Harlem Churches Adapt to Attract Youth

St. Andrew's Episcoal Church is one of several houses of worship looking to change their program in hopes of attracting a younger audience. (Photo by joseph a, Creative Commons license)

St. Andrew’s Episcoal Church is one of several houses of worship looking to change their program in hopes of attracting a younger audience. (Photo by joseph a, Creative Commons license)

Polls (like Pew Research) are finding that younger Americans have far less religious affiliation than their older counterparts. The historic churches of Harlem know this trend well – in particular, when most of the young people present for a sermon are tourists donned in their sightseeing best. The Uptowner‘s Cari Romm heads to churches around Harlem where several have plans to alter their services in hopes of attracting a younger generation and improving their chances of survival.

Kenny Daniels, sexton of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church at 127th Street and Fifth Avenue, said that once a month, his congregation forgoes its typical hymns in favor of a hymnal supplement called “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which features more upbeat gospel tunes.

St. Andrew’s standard worship, Daniels said, leaves many young people uninterested in returning once they finish college. “It’s a boring service,” he said, estimating that of 100 people who show up each week, only about 18 are in their 20s and 30s. “And when we lose them, we don’t get them back as quick.”

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on 125th Street and Broadway has a congregation with “an average age younger than a lot of the other churches in Harlem,” said the Rev. Tom Pellaton, who credits its acceptance of Harlem’s gentrification. Unlike the largely black congregations at St. Mark’s, Mount Calvary and others, St. Mary’s membership is half African-Americans and half other ethnic groups, Pellaton said, partly because of the church’s proximity to Columbia University and the Manhattan School of Music.

Pellaton also credited a “holistic” approach that includes an emphasis on social justice – the church sponsors an AIDS hospice, an urban garden and a food delivery program – as well as prayer.

“The parish is very socially progressive,” which keeps younger members and young families feeling connected, he said; only about half of the congregation is over 65.

Meanwhile at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church on Edgecombe Avenue, Rev. Tisha Jermin estimates that her church and the nearby Mount Calvary United Methodist Church combined have only about 10 regular congregation members between the ages of 18 and 35, with most of the rest being over 60. As for the make-up of those in attendance, on the Sunday Romm visited, “the crowd was roughly half tourists in T-shirts and shorts, half elderly members in their Sunday finest and perhaps three young adult worshippers.”

St. Mark's United Methodist Church (Photo by Cari Romm via The Uptowner)

St. Mark’s United Methodist Church has only about 10 regular congregation members between the ages of 18 and 35. (Photo by Cari Romm via The Uptowner)

Rev. Jermin has made efforts to adapt to a younger generation by incorporating tradition with some technology.

But Tiffany Clemmings, 25, a member for about six months, said she appreciated Jermin’s fresh approach to sermons. “My age group — we like it real. Don’t sit on a pedestal and don’t talk about how to be perfect,” she said.

To appeal to young people like Clemmings, Jermin has launched an aggressive overhaul of her two congregations, moving them away from “traditional high worship” and toward a “blended” style that adds such modern touches as flat screen TVs in the sanctuaries, “zested-up” music and a planned dance ministry.

But amidst all these efforts to attract and engage a younger generation, the older churchgoers mustn’t fall to the wayside. Rev. Hannah Bonner, 30, heads the United Methodist Church’s Restoration Generation, which aims to get young people involved. The group held an Oasis conference in Washington, D.C. which looked at “which parts of their religion were essential and which should change with the times.”

“Do we need to do it in a steeple, dressed up, sitting in pews? Does the pastor need to wear a collar? None of these are necessary,” said Bonner, the leader of Restoration Generation. “But for the older people, that’s what church is.”

“We never want to deny or negate an older generation,” added Restoration Generation employee Dorlimar Lebron, 25, a St. Mark’s parishioner. “We always want to integrate it.”

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