This sounds like something straight from The Onion.
Archdiocese of New York is Reaching Out to Young Adults at Dance Clubs, Pubs
It seemed like another night at Sankeys NYC, a Midtown dance club: As Rihanna's music blared from speakers and lights pulsated overhead, bartenders beckoned with drink specials and black-shirted bouncers guarded doors.
The only difference: all those church pamphlets positioned by the exits.
The 200 or so mostly millennials in attendance on a recent Wednesday night were guests of the Archdiocese of New York, which had secured the venue and ponied up for dozens of pizzas.
Partiers walked to the club after attending a Roman Catholic Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral, presided over by Cardinal Timothy Dolan. Some had been to confession, too. Church volunteers herded the flock down Fifth Avenue, making sure none strayed along the way. Some attendees got a head start, ducking out before Cardinal Dolan finished his post-Mass Q&A session.
"You're given the choice between pizza and beer … and me?" he said with a hearty laugh after the event. "I know what I'd pick."
The evening's event was part of a push by the cardinal and his staffers at New York's Catholic archdiocese to recruit more young adults into the fold—even if it means staging an after-party in a dance club.
"I've never heard of anything like that. Maybe renting a club is something you can only do in L.A. or New York," said Mark Gray, a professor and Catholic Church researcher at Georgetown University. "It's usually coffee and doughnuts after the service."
And while the Sankeys NYC event marked the first time the church had rented a dance club, it isn't a stranger to the bar scene. It also invites young people to "Theology on Tap" events at a Midtown pub, a kind of Bible study with booze that regularly draws about 150 people to discuss topics like "Emotional Pornography" and "The Cross and Forgiveness." Archdioceses in other cities, such as Philadelphia and Chicago, also hold programs in bars.
Not everyone thinks watering holes are ideal spots for fostering discussions on faith. "I think there are better ways of reaching people," said Jason McGuire, executive director for New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, which represents evangelical churches across New York. He said many of his churches have taken young adults to movies or repackaged hymns with more upbeat tunes.
New York archdiocese officials say bar-based programs are a way to cut through clutter of the big city, and serve as a bridge to events inside the church. Situations where people overimbibe, they say, are very rare.
The main strategy of such programs, Mr. Gray said, is to reach out to people when they're most likely to stray from the church. He called the young-adult years the "lowest point of the religious life cycle."
In a brief interview after Mass, Cardinal Dolan said the current generation no longer marries just after college, particularly in New York. "You're worried that in the time after school, before they have children, they'll drift away," the Cardinal said.
And that is something the church is trying to avoid. A 2013 study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life showed that Catholics who identified their faith as "strong" was at a four-decade low and the percentage of all Catholics that say they attend a weekly Mass has dropped to 24% in 2012 from 47% in 1974. Like many other Catholic archdioceses around the country, New York's has faced contraction—closing dozens of schools and parishes in recent years, with more parish closures to come.
Taking a page from Pope Francis, Cardinal Dolan has tried to show his hip side. After the recent Mass, he posed for selfies, referenced Clint Eastwood and divulged his favorite beer—Budweiser. He has appeared on The Colbert Report, a satirical news show.
Last fall, the archdiocese hired four new employees to target young adults, with coordinators for the Hispanic community, the Bronx and the suburban counties north of the city. Their duties include building a special website, recruiting young people for sports leagues and promoting community events. Recent ones included a speech by Miss Oklahoma, a trip to Rhinebeck and a chance to hear from an octogenarian who lived the "homosexual lifestyle for 28 years," according to a church program listing.
Colin Nykaza, the New York archdiocese's director of young-adult outreach, added that other archdioceses across the country had asked for advice, "because we're kind of leading the charge on this."
So far, the results are promising, church officials say: More than 1,000 people poured in for Cardinal Dolan's most recent Mass, up from an average of 100 at the young-adult service a few years ago. New young-adult groups are popping up across local dioceses, gathering for everything from book clubs to business networking.
Church officials caution it is difficult to know how deep the connections are—and it remains to be seen whether the people will continue attending Mass. The church couldn't provide statistics on how many people joined because of the program and said it was impossible to track average attendance in the age group, due to the hundreds of services and parishes across the archdiocese.
At the Sankeys NYC event, the scene wasn't exactly raucous. Nobody elbowed each other for an overpriced beer. Dancing to the church-requested '80s and '90s music didn't get too provocative. And when the club lights got a little too flashy, church officials asked for them to be toned down.
"We're definitely people who live in our culture, but we try not to be too entrenched in the culture," Mr. Nykaza said. "But I guess as long as it's not too crazy, we're OK with it."
"When I heard about this, I was like, 'Thank God,' " said Carly-Anne Gannon, 30 years old, nursing a cranberry and vodka. "It provides spiritual fellowship and joy. You make friends here on the same page of life as you. You're not going to be worried if you go out with them on the weekend."
Sean O'Hare, 32, said he often liked going out downtown, lately staying at the Jane Hotel ballroom until 4 a.m. But being part of the Catholic group helps him stay away from "temptations and distractions," he said. "It's not a conventional family, but it's a family where you have some accountability for your actions."
But there was one person who didn't make the party: Cardinal Dolan, who cited his morning prayers and a need for sleep.