In Fargo-Moorhead, a metropolitan area of about 200,000 separated by a river and a state line, there are plenty of traditional Christian congregations — Lutheran, Presbyterian and Methodist to name a few.

But some of those Lutheran congregations began to notice that there were also a surprising number — 45,000 in their estimation — of young adults who were not connected to any sort of faith community.

What to do about it?

If the traditional model of church were ‘working,’ they reasoned, then there would not be this disparity. 

Two years and one Presbyterian pastor later, The Project F-M continues to wrestle with the question as it seeks to reach out to those beyond the church walls.

The project, an experiment in church planting by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America with a called Presbyterian pastor, is trying to find ways to meet those young adults where they are.

“There was a realization that something needed to be done differently,” said the Rev. Adam Copeland, the Presbyterian pastor called to lead the Lutheran-sponsored Project F-M. “There is a need to look at church differently because the hunger for connection amongst young adults — that hasn’t dissipated.”

The group of ELCA churches realized that the answer might be something they couldn’t see because they were part of the problem.

So the group decided to hire a community organizer for a year, then have a pastor to take over from there. The community organizer’s role was to connect with young adults to determine their values, religious identity and experience with traditional church. From there, she’d try to determine how the institutional church might create space where those values and interests could connect.

It was a great idea, but perhaps one that was easier in theory than in practice.

After the first year of community organizing, Copeland was called to be The Project F-M’s organizing pastor.

“What we began to realize was the difference between community organizing and faith-based community organizing,” Copeland said. “At some point with the faith-based kind, you need to be able to say, ‘Thank you for telling us your values, here are our values and let’s see how those can connect.’”

The stereotype, as Copeland has heard it from mainline congregations, is that faith is not important in the lives of young adults who don’t go to church. But almost without fail, Copeland finds that young adults are quite spiritual and say that faith is important to them, but very few of them are active in congregations.

“I’ve found in my conversations with young adults almost to a person that faith, spirituality and living in community are all really important parts of their lives,” Copeland said. “The difference is that they don’t describe that or live that out in a traditional congregation.

“Many of those I talk with are looking for a community in which they can ask questions easily, in which their curiosities can be explored and that is willing to arrive at answers together,” Copeland said.

In traditional churches, where the main event is Sunday morning worship, there’s not always the search for authenticity that young people seem to desire.

“I do a lot of thinking about what a new form of faith community might look like,” Copeland said.

This has been part of the challenge for Copeland who, a young adult himself, describes himself as someone who loves formal worship and is from a very traditional congregation.

“I think that mainline congregations have a lot to offer — I’m just becoming increasingly aware that they are not connecting,” he said. 

“Prior to this I served as the solo pastor of a rural Presbyterian church and while I was aware of and interested in conversations about new missional communities, I never saw myself leading one,” Copeland said. “But what I’m finding is utterly fascinating to me is to ask questions about what the church is really about and what God’s people can do together in a place where we have the freedom to do interesting things.”

Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer, photographer, and pastor who lives in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico when she is not following her wanderlust out into the world.