MIAMI -- What can get millennials and Gen Z-ers to pause Netflix and avoid Instagram?
For some teens and young adults, it’s the call of Jesus.
A 13-year-old says she found God through break-dancing. A 29-year-old who was “church hurt” is using music to help welcome others into his parish. And a group of college students said preparing food for the needy is the best way to spend a Friday night.
These young adults consider themselves a part of a growing youth movement in Miami seeking to build and strengthen a relationship with Jesus Christ.
In Christianity, the two most important times of the year are Christmas Day, when believers celebrate the birth of Jesus, and Holy Week in April, when Christians recall the events leading up to Christ’s death on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday.
Religious leaders also have youth on their mind as they brainstorm ways to engage younger parishioners.
“In another age, faith was part of the air that you breathe and now that’s not necessarily the truth anymore,” Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who oversees the Archdiocese of Miami, said in an interview with the Miami Herald.
A Pew Research Center survey published in December found that 3 in 10 U.S. adults, or about 29%, self-identify as religiously unaffiliated, 6 percentage points more than in 2016. Pew suggests the trend is driven largely by young adults who are less likely than older generations to “identify with a religious group or partake in traditional religious practices.”
But faith leaders see a way to get young people reconnected. Even though youth groups and popular movements such as Encuentros Juveniles have existed for years, parishes are more focused than ever in reaching out to younger generations, Wenski said.
Technology, in some ways, has made it easier for young Christians to practice their faith and build faith-based relationships. There are Bible apps and livestream services. Christian dating apps. WhatsApp group chats. Social media. And online ministries.
But tech has also brought new challenges, including persuading people to put down their tablets and go to in-person worship, pastors say. COVID-19 also didn’t help, with Christian leaders noticing an increase in social anxiety among young people.
While not delivering sermons in memes and emojis, some parish leaders have found ways to bring younger people to their doors, through young adult nights of worship, Bible studies, and social activities including sports games and salsa classes.
Here are some places that have found ways to connect youth with Christ:
‘Faith in action’
St. Augustine Church and Catholic Student Center at the University of Miami in Coral Gables focuses on teaching and helping young adults build a relationship with Christ.
“It’s a lot of faith in action,” said the Rev. Richard Vigoa, the church pastor. “When you come here to St. Augustine, it’s not a bystander type of faith, but a faith that is engaged in and serving the other.”
Earlier this month, more than 300 people — parents, kids, college students, seniors — gathered inside St. Augustine’s parish hall on April 1 with a goal to package 40,000 boxes of food. It looked like the Easter Bunny’s workshop, but instead of painting eggs, people were bagging, weighing and boxing soy, rice, veggies and beans.
“We’re giving up of our time, we’re giving up of our energy — there’s plenty of other things in Miami to be doing on a Friday night — and yet we’re here, we’re packaging food,” said 19-year-old Marcel van Hemert, the vice president of UCatholic, UM’s Catholic ministry. “We’re helping out our brothers and sisters who are less fortunate.”
It’s that type of spirit that drew Juliana Warsaw to bring her daughters to help out.
Her goal, she says, is to teach 8-year-old Grace and 5-year-old Gabrielle the importance of helping those in need. For Warsaw, it’s also a chance of reconnecting with her faith.
Until last August, she hadn’t gone to church in 20 years. Then, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, something changed.
“You go through suffering, and you go through moments of hardship, and then you realize that God is calling you,” Warsaw said. “And you know, in times of suffering, you can make a decision. You either move towards God or you move away from God. Thankfully, with God’s help … I felt that calling to come back to church.”
Now she hopes to instill the tradition of going to Mass in her children, too.
“The church, and all of the things that you learn here, it’s almost like a manual to help you raise your kids,” Warsaw said. “I feel like now I can raise my kids right by teaching them these values.”
The four hours of food packaging was done through a $13,200 grant Cross Catholic Outreach got from Coca-Cola Consolidated, and surpassed its 40,000 goal, packaging 40,608 meals. The event brought families and students from different schools together. Students in Christopher Columbus High School uniforms carried boxes. Elementary school students helped Mom. And college students and recent grads were there, like Giselle De La Rua, decked out in hairnets, gloves and aprons.
