Reporter: Shannon Green
Camera / Editor: Sarah Espedido
The distressed denim pants, black combat boots and bomber jacket J.J. Vasquez is wearing makes him seem more ready to meet friends at East End Market’s trendy food hub than leading a church service a few miles around the corner.
But at this church, 32-year-old Pastor Vasquez fits in just fine.
At first sight, Journey Church is modern. You won’t find any pews or stained-glass windows here because the 2-year-old congregation rents its meeting space from Winter Park High School.
Hot coffee and tea brews for attendees before they walk into the auditorium where they are often greeted to the sound of an electric guitar versus an organ wailing over worship songs.
Here, the faces are overwhelmingly young and Sunday fashion is a mixture of hipster and urban attire. But the faith espoused inside the church’s doors is still traditional Christianity. Contemporary packaging is just one method to help make organized faith more palatable for a younger audience that is turning away from corporate worship in droves.
“I have an opportunity to redefine what a pastor is and so when people see me and my tattoos or people see just the way our family interacts, the way we do live [church] on a Sunday, it really gives our church a unique position in Christianity to redefine what a pastor is and what is the church,” Vasquez said. “So we’re excited about that opportunity.”
Christianity remains the dominant religion in America — today. But multiple studies and surveys are pointing toward shifting views among young Americans about their religious identity.
According to one comprehensive study out of San Diego State University, a growing number of young Americans are embracing secularism and are not strong advocates for religion or spirituality.
The 2015 study examined four national surveys of 11.2 million respondents taken between the 1970s and this decade. Respondents were ages 13 to 18 years old, with the earliest survey tapping the Baby Boomer generation and the most recent looking at the Millennials. The most drastic change in religious affiliation, however, occurred from 2000-13 when the percentage of college students who identified as “none” — no religious affiliation — jumped from 15 percent to 28 percent.
So why are more young Americans ditching religious labels and practices?
“It’s real simple. The first reason and the compelling reason is individualism,” said Dr. David Hackett, who teaches religion at the University of Florida. “Increasingly, people in American society feel less connected to tribe, to parents, to partners.”
The effects of individualism are felt even beyond church walls.
David Williamson, 47, identifies as an agnostic atheist and started the Central Florida Freethought Community in 2011. His group started almost exclusively as an advocacy organization for the separation of church of state but added more community service, social events and educational opportunities to help grow participation.
“It’s hard to attract young people but I think that the way we do that is we try to go to where they want to be, which is coffee shops and bars – I mean we’ve seen churches do the same thing,” Williamson said. “There’s nothing that’s unique to atheism or Christianity about trying to attract young people. You’ve got to do different things that they want to do.”
Williamson has seen an increase in participation over the past few years. His group’s Facebook page has close to 3,000 likes and his email distribution list grew to more than 2,000 contacts. But Williamson can’t discern if there’s been a substantial growth among younger participants.
“Honestly, we’re not on Instagram,” Williamson chuckled. “That is where we probably need to be to attract younger people.”
No study can determine a cause-and-effect relationship as to why more young Americans are leaving religious affiliations and practices — and more distinctly the Christian faith — behind.
The reasons, of course, are as individual as our own fingerprints.
Jonathan Meade, a 34-year-old Orlando resident, said he stopped identifying as a Christian when he was 31 in part because of unanswered questions about the role of women and slavery in the Bible.
“I really just teach my kids that you have to love yourself,” Meade said. “Nobody is going to save you but you.”
Changing social views and religious traditions also add to the backdrop of waning church membership among some Christian denominations.
The Southern Baptist Convention, second only to the Catholic Church in membership across the United States, reported that its affiliated churches saw membership drop by at least one million members in the past decade.
Several legacy churches across the country — including the 133-year-old First Presbyterian Church of Sanford — have been forced to shut their doors amid budget crunches as younger memberships decline in the face of older members passing away.
Christianity remains the dominant religion in America today, but multiple studies and surveys are pointing toward shifting views among young Americans, who do not identify with a religious affiliation.
Despite the numbers and trends, Vasquez sees an opportunity to create more connection between young people and God.
He published a book three years ago called “Hello God” which focused on building relationships between younger generations and God. Shortly after writing the book, Vasquez took a literal leap of faith when he quit his teaching job at Southeastern University, a private Christian liberal arts school in Lakeland, to start his own church along with his wife, Liz.
“We gave up a lot to do it. We sold our home, cashed out our IRA, our 401(k). I went without a salary, I left my job [where I] was making six figures at a local college leading there, writing a book…,” Vasquez said. “We left it all to plant this church, and we don’t regret a moment of it.’’
Vasquez’s parents, Freddy and Liz, even sold their dream home they’d just finished renovating in Tampa to help him launch the young church. His dad heads up security and his mom leads children’s church.
“...The way he does church, it opens up doors for everybody no matter what your beliefs or color or language,” said Freddy Vasquez, a former youth pastor himself. “I had to adjust to that because I grew up in a church that was very strict where you had to be a certain way and if you didn’t fit into that mold, it didn’t work.”
The Vasquezes always believed their son had a gift to pastor a church one day having seen 10-year-old J.J. lead a sermon in their old church in New York.
Their belief only strengthened after witnessing their son J.J. endure one of the hardest moments of his life a few years ago when his youngest son passed away just hours after birth.
The baby wasn’t expected to survive the pregnancy since he suffered from a rare birth defect from which he did not develop kidneys.
“We got to hold him, we got to sing songs to him, his grandparents got to meet him, his cousins got to meet him and then we took him off the respirator seven hours after being around and he went back to Jesus,” Vasquez said.
The couple named the child Journey — which is tattooed on both of their forearms in remembrance of the baby.
“I always try to say that purpose, it robs pain,” he said. “Because when you know why you’re going through something, it helps you endure. We found out in seven hours why God put us through what he put us through to see the impact on someone else.”
One day soon, Vasquez plans to operate in his own church building. He has four full-time paid staff members and plans to launch a youth leadership academy in 2019 to train adolescents interested in pursuing ministry.
In just two years, church attendance has grown to an average of 600 visitors and members each Sunday through two services.
Combat boots or not, Vasquez makes sure to race toward the front of the lobby before the humming guitar, pulsating drums and singers complete their song.
He wants to be the last face people see before they leave the building because, he hopes, they will come back.