What Attracts Young People to Church These Days?
by Rev. Emily Robnett
St. Paul’s United Methodist Church of Tulsa, Oklahoma, is located on Historic Cherry Street, a bustling area that is a hub for young professional adults. The church has existed for more than 100 years and is housed in a nearly 100-year-old building that boasts Gothic architecture and exquisite stained glassed windows.
Looking to capitalize on its location, the church installed a sign a few years ago that flashes messages like, “All are Welcome,” to communicate to all who passed what the church stands for, and who they are as a congregation. While this attracted some young people to the church, it was after attending Pride Parade in 2021 when an influx of young people—and no, not 40-year-olds and their children—20-somethings started appearing in worship, a demographic largely absent from mainline churches today.
“Suddenly, we had all these young people showing up and I thought, ‘Where are they all coming from?!’” remarks Rev. Kathy Brown, Senior Pastor at St. Paul’s UMC.
A PLACE TO BELONG—NO MATTER WHO YOU ARE
For many people, it might be surprising to see a church march in a pride parade, but St. Paul’s UMC is clear about their values as a community. At the beginning of every worship service, St. Paul’s shares its statement of inclusion:
“St. Paul’s United Methodist Church welcomes, affirms and extends our love to all persons regardless of age, ethnicity, race, income, life experiences, abilities, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. All are welcome into our family.”
“It is a constant reminder of inclusion, and it stays at the forefront of everything they do to serve the community of Tulsa,” says Emily Lewis, a 23-year-old Teach for America teacher from Texas.
Belonging: that’s what most people desire when they’re looking for community, and 20-somethings are no exception. But it is not just about St. Paul’s dedication to truly welcoming and celebrating all of God’s people—it is embracing them with the warmth of God’s love.
Maggie Valentine, a 23-year-old originally from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, who relocated to Tulsa to teach for Teach for America, was one of those 20-somethings that showed up for worship one day.
“I went to Tulsa Pride with some friends (it was the weekend that I moved here) and saw St. Paul’s walking in the parade. I made a mental note to check out the website later. About a month after I had moved, I woke up one Sunday feeling some ‘protestant guilt’ that I wasn’t at church, so I decided to check out St. Paul’s, and I instantly felt like I belonged,” explains Valentine.
“When I was looking for a church,” continues Emily Lewis, “I looked to see which churches were inclusive of all people and openly discussed and addressed the inequities in the world. The world is a hard place to navigate, and, in some churches, you cannot be your whole self, or you’ll be judged by other members or clergy. When I attend a church, I do not want to have to perform or fit into a specific mold but be allowed to be my whole self. That’s possible at a church like St. Paul’s UMC.”
“Yes, that’s really what makes St. Paul’s unique—how welcoming and accepting they are,” echoes Valentine. “One of my first memories from my time at St. Paul’s is from when I first visited: not only was I warmly greeted at the door and shown to the sanctuary, but I left with the greeter’s phone number in case I needed anything. She knew I didn’t have family in Tulsa, and, having a grandchild my age, welcomed me into her family. She has been my pseudo-grandma ever since!”
A DESIRE FOR TRADITIONAL WORSHIP
Ethan Waquie, a 25-year-old bartender and college student who is discerning his call to ministry, is St. Paul’s newest member. He began attending services online. After a few weeks of watching the livestreamed services, Waquie made the transition to worshipping in-person.
“When looking for a church home, I was looking for a place that is serious about tradition, but I didn’t want to feel like I was worshipping in the Middle Ages. It was important for me to find a place that will inspire me, every week, to imitate Christ in the world we live in today,” explains Waquie.
“I would say that people in my age group are looking for services that are truly based in Scripture—they want to hear about the love and healing power of Jesus Christ as told in the Gospels.”
Ethan Waquie was recently baptized by Rev. Kathy Brown and Rev. Emily Robnett on January 15, 2023. It was a special day for him and for his newfound church family, who celebrated his new life in Christ with great enthusiasm.
When asked why he chose to join the UMC—especially as the church is fracturing— Waquie said, “Truth be told, I was anxious about the disaffiliation happening in the UMC. I felt that I had finally found a denomination that matches my values but was wary about joining a congregation due to a future that seemed unclear to me. I now believe that the future of the UMC is bright.”
A DEDICATION TO JUSTICE
Even when you park your car at St. Paul’s UMC, their dedication to justice is on display: “Black Lives Matter” is painted across the parking lot. The church takes Jesus’ charge to love thy neighbor seriously and literally.
Perhaps its best-known ministry is Manna Meals, a program dedicated to fulfilling Jesus’ command to “feed his sheep.” Each month, members of St. Paul’s prepare and serve a meal at the Tulsa Day Center, a local program serving those who are experiencing or at risk for homelessness. The congregation also prepares hundreds of sandwiches each month and then hand delivers them to the hungry around Tulsa.
Young people want a church that doesn’t just preach the Gospel—they want a church that lives it, too.
“One of the things I love about being a part of St. Paul’s is that I get to serve the community! Through our Manna Meals ministry, I get to give my time to serve the hungry in Tulsa. It is inspiring to see so many people who were happy to serve those in need,” says Waquie.
“The UMC as a denomination is devoted to social justice and the betterment of all oppressed groups. As Methodists we are charged to live as servants of Christ through caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, loving our neighbor, and becoming a caring and compassionate presence in the world. These things are lovely to read, but they are even better to witness week after week.”
HOW CAN YOUR CHURCH BE MORE WELCOMING?
“You must be visible to your community. That means being and doing more than just a building people pass by—it means having a visible sign that communicates what your church is about, members who are dedicated to gathering others in, getting involved in community events, and having a presence at social justice happenings in your area,” says Rev. Kathy Brown. “Being the church means showing up for more than an hour on Sunday morning, and when you do, that’s what speaks to people.”
The things St. Paul’s is doing are not ground-breaking—but they are intentional. Creating a church culture that is welcoming of all of God’s people is an important first step. When we invite people into our space, they need to know that they will be loved and celebrated -- not judged and condemned.
What most churches will be relieved to hear is that young people are not looking for anything you don’t already have.
“Young professionals want churches that welcome people from all backgrounds and stages of life. Most churches that I’ve attended tend to have either lots of children or elderly congregants. And that is fine with me! I don’t need to be in a church that has a bunch of 20- or 30-year-olds,” remarks Jonathan Ng, a 32-year-old historian and post-doctoral fellow who recently moved from his position at the University of Tulsa to join the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. “Part of the reason that I love church communities is that you befriend people outside your demographic bubble or census category. What matters is that the church has a place for me—to serve, be seen, and be a real part of the community.”
The United Methodist Church is moving in a new direction, one that the people of St. Paul’s UMC hope will reflect the diversity of the Body of Christ and will invite all of God’s people into the full life of the church.
For churches looking to take the next step into our collective future as a denomination, St. Paul’s will be offering an “Inclusivity Training” on March 11 from 9:30 a.m.-12:00 p.m. As always, all are welcome.
To sign up for the Inclusivity Training, please RSVP to Rev. Emily Robnett at firstname.lastname@example.org no later than March 4.