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$800,000 grant from Lilly Endowment to Mere Christianity Forum aims to reshape church participation among younger adults

The single greatest age group participation gap in churches across the United States is among college age students and young adults, says Rev. Rimes McElveen, Executive Director of Mere Christianity Forum, part of the Religious Council at Furman University.

Church attendance has witnessed a sharp decline in the past two decades according to a Gallup study, which  reveals a 20-percentage-point drop-off since 1999 – with more than half of that change occurring since the start of the current decade.

Gallup reports the downward trend has much to do with the number of people who do not claim a religious affiliation. The study finds that 31% of millennials have no religious affiliation – up from 22% a decade ago. And 33% of the portion of reporting Gen Z (those born after 1996 and who are age 18 and older) have no religious leaning.

It’s that segment of the younger generation McElveen aims to impact with an $800,000 grant awarded to MCF by the Lilly Endowment, which has dispensed 92 grants to colleges and universities, theological schools, denominational agencies, individual congregations and other faith-based organizations for its “Thriving Congregations Initiative.”

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According to the endowment’s website, the initiative is designed to “help congregations strengthen their ministries and thrive so they can better help people deepen their relationships with God, enhance their connections with each other and contribute to the flourishing of their communities and the world.”

MCF will use the funds to develop “The Vinery: Awakening Faith and Flourishing” – its vision for cultivating dynamic learning cohorts among congregations nationwide that are seeking to engage in ministry with their university neighbors, particularly young adults.

McElveen, who is in his 14th year with MCF, says the five-year project involves an application process for churches across the U.S.

“We’ll have three consecutive 24-month cohorts of eight congregations per cohort,” McElveen said, with the first group of churches set to begin in January 2022, the second in 2023 and the third to launch in 2024. Opportunities for Furman student internships will be part of the effort.

“The main goal of the project is to support young adults in their quest to discern their own convictional commitments around faith and vocation,” McElveen said. “But we think one of the best ways to fulfill that larger purpose is the specific goal of helping congregations thrive in vital ministry with their close university neighbors.”

The new initiative, “The Vinery,” takes its name from the place or greenhouse where young vines are cultivated and grown at a nursery, farm or vineyard. Those vines may remain in place as they grow or they may be transplanted to other contexts like vineyards to flourish and bear more fruit for a lifetime.

“This is the crux of The Vinery’s mission  – to get congregations thinking about how they can establish vinery-like ministries that support the flourishing of young vines before they are sent out into the world, to bear good fruit, or remain in these congregations and contribute to the thriving of these local communities,” McElveen said.

Leading The Vinery is Rev. Alexis Carter Thomas, minister, author and adjunct professor at Lander University.

“With more than a decade of experience in congregation-based collegiate ministry, researching, writing and teaching, she is the perfect partner for MCF to bring this initiative to life,” McElveen said. “Through her leadership, MCF will invite congregations to participate in learning cohorts that foster deep listening and truthful discernment around their congregational histories, practices and theological resources.

“We want congregations to examine what is unique about their history – elements that hold the potential to serve in vibrant ministry with local universities,” McElveen added. “Part of that is helping faith communities remember, reclaim or reconnect with their best selves and reckon with their own brokenness and imperfect versions of themselves.”

For example, McElveen said congregations may need to work through issues of injustice or white supremacy or persistent classism as part of their journey.

Ultimately, McElveen believes, the relationship between the congregations and universities will become mutually beneficial and self-sustaining.

“The vision is that congregations would become ‘seed crystals’ that attract students and other members of university communities who long to invest in these life-giving ministries and congregations,” he said.

Online application at the website for “The Vinery: Awakening Faith and Flourishing” is underway and will run through July 31, 2021. Selected congregations for the inaugural cohort will be notified by Sept. 1, 2021, with one-on-one and group discussions, meetings and retreats beginning January 2022.

For more information about “The Vinery: Awakening Faith and Flourishing,” contact Rimes McElveen at

Last updated May 21, 2021
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Clinton Colmenares
News & Media Relations Director