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Twenty-Somethings: 20-somethings shy away from that old-time religion

Jamie Malernee
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Florida Atlantic University student Melanie Juli leads the blessing during the schools Jewish Student Union weekly Shabbat in Boca Raton, Florida, on September 2, 2006. (Andrew Innerarity/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/MCT)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.--Melanie Juli considers herself a committed Jew. But she doesn't keep kosher. Or observe the Sabbath.

The college student has never had her bat mitzvah, a right of passage into adulthood. And she almost didn't join a university religious club because she thought members would press her to attend synagogue.

"It's not about going to church or temple," said Juli, 22. "It's about being a good person."

Is Juli a walking contradiction? Wishy-washy? Confused?

Not if you ask many 20-somethings, studies show. Regardless of faith, today's young adults generally don't like attending traditional worship services, where their numbers are down. And they shy away from labels, increasingly identifying with no specific religion or, if they are Christian, calling themselves non-denominational.

Yet in conversations and in academic surveys, Generations X and Y still demonstrate an overwhelming belief in God and an interest in how all things spiritual relate to their lives and the world around them, particularly since Sept. 11, 2001.

Many reject dogma and large institutions; they are reaching out for personal and convenient ways to find answers. They send prayer e-mails, look for love on jdate.com, join smaller college ministry groups, and help fuel an industry of spiritually inspired books, movies and music.

Juli, a theater and music major, sings at a local temple, though she does not regularly attend services there. She considers volunteering in her community her most important form of worship. And that religious club, Hillel? She's now its president for the second year in a row, learning from a talented rabbi and making friends.

About 80 percent of college students say they believe in God, according to a 2005 University of California study. But more than a third of adults 18 to 29 don't identify with one religion in particular, and another quarter classify themselves as nondenominational Christians, rather than identifying with a group like Baptist or Methodist, according to a 2001 American Religious Identification survey.

This worries some, like Tim Elmore, president and founder of Growing Leaders, a faith-based leadership group in Atlanta.

"There is a huge number that will say, `I want a little bit of this and a little bit of that. A little bit of Buddhism and a little bit of Jesus,'" Elmore said. "They have been preached tolerance with a capital T so much that there is no critical thinking going on. Having an unexamined OKness with everything can be very damaging."

But rather than moving away from religion, Sarah Quadri, 22, believes today's young adults are moving toward God -- on their own terms.

"We want to know why we are praying, not just to pray to pray," said Quadri, who is Muslim. "I went to a (religious) convention in Tampa and ... the majority of people were university students or in their late 20s, early 30s, and they were the most intense, writing notes and asking questions."

Their aversion to labels is simple. Many do not see religion as a tradition to cut and paste from one generation to the next. They see it as a personal relationship they can tailor to their needs.

"To me religion is like a manmade routine," said Uli Frallicciardi, 33, a Christian who ministers to young adults at a skate park run by Calvary Chapel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "Plenty of people ... they attend church, but are they walking the walk?"

Growing up around increasing religious and ethnic diversity, few experience pressure to conform to a particular religion, as many of their parents did.

Louis Bassi, 26, attended Catholic school when he was a teenager because that is what his parents wanted. But now he sees any involvement in the Church as a personal choice.

"For me, it's a part of my life. I enjoy going," he said. "It keeps me in perspective. It's nice to concentrate on what really matters."

Adila Nazir, 22, who is Muslim, said she chose to start wearing a headscarf not because it was a rule she was supposed to follow, but because of what it symbolized, her humility before God, and her desire to "represent the faith" positively.

"I felt like it was my responsibility to show people, `No, women are not supposed to be oppressed and no, terrorism is wrong,'" she said.

Some young adults turning toward religion also consider themselves backlash babies, rebelling against an American culture obsessed with sex and money, or against parents who never gave them direction.

Diego Rieger, 25, a computer technician in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said he has recently become more religious than his Jewish parents -- he has started keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath -- in reaction to the "very cold, materialistic" way he saw his life headed.

"With the Internet generation, everything is so fast and so impersonal," he said. "People are trying to find something that has meaning."

Studies have long found that once young people marry and have kids, they are more likely to return to traditional religious institutions and practices, said Nancy Ammerman, professor of Sociology of Religion at Boston University.

In the meantime, while they are discovering who they are, research shows religion is mostly likely to strike a chord with them if it does so on a more personal level, according to a survey by Reboot, a New York-based nonprofit organization. This includes college ministry clubs that are smaller and less formal and worship that is individualized and on demand, such as talking to friends about God, praying, or sending out an inspirational e-mail.

One of the best-known college groups is the conservative Campus Crusade for Christ, which in the past decade has more than doubled its ranks, now with more than 55,000 active student members at 1,298 campuses.

At Palm Beach Atlantic University, a private Christian college, a group of students called Hallowed surf and hold worship services on the beach.

"God created the beach, so I really feel Him there," said Jordan Walker, 21.

Andrew Resnick, 25, wanted to stay connected with Jewish friends once everyone went off to college. So he and a friend started a Web site, Jewstar.com, where they could chat and post photos. The social networking site has taken off and expanded its mission. It now has 40,000 users and offers political and religious features, including an "Ask a Rabbi" message board and world news articles.

"I just talked to the rabbi the other day, and he said he sometimes he gets questions that are eight pages long," Resnick said.

Andrew Piccolo, 25, opened a Christian nightclub in downtown Fort Lauderdale, so he and his friends had a positive environment to hang out in. He named it the Godfather's Palace, as in God the Father. There is no alcohol, but music pumps until 2 a.m. some weekends. Hip-hop and reggae pour from the speakers, but the lyrics talk about love and Christ instead of rims and pimps.

"I always wondered, why is it that Christians don't have a place to go?" Piccolo said. "My generation's cry was, `Here we are now, entertain us.'"

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