The 22-year-old UM alumna got involved in St. Augustine’s parish while she was a UM student and is now part of the church’s young adult group, which is separate from UM’s Catholic campus ministry. She said St. Augustine’s vibrant young adult community even “weighed” into her decision on whether she should stay in Miami for medical school or go back home to West Palm Beach.
How does St. Augustine attract so many of Miami’s Catholic young adults?
While its proximity to UM certainly helps — the church is next door — Vigoa says it comes down to “its ministry of presence” both on UM’s campus and in the community. Another big factor is the variety of young adult-focused activities it offers, including Bible studies, and popular socials like Theology on Tap, where people can talk about faith while throwing back a cold one. Then there’s good old-fashioned word of mouth.
“It’s peer to peer ministry, it’s coming together, it’s praying together, worshiping together, that’s what’s most successful,” he said.
An invitation from a friend is how Florida International University student and St. Louis Catholic Church parishioner Adam Kurz, 19, found himself packing boxes at St. Augustine.
The drummer says he believes there is a movement among Miami’s youth to find Christ, and yes, it often leads to members of youth groups from different parishes intermingling, a sight that Vigoa says is common at St. Augustine’s events.
“I think that we are kind of globalizing as it were into forming a greater youth group, not just oh, we’re here in St. Augustine church, or Good Shepherd, or St. Louis, or anything like that,” Kurz said. “We’re basically coming together as a greater community, which I think is probably the most beautiful thing that could happen with the church.”
Van Hemert, the UCatholic vice president, said he’s even noticed old traditions starting to make a “comeback” among the Catholic Church, such as kneeling to receive communion and some women wearing chapel veils during Mass.
“The youth movement is really pushing that ... I feel like there’s something special about us that we’re really like, Jesus is speaking to us,” he said. “There’s something there that I think is creating a generation of saints.”
‘Gather the broken pieces’ COVID left behind
Steven Anderson, 29, is a traveling musician. He’ll jam out on his guitar with the band at Christ Fellowship in Palmetto Bay, then head to its sister campus in Doral. Maybe he’ll play the drums at the Redland campus or the bass at the Coral Gables campus.
The Christ Fellowship music director is always on the move, using music to help get the community fired up for prayer. And to think, he didn’t want anything to do with Fellowship last year.
His former church had closed and he needed a new house of worship. But he was “church hurt,” he said. He had been “let down multiple times by church,” to the point it drove him away from church for a year, he said. He went with a group to visit Christ Fellowship last April as part of a “church tour.” When he learned it was a multicampus church, like his former church, he didn’t think it would be the right place for him.
Then he saw the production. How the Fellowship pastors took time after service to sit and talk with his group. He felt welcomed, an experience he hopes to create for others, either by being a friendly face or providing good music.
A welcoming atmosphere is one of the church’s strengths, and is especially important when it comes to engaging with the church’s younger members, particularly during small groups, according to Student Pastor Luis Miguel Valentin, 24. When in small groups, students are put into groups with girls or boys that are in their same grade level. Each group, led by a Fellowship leader, will have a faith-led discussion. It’s a safe space to talk about life, any problems students may have, and ideally, make friends along the way, Valentin said.
“A lot of them, they don’t have a father. A lot of them are raised by single mothers so for them to have a leader who’s a 35-year-old married man with kids that is able to talk with them throughout the week, go to their basketball games, to let them know, ‘Hey bro, I’m praying for you right now. Hey, I thought about you this morning, bro. I hope all is good. Hey, is everything OK?’ Like that means the world. ... I didn’t grow up with that,” Valentin said.
Christ Fellowship, which is “aligned doctrinally and cooperatively in missions with the Southern Baptist Convention,” according to its website, hosts a variety of activities across its six campuses in Miami-Dade, including young adult nights. Sometimes, small groups are held on campus. Other times they’re hosted elsewhere, like at Starbucks, Buffalo Wild Wings or Top Golf, Valentin said.
Three times a year, it hosts “Rally,” an event that brings students from all of its campuses together for a night of worship. Recently, its Doral campus held a young adult night, which once service ended, turned into a salsa class.
And while in-person worship has returned, it’s not like before. Churches, and not just Fellowship, have a big challenge ahead of them and they need help, Valentin said.
