said director Iris Pastor. "They don't have family, they don't have connections. They look around and get concerned."
The group organizes happy hours the third Thursday of the month at the Lime and Lodge bars on Howard Avenue. Upward of 60 people attend. Nervous about not knowing anyone? The group connects newbies with a regular who will meet up with them ahead of time to ease the introduction.
JCC events are open to anyone, regardless of their affiliation to a synagogue. It often teams up with the 20s and 30s group at Congregation Schaarai Zedek in South Tampa led by Joel Simon.
The group does monthly philanthropic activities, from cleaning a nature reserve to volunteering at the Weinberg Village, an assisted-living center for Jewish seniors. Its six-month leadership training program places professionals on the boards and committees of Jewish nonprofit groups.
Central to everything is finding connections with like-minded people.
"We're very social," said Pastor, who has five children who are young adults. "We really stay away from Scripture and are not a religious institution. We leave that to the temples and synagogues."
Easing transition to 'adult' church
Ryan Marr, an associate pastor at Calvary Chapel St. Petersburg, sees it all the time. After graduating from high school, young people don't transition well to the "adult" church. They become too old for youth programs but can't relate to the main services.
That's where Remnant comes in. Marr and other church leaders started the ministry a year ago to give 18- to 30-year-olds a place of their own.
"I've found that unless you're 24 or 25, you don't do really well with people over 30," Marr said. "We want them to get plugged in relationally."
The group mirrors the traditional church, but in a smaller package with acoustic music. At the end of each Sunday evening service, they break into small "community groups" to share what's going on in their lives and pray for one another. Every few weeks, they go to Starbucks.
The majority are in college or their early 20s. Many live at home and, to the disbelief and even chagrin of some older members, admittedly spend more time playing Xbox than finding a job, Marr said.
"The new 18-year-old is 25," he said.
Remnant members serve throughout the Pinellas Park church and run a coffee bar during regular services to raise money for their Starbucks trips. Chris Gibson, who does the group's sermons, was a church intern and works in the preschool. He's 24.
Remnant began with about 140 people and has settled into a comfortable 50 to 60 weekly. Many didn't like opening up to others, Marr said. Those who have stayed find it uplifting and encouraging in their walk with Christ.
"Our goal is to have genuine community," Marr said. "We're not into the light show. We just want to be honest with you and see what the Bible says and deal with the truth."
For single Christians seeking their purpose … and maybe a date
Gary Taylor measures success not in how many single young professionals show up to South Tampa Fellowship's weekly services, but how many of them find their life's calling.
He views faith as a verb that extends beyond going to church.
Taylor is the singles pastor for 97West, which meets Tuesday nights at the church's Davis Islands campus. The name has nothing to do with Scripture or even music, although it can be confused for the rock station, 97X. It's simply the address of the meeting place, 97 W Biscayne Ave., where, hopefully, lives are changed.
Taylor, 43, joined the ministry more than two years ago to help singles develop a relationship with God and discover their purpose.
About 150 to 200 people attend each week for live music, a Bible-based message and Christian camaraderie. Less than half are members of South Tampa Fellowship, which holds Sunday services at its main building along Bayshore Boulevard.
"The goal is not to grow the group bigger," he said. "It's about, go from here and fulfill your mission."
Unlike many young adult groups, 97West attracts more 25- to 30-year-olds than college students and has gradually shifted older as more people delay marriage. If someone comes to find a date, so be it. Hasn't everyone's mom suggested going to church to meet Mr. or Mrs. Right?
The latest message series focuses on the plight of the homeless and working poor. Taylor challenged members to "Walk A Mile In My Shoes" by wearing the same pair of sneakers for more than three weeks. He hasn't liked it.
It culminates April 26 when people will spend the night in the fellowship hall. Charity groups will distribute information on how to help . Rather than eat after the meeting, like they usually do, they will go to bed hungry.
Throughout church, youth movement spreads
When Countryside Christian Center set out to target college students and young adults, leaders knew traditional wouldn't work.
They had to try something new.
For starters, they needed cutting-edge music, food during services and condensed messages. But don't water down the material. This age group wants it Scripture-based.
Their formula worked. Encounter, a ministry for 18- to 29-year-olds, began seven years ago with three people. Today, it has 100, with new people coming every week.
The concept worked so well that leaders incorporated many of the principles throughout the Clearwater church.
"The church started taking notice and saying, 'We like the way they are reaching this age group,' " said Pastor Tim O'Fallon, who oversees Encounter. "Now Countryside Christian Center looks very much like Encounter did a few years ago."
The Thursday evening services start with food and fellowship over basketball, air hockey or Wii. A live band plays on the stage, followed by Bible study and prayer time. When everything is said and done, a big group heads to Applebee's.
Encounter welcomes married couples and people with children, who often end up as mentors for college students and those seeking their first jobs. Aside from weekly services, they do cookouts, pool parties and other activities, as well as join the church's community projects.
A good percentage of first-time visitors call themselves nonreligious. They come to see what Christians are like, O'Fallon said. Often, they find they aren't so bad.
Seeking out God in everything
At Bible-Based Fellowship Church, leaders set high expectations for young adults and involve them in all aspects of church life.
They evangelize in housing projects, feed the homeless and pick produce for seniors. They come to regular church services in full force, sometimes representing more than a third of the congregation. The second Sunday of every month, their New Generation choir sings during the service.
The senior pastor, the Rev. Arthur T. Jones, considers them the new generation of leaders.
The church calls its 19- to 35-year-old members Young Adults Living Eternally, or Y.A.L.E, a nod to top-achieving Ivy leaguers. The group meets the second Sunday of the month at 1 p.m.
More of an informational session than a church service, the Y.A.L.E. meetings provide an overview of the upcoming month and introduce new members to the predominantly black church in North Tampa. When conversations turn to careers, relationships and even the nightclub scene, coordinators Rodney and Desiree Allmond put the emphasis on God.
"When we talk about careers, we talk about not forgetting about Christ," Rodney Allmond said. "We just don't live day to day. We live for Christ in the workplace, in our home and in our relationships."
The ministry has about 500 members, from college age to those with children. About 50 attend the monthly meetings. Others take part in a faith-based book club or Bible study.
"Other churches have forgotten about young adult," Rodney Allmond said. "They'll join a church but leave because they don't feel like there's a role for them. We have opportunities for them and can provide skills with a spiritual twist."