The Rev. Kim Woeste, chaplain at Rocky Mountain College, says she works generally with three kinds of students.
Some have never gone to church and have no faith connection; some grew up in church and stay connected; and others grow up as part of a congregation but come to college and can't find a church or don't try.
That squares with national research that says more than half the Millennial generation — this year, ages 12 to 30 — don't go to church, although many explore their spirituality in other ways. That challenges chaplains and pastors alike to creatively connect with people in that age group.
To engage with students in the third group, Woeste will occasionally invite students to try out a church in the community. More often, she tries to provide a spiritual experience on campus.
Students meet Thursday nights for Fun and Faith, where they can snack, play games and ask questions about faith in a comfortable environment.
"It's not your traditional Bible study or worship activity," she said. "Being able to be with people, talk about what's going on and laugh together in a safe place where they can be themselves, that is spiritual."
She'll also meet with students on Wednesdays in the McDonald Commons to plan community outreach, which for some students is another kind of spiritual engagement. One recent weekday, 10 students talked over details for a forum on homelessness and their next trip to the Hub, to hand out sandwiches to the homeless clients.
David Fejeran, 18, a freshman from Southern California studying political science, was raised Catholic but now considers himself a secular humanist. His philosophy of life is twofold: to learn something new every day and to lessen the suffering of others.
Though he’s in no way religious, Fejeran joined Woeste’s group because of the ways it helps out in the community.
“The way I see it is I really don’t care what religion you are as long as you’re a nice person,” he said. “I always say, ‘You can worship rocks, for all I care, just don’t throw them at people.'"
Tessa Fraser, a Rocky sophomore, was raised in the church but quit going when she was 16.
"I still believe in God," the business management student said. "My faith is still completely intact. The only difference is I no longer find a church building to be where I'm closest to God."
At Montana State University Billings, the Rev. Rob Kirby, campus pastor who heads up United Campus Ministries, has seen students in the past five years stepping away from church but holding on to the concept of a higher power.
At a recent gathering he asked them what was lacking in their spiritual lives; what they wanted more of.
"And what they said was personal time with God," Kirby said. "I asked 'what does that look like' and their different answers were quiet time with God and time with Scriptures, but around the room there was that consensus of more intentional time with God."
Kirby has also set up a program for students to visit a series of churches and meet with those pastors on campus.
"Students are claiming 'I want authenticity," Kirby said, and "anything that looks like it is going through the motions is suspect."
Some find meaning in contemporary worship that matches their musical tastes, he said, and others crave highly liturgical worship they say ties back to ancient tradition.
The word “authentic” frequently crops up in a conversation with the Rev. Matt Blakeslee, pastor of CMYK, a recently opened church in Billings.
"When I say (my wife) Kate and I are authentic, I mean that when it comes to speaking to the younger generation, we have to create space for doubt, we have to create space for questions and we have to create space where all the answers are not in a nice, neat package," he said. “That it’s OK to wrestle, it’s OK to struggle. For us to try and create community that loves people where they are, this is what we believe the Gospel is.”
CMYK draws a mostly younger crowd. Of the average attendance of 60 people, maybe 10 are over 35 and the rest are younger, Blakeslee said.
He grew up going to Faith Chapel, and worked there as a staff pastor until he and his wife, Kate, decided they wanted to plant a new church that might appeal to people looking for something different.
The name CMYK is inspired by the four-color printing process used by most graphic designers and print companies. In the same way that the four colors can be blended into many different combinations, the church can work together to create beauty, Blakeslee said.
“We felt called to plant a church that is as authentic and real to who we are as people and who we are as people of God,” he said. “And for us, that revolves around art and the budding art scene in Billings. That involves culture and being connected to what’s happening in Billings and around the world.”
The church normally meets at the YWCA, but one Sunday night a month, they gather at the Depot for Art Brew, and after a 45-minute service, members adjourn to enjoy exhibits by traditional and nontraditional artists. On a recent Sunday, that included paintings on display, fine arts, an art project, and a hair stylist cutting hair and sharing details about her overseas ministry.
One of the artists, Kory Kimmet, 24, a CMYK member, created nine photo portraits with written testimonies superimposed. She credits Blakeslee’s philosophy for inspiring her artwork.
“One of the things that Matt Blakeslee is big on, you can be any kind of Christian and have these differences and come to this community,” she said.
That motivated her to take the photographs, including one of herself, and have each subject write a letter describing his or her spirituality and how it’s working in their lives.
“I’ve always wanted to find a way to blend my faith and God into my work and it just kind of segued really well,” she said.
