A grant to Hope College from Lilly Endowment Inc. is supporting a new initiative to address the steep decline in church attendance and religious affiliation among the millennial generation and adults who no longer affiliate with a church while also meeting needs in local communities. 

The $458,502 grant will support “Generation Spark: Mentoring Tomorrow’s Church Leaders.”  The program will work with individual churches to connect their youth (including ages 16-24) and adults of age 45 and older in one-to-one teams focused on helping to meet needs in the world about which they’re concerned.

“There’s so much research on the need to address declining church attendance, but there’s very little focus on the strategies of what to do about that,” said program director Virgil Gulker, who is servant-leader in residence with the college’s Center for Leadership as well as a lecturer in economics and business at Hope.  “The Generation Spark project is built on this simple and decidedly impatient assumption: it is time to suggest a practical strategy to move church leaders from frustrated awareness to an action plan designed to not simply retain youth and older adults but to actually attract and engage them.”

“Generation Spark wants participants, church members and outsiders alike to see that the church can be a dynamic place where former and future leaders are motivated by the tension between what is and what should be, carefully reexamining the former while joyously planning the latter,” Gulker said. “Generation Spark believes the church can be an entrepreneurial place where creative and compassionate people who have a heart for the disadvantaged will develop more effective ways to extend God’s love and grace to them.”

Gulker noted that studies have found that 70 percent of those raised in the church leave by the time they’re in their 20s, and that one third of those under 30 in the United States claim to have “no religion.”

Generation Spark’s relational, intergenerational and entrepreneurial approach — of fostering interest in church by connecting older and younger members with each other, their congregation and projects they care about — was itself developed by young people through the college’s Center for Leadership.

“In 2014, the Center for Leadership challenged high school and college students to research the steep decline in church attendance and religious affiliation among the millennial generation and the adults who no longer affiliate with a church,” Gulker said.  “After sifting through a multitude of symptoms, they reached this conclusion: the primary reason for this unprecedented exodus was, in most cases, the absence of any meaningful plan to involve youth with the church, its adult members or its vision.”

Supported by the grant for the next three years, Generation Spark will be piloted by churches of the Reformed Church in America, which is Hope’s parent denomination, and of the Christian Reformed Church in North America.  Each denomination will help identify six churches for the program, in urban, rural and suburban settings.  As the project runs, the youth-adult teams at the churches will identify and begin working on problems that interest them within church or community.  Gulker, Sarah Kolean, who is office manager of the Center for Leadership, and Hope students working through the Center for Leadership will guide Generation Spark.

By the end of the pilot, the Center for Leadership plans to develop a model that individual congregations can implement on their own.  “Generation Spark will, at the end of the three-year period, have produced replication procedures and materials to fully integrate the program into the Christian Reformed Church, Reformed Church in America and other denominations,” Gulker said.

The college’s Center for Leadership helps students discern, develop and deploy their gifts and calling through experiential learning and mentoring.  Components of the center include a student consulting program, through which interdisciplinary student teams led by an experienced practitioner coach solve real-world problems for a wide variety of clients; and an entrepreneurship program, which provides hands-on coursework, workshops and summer fellowships for students to create start-ups.  The college also offers an academic minor in leadership.

Lilly Endowment is an Indianapolis-based private philanthropic foundation created in 1937 by three members of the Lilly family — J.K. Lilly Sr. and sons J.K. Jr. and Eli — through gifts of stock in their pharmaceutical business, Eli Lilly & Company.  The Endowment exists to support the causes of religion, education and community development.  Lilly Endowment’s religion grantmaking is designed to deepen and enrich the religious lives of American Christians.  It does this largely through initiatives to enhance and sustain the quality of ministry in American congregations and parishes.

Earlier this year, Hope received a $50,000 planning grant through Lilly Endowment’s initiative “Called to Lives of Meaning and Purpose” to work with area churches this summer to see how best Hope can assist in ministry that encourages exploration of calling and to craft a proposal for an implementation grant that if awarded would provide support for up to five years.  In 2015, Hope received a $500,000 grant through Lilly Endowment’s High School Youth Theology Institutes initiative to establish Awakening, a summer institute designed to deepen high school students’ faith formation and understanding of Christian theology, and to help them explore the moral dimension of contemporary issues and examine how their faith calls them to lives of service.  In 2002, Hope received a $2 million grant from Lilly Endowment through “Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation,” a national initiative at colleges and universities, which the college used to establish its CrossRoads Program to encourage students to explore intersections of faith, career, calling and life.