State of Faith: Churches Target Millennials

DICKSON CITY -- By most standards, it isn't a typical church service.

Inside a converted movie theatre in Dickson City, hundreds gather at Parker Hill Church. Mark Stuenzi is the lead pastor for the nondenominational church.

"Between our three campuses, Dickson City, Clarks Summit, and Wilkes-Barre, a weekend attendance will be around 2,000 and 2,200," Stuenzi said.

When Pastor Stuenzi started at the church 28 years ago, there were only about 40 people showing up to a Sunday service. So what's his secret to all that growth?

"What we try to do is we try to take a 2,000-year-old message, the message of Christianity, and we try to communicate it in a way that's relevant and engaging to the current generation."

That means using modern methods, including a full band with drums and guitars and continuously updating their style.

"We could get stuck on this style of music and become irrelevant in 10 years, too. Styles change," Stuenzi added.

It's that change that's attracted people to Parker Hill.

"We were looking for a church that was more relevant, more up to date," said Sean Dinkel of Taylor.

"My husband and I were going to another church that we just felt was stagnant, dead on the vine, if you will," said Nancy Gleason of Moosic.

"Many of the people we find we're reaching now are people who at some point tried church and gave up on it," said Stuenzi.

A 2014 Pew Research study shows the number of unaffiliated Americans who are agnostic or atheist jumped nearly seven percent over just seven years. It's a trend that Bishop Joseph Bambera knows well. He's overseen the Catholic Diocese of Scranton since 2010.

"The generation of my mom and dad, the great generation, my own generation of baby boomers is very different in terms of church affiliation and church participation from the millennials," Bishop Bambera said.

In just the past 20 years, the Diocese has gone from about 200 parishes to 120. It's a move the church calls "right sizing," as fewer people live in urban areas in northeast and central Pennsylvania.

That's part of the reason why hundreds gathered inside St. Peter's Cathedral in Scranton for a Mass for young people titled "#leaveamark16."

"But that's a perfect example of us needing to tailor our message and translate our message into a language that young people know. If it takes a hashtag, I'm happy to do it," Bambera said.

"It's neat to see the church, especially my local Diocese, become more modern if you will," said Nathan Morgan of Mountain Top.

Both Bishop Bambera and Pastor Stuenzi are quick to agree. Change isn't a one-time thing. It must continue over time.

"Not to adjust the message, not to change the message, but to put in terms that will engage them," Bambera said.

"The methods in which we deliver the message can change, and I believe they must change if we are going to continue to engage people in a message they really need to hear," said Stuenzi.

That engagement is necessary to fill a spiritual hunger for generations to come.

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