Kimmet, who is also an art student at MSUB, is also doing that on campus, working with Kirby and coordinating a student art show called "Beyond Words," which is a chance for students to artistically express spiritual experiences that may not fall into a traditional narrative.
Blakeslee has also introduced elements of the early church in his services, including singing hymns and songs with biblical lyrics, reciting the Lord’s Prayer and taking Communion every week.
“There is a beauty behind some of our traditions that, as Millennials, we want to be part of something bigger than ourselves and to be part of something that is thousands of years old,” he said.
If there is a traditional element that draws Millennials, they are also molded, to a degree, by technology, said the Rev. Jill Riley, pastor of Navigate Church, another out-of-the box downtown church.
“They’re very mindful about faith, but their sources are dramatically more widespread than when I was growing up,” said Riley, 41, whose congregation of about 50 people is about half age 31 or younger. “They can go anywhere across the Internet and find other people’s experiences.”
They have access to any religion in the world, in contrast to Riley who had a more unilateral approach to faith growing up.
“You went to church and whatever your family supported, you did,” she said.
Riley decided to start a church and do it in such a way that it might appeal to people who wouldn’t normally set foot inside a traditional setting. Navigate Church started out meeting at Head Start, and then it secured offices on the third floor above Don Luis, a Mexican restaurant, where it met until it outgrew the space.
Eventually it ended up at Rock Creek Roasters. It holds special events at the Depot. The church is part of the Evangelical Covenant denomination.
“We run a real simplistic model and we run a pretty financially slim model,” she said. “Our philosophy is everything we do we want to do with a Bible and a boombox — some kind of music. We run light and simple.”
The church is founded on basic tenets of Christianity, such as Jesus Christ as Savior, and a belief in the Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Though a few issues of faith remain nonnegotiable, Riley is always willing to talk about any issues her members bring up and to agree to disagree.
“We may wrestle with what the Bible says about it but we don’t wrestle personally with each other and let it divide us,” she said. “So there’s mutual respect and understanding for teaching, but I don’t expect them to buy in all the way in order to be part of our community.”
Riley calls the younger generation “a thinking generation” that has access to an incredible amount of information, which tends to cause them to challenge what they hear. They are very mindful about their faith, she said, and unlike earlier generations, won’t just accept what they’re told.
A group of the younger members has started meeting one night a week to re-listen to Sunday sermons and dissect what they’ve heard. Or they spent the time sharing issues in their life and encouraging each other in how best to deal with them, sometimes with biblical advice and sometimes not.
Riley is there for the gatherings, and she welcomes the critiques.
“How would I ever really know what their questions are if I don’t allow them to express them?” she said.
An app for that
If technology informs the Millennials' faith, it also enhances it, a couple of members of that generation say.
J.D. Lenz, 24, sitting in a New Testament Survey class at Yellowstone Christian College in Billings, said he has a Bible app on his iPhone that he uses most for Bible studies and reading the Bible, or for quick access to search for topics or key words or different Bible versions.
“It’s a lot easier to carry my phone around,” he said. “If I’m at home, I have access to my actual Bible.”
When he’s in church, Lenz will also use his phone to check facts he hears during the sermon. Though sometimes, he’ll jot down a question and look it up after church.
“I still always ask why and try and figure it out for myself and not taken what’s spoken as the complete truth,” he said.
His classmate Max Hoiness, 22, also has a Bible app on his phone. He also subscribes to the chapel sermon from Bob Jones University and he downloads those and listens to them as he’s going about his day.
Other students on the Billings campuses find meaning gathering together to focus on their faith.
At Rocky, Dan Hargrove, professor of aviation at Rocky, has been faculty adviser for 10 years to the evangelical student group Intervarsity Fellowship. The chapter runs under the banner of the international organization.
Hargrove sees this generation of students, the 30, or so, who meet weekly, as more serious.
“There’s less focus on entertaining them than meeting where they are spiritually,” Hargrove said. “We used to have mixer games. Now it’s, ‘I’m busy, I want it to be more meaningful.'"
They like a blend of worship through music and speakers who can meet their desire to grow spiritually. They also come to find meaningful relationships.
Most of the members are involved in a fairly broad cross-section of local churches, Hargrove said.
“We don’t want to be their church,” he said. “We believe in involvement in a local fellowship.”
About 20 students from Rocky and MSUB meet weekly at Off the Leaf under the banner of Billings Catholic Campus Ministry.
"We like to pick mutual territory so we can all feel comfortable," said Quincy Linhart, 22, a senior at MSUB from Hobson.
The group is open to Catholics and non-Catholics alike, she said.
"Most of them are kids who have grown up in a strong faith family and just want to continue that growth," Linhart said. "We've had some people with no roots in Catholicism and they just want to explore."