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Casually or not, young people connect to religion

October 13, 2006|by TIFFANY ARNOLD

Just before the Sunday night Bible study time, more than a dozen youths played basketball inside the nave of Tri-State Fellowship, an evangelical church on Cearfoss Pike near Hagerstown. In a room upstairs, a couple of young adults rehearsed on a drum set and guitar. If it weren't for the lyrics, the tune could have been mistaken for a song played on a Top-40 radio station.

Many denominations, particularly evangelical ones, have steered church life toward what could be described as a more casual ministry, said Randy Buchman, 51-year-old pastor at Tri-State Fellowship. Historically, it's what churches have used to attract young people, he added.

However, nationally, the "down-to-earth" approach to church might be losing its appeal. Local church leaders, echoing a broader national debate among evangelicals, say there's a small, but growing number of young people who want to see old-school church make a comeback. And by "old-school," they mean something just short of "high church," with more emphasis on creed-based Christianity.

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"There is a tremendous trend among Christian youths to reconnect with historic Christianity," said Brian Jensen, area director for Young Life, a nondenominational Christian group for young people. He was referring to a growing interest in artifacts of Christianity, such as archaic scriptures, and an interest in bringing back traditional structure to church services.

"The same things (my generation) walked away from in order to make things more practical, we're finding a definitive number of young people who are going back to that," said Buchman, who is a Young Life coordinator for a group of Williamsport High School students.

Young Life has six chapters throughout Washington County that meet weekly at area high schools, Jensen said. According to the organization's Web site, 104,506 high school and middle school students nationwide were involved in Young Life's weekly program during the 2004-05 school year.

Despite the national trend, several local churches have been able to successfully use casual ministry to attract young people. Last year, youths at New Covenant Fellowship Church in Boonsboro started a skateboard ministry open to church members and nonmembers. Participation in that ministry grew from 10 to more than 30 people in one year, church officials said. New Hope Alliance Church in Williamsport and Maranatha Brethren Church in Hagerstown have started similar ministries this year.

There also have been youth-friendly church activities in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Last month, the third annual Vertical Festival was held at the Shippensburg Fairgrounds. The Vertical Festival is a youth-centric Christian festival featuring 25 Christian bands. In Martinsburg, W.Va., a church called The Living Room hosts Christian concerts and posts podcasts and video footage of weekly sermons on its Web site, www.thelivingroom.us.

"I think church has already had the stereotype of being boring," said Eric Bjorndal, 17, of Frederick, Md., who was among the basketball-toting youths at Tri-State Fellowship before Bible study began. "But I've grown up in this church. It's always been more contemporary."

Eric and young people like him belong to the "new postmodern generation," a group that likes to be "hands on," explained Eric Boutieller, pastor of students at Tri-State Fellowship.

"A lot of the younger generation is wanting to participate," Boutieller said. "The boomer generation was content with watching and observing. This group wants to get outside the church walls and help."

Boh Nichols is a 21-year-old youth leader at Tri-State Fellowship. Nichols said he likes the church's many volunteer and missionary programs for young people. "Before I came here, I went to a Lutheran church," he said. "I had to go to these classes. It felt so forced."

Regardless of how young people come to know religion, Buchman said he is glad to see them embracing it.

"I don't think one way or the other is right or wrong," he said. "It's been said that in everybody, there's a space that can only be filled by religion."

Or as 23-year-old evangelical Lori Bjorndal said, it doesn't matter how young Christians go about practicing religion, "We are all interested in showing Christ to the people."

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