“We’re still trying to gather the broken pieces that COVID did,” Valentin said. “And we’re still trying to gather the broken pieces of just what, you know, the pandemic has done to people, not just with social anxiety, like mental health has gone off like crazy.”
The pandemic is kind of like “Avengers: Endgame,” Valentin said. When Thanos snapped, the world got messed up and was mourning, he said, but once he was defeated, the world returned to normal, and was full of joy and happiness again.
“If you look back in history — if you look back in the era when Jesus walked on this earth from when he went into heaven — the church has always thrived in times like this, always. In times of adversity, in times of hurt, in times of community, you know, not failing, but just enduring the weight of the world,” Valentin said. “And when I say like, ‘Hey, we need, we need help.’ I think we just need to all come together, like, just as the people of God and serve the city a whole lot more. And we’re trying to do better than that.”
‘Escape the reality of being a teenager’
Growing up, Camila Halaby-Bravo, 13, has had an on-again, off-again relationship with God. Then her mom got thyroid cancer and was hospitalized.
“I remember picking up my Bible and reading it,” Camila said. “I had just been on the verge of wanting to end my life and on the verge of becoming an atheist because I didn’t think the Lord existed, he had abandoned me.”
Then she found Catalyst, an after-school program at Miami Springs Middle School, that gives teens a place to enjoy hip-hop and break-dancing. The twist? It had Bible study, too.
“And I was hooked,” Halaby-Bravo said. “This is my family and my people.”
It’s “somewhere you can escape from the reality of being a teenager,” the music lover said.
Catalyst is one of four outreach programs run by Youth for Christ Miami, a Christian nonprofit that has served children ages 11 to 19 across Miami-Dade since 1948. It has a sister chapter in Broward. Its parent organization, Youth for Christ, has been around for nearly 80 years. Its first full-time staff member was the Rev. Billy Graham.
“Our hope is that kids can have the opportunity to make an informed decision about their faith, and at least, you know, hear about Jesus before they graduate, so that they have that opportunity,” said April Lovins, director of Youth for Christ Miami Campus Life High School.
The nonprofit has faith-led after school programs across 10 schools in Miami-Dade and has partnerships with churches in the county, according to Lovins and Dwayne Eslick, the nonprofit’s Campus Life middle school director.
Besides Catalyst, the nonprofit has Campus Life, an after school club for middle and high school students that helps them find a “balanced life,” through games, discussions and prayer; City Life KIX, which teaches kids in North Miami, Goulds and West Homestead about the Christian faith as well as life skills such as financial literacy; and Juvenile Justice, which offers Bible-based programs and Christian mentoring to at-risk youth in juvenile detention centers.
While all of its programs teach kids through the “Christian perspective,” it welcomes all children, regardless of religious affiliation, or lack of one, Eslick said. At the end of the day, the nonprofit just wants to help kids have a better life, he said.
And while YFC Miami tries to make learning about faith fun, figuring out the best way to connect with students can be challenging. Eslick says kids live online now and Lovins has noticed more social anxiety among kids since the pandemic struck.
While Christians still make up the majority of the U.S. population, Eslick notes that there’s also a rise of secularism in America.
A 2016 Pew Research Center analysis suggests the trend is due to a mix of reasons: It’s more socially acceptable to not claim a religion, there is a lower level of religious commitment among Americans, and generational change, with millennials more comfortable describing themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular” compared to older generations.
“It’s a tough world, sometimes a lot of pressure they face at school at home. And life is not as simple. It’s more complicated for kids,” said Eslick, who said he himself was arrested twice by the time he was in sixth grade. A Christian group helped him turn his life around.
On April 2, Halaby-Bravo joined a group of students inside a ballroom at the Hilton Miami Airport Blue Lagoon to speak about how YFC Miami had changed their lives as part of the nonprofit’s annual “Be The Story” banquet.
There she announced that she was three months free from self-harm and an eating disorder.
She has a message for people who are “blinded” by society’s expectations on how they should look or act:
“The Lord just made us in his image, and we’re perfect the way he made us. There’s no other way we should try to change for society no matter what,” said 13-year-old Camila Halaby-Bravo after her speech. “The Lord has changed all our lives and those who find it, have the grace of the Lord.”
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