Jackie Prosser hated getting the notes, the Facebook messages asking why she was not at the Sunday service.
The 27-year-old was going to Chattanooga First Church of the Nazarene for about a year when she got pregnant. She was not married and worried people in the church would judge her, she said.
But as the weeks went by, she received more messages from church members about her missing the services. An older woman even called to encourage Prosser to come back, she said.
When she did, no one judged her. She was just as welcome then as her first Sunday, she said. The relationships you build and the community that is created in church hold you accountable, she said.
"When I came they were like, 'Hey, do you want to join the choir?'" Prosser said. "They were just so loving."
Prosser used to hate the "we missed you on Sunday" messages, but now she is one of the people sending them, she said.
At a time when many young people are leaving the church and organized religion, there are those in the younger generations who are choosing to stay connected to houses of worship. They seek out such places or remain committed because of the church community or the way churches can address social issues.
But the journey to finding a church home can be a difficult one. Many young people spoke of attending churches where they were the youngest member by decades or being the only person sitting in the pews without a spouse and children.
In 1999, church leaders were among the most trusted professions, according to a Gallup Poll. Since then, trust has fallen and the number of people identifying as Christian has plummeted. In the last two decades, the church has been rattled by revelations of widespread sexual abuse by clergy in the Catholic Church and Southern Baptist Convention. Other denominations have gone through public splits over social issues, with the United Methodist Church on the verge of splitting apart because of disagreements over the inclusion of the LGBTQ community. Many churches have lost their roles as pillars in the community.
These examples are only some of the factors in the downward trend in church participation, which is particularly strong among young people. Almost half of America's Millennials are not Christian, nearly double the rates of their parents, according to a 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center. A 2019 survey by the Barna Group of nearly 2,500 people, ages 13-29, found neither Generation Z nor Millennials ranked growing spiritually among their top five priorities in life.
Kait Sons found East Brainerd Church of Christ in January 2018 by Googling churches in the area. She was a new student at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, studying biochemistry. The 21-year-old was active in her home church in Altamont, Tennessee, but struggled to get involved in a faith community in Chattanooga for about two years, she said.
"A part of the community was missing," Sons said. "With church there's just so many great opportunities and ministries to get plugged into where you can grow closer with each other and have that community help you through difficult times, whether it's a final exam or a death in a family. I felt that that was missing a lot and I also felt my connection with God was missing."
Sons felt at home in the East Brainerd church because of its young adult and college ministry. She was surrounded by people in similar situations — people away from home for the first time or seeking to understand what faith means to them as individuals. There were also volunteer opportunities in the surrounding area Sons got involved in, she said.
Unlike Sons, Joshua Bartlett did not grow up in a strongly religious household. When he was a teenager, his mother died. Bartlett did not want to think about God and, for years, he did not.
Then, about three years ago, Bartlett began dating his now-wife Kimberly. She was active in the First Church of the Nazarene, so Bartlett went along.
"To be honest, I was terribly nervous coming here," the 33-year-old said. "Everyone was very nice and welcoming, but I was unsure of who I was."
The church was patient as Bartlett looked for answers to the questions he had pushed aside years ago, he said. Today, the Bartlett couple considers everyone in the church their family, they said.
Along with the pastor, other church members help you grow as a person of faith, said Scott McPherson. It is difficult for a person to grow deeper in their faith without being surrounded by other believers, said the 28-year-old regular at Christ United Methodist Church.
"This is the most important thing, following Jesus in the world with the people you meet," he said.
McPherson and Christine Regnitz, another Christ UMC member, said their church's position addressing social issues keeps them connected.
A 2019 survey by the Barna Group of more than 25,000 adults ages 18-35 found more than half of Christians said their faith makes them concerned about the welfare of others and motivates them to give their time to help social causes. The Christians' responses outpaced young people with no faith by 15 percentage points.
Regnitz said she stays connected to the church because it allows her to help others. She uses her CPA experience to teach finance courses through the church's "LEAD" program for low-income people, she said.
"I firmly believe that His life is about helping others," Regnitz said. "When you're part of a church community and others who also believe that way, it keeps you from being selfish when things get hard."
Despite their role in the community, churches across the country often shy away from controversial topics — immigration, LGBTQ rights or victims of abuse — McPherson said.
As with choosing sermon topics, worship music styles and social events, today's churches have to balance between the sometimes conflicting desires of older and younger members. While young people consistently report wanting to be more involved in social issues, nearly two-thirds of American adults want religion to stay out of politics, according to a 2019 Pew survey.
By nature, young people are more transient than older church members. They are less likely to have disposable income or hold leadership positions in the church. Even creating specific ministries for them — a factor that attracted many young Christians to their current churches — is a challenge, said Michael DuBose, associate pastor of Freedom Church.
Young people do not feel the social pressures of previous generations to attend church, the 35-year-old said. Instead, they are looking for authenticity and relationships. Many churches are at a turning point of not preaching at people but instead pushing opportunities for Christians to build relationships among one another, DuBose said. They need to make this shift or risk missing an opportunity to minister to young people, he said.
"I think the shift is going to be important, because then the church can offer what the world can't," he said.
Contact Wyatt Massey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.