July 12, 2014 at 1:00 am

Churches struggle to reach young Americans

Leaders seek a 'sweet spot between deep religious messages that sound cool' and faith that 'seems like it comes from a sappy self-help book,' author Naomi Schaefer Riley says. (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)

Young people caught up in what experts now call “emerging adulthood” may stress that they are open to attending multigenerational congregations that offer roots, tradition and mentors. But how will they know when they have found the right spiritual home?

When they feel it.

That’s a hard target to hit, said Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of “Got Religion? How Churches, Mosques and Synagogues Can Bring Young People Back.” Many religious leaders are struggling to find a “sweet spot between deep religious messages that sound cool” and faith that “seems like it comes from a sappy self-help book,” she noted.

In light of current trends, it’s also hard for clergy to take comfort in the trend seen in previous generations, which is that young people who abandon the pews usually return when they are married and have children. Trouble is, increasing numbers of Americans between 20 and 40 are delaying marriage, family and any community ties that bind. Some are opting out of marriage altogether.

This creates strong moral tensions.

For an increasing number of young adults, “religion is like a jacket,” said Riley. “You have to take it off whenever you are doing something that you know violates the teachings of your church.

“So you throw that jacket in the corner. ... Then you drift further and further away until there is some part of you that just doesn’t fit anymore. In your head, you’re saying, ‘I haven’t been behaving the way that I should, so I shouldn’t go to church, or to Shabbat, or to the mosque.’ Then you say that week after week. ... You lose your religious habits.”

Riley said the goal of her book was to show examples of Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Mormon and Muslim attempts to address these issues. The result is a guided tour through crucial paradoxes in the lives of many young Americans, especially the Millennials born between 1981 and 1996. For example:

■Many young adults say that they don’t want to be seen as mere “religious consumers,” yet it’s clear they are seeking congregations with worship, music, sermons and special events that click.

■Young people are tired of being pursued through a barrage of social media, yet these online connections are obviously at the heart of the networks that shape their lives. Religious leaders must be careful when crossing digital lines.

■On the marriage issue, young Americans are not seeking congregations that feel like holy singles clubs. Nevertheless, they do want to see lots of young people in the pews around them — members of their own urban tribes — to help them feel at home.

■Many young people say they are seeking a faith with beauty, depth and history, yet probably not one with firm doctrines — especially on sexuality — that make them feel uncomfortable or judged.

During this “emerging adulthood” stage, stressed Riley, most young people are living in a state of flux, moving to new places, making new friends, adjusting to new jobs, living with new roommates, dating new people and trying to accept new financial responsibilities. Meanwhile, religious leaders are asking them to make commitments and to keep them.

“Religious leaders are really caught in a bind here,” she said. “You want these young people to step forward and maybe even to become leaders.” At the same time, she added, it’s crucial that “the church or the temple or the mosque doesn’t become like almost everything else in their lives — something else that’s just temporary.”