Katie Hayes has learned a few things from nearly two decades spent ministering with young people.
• Don’t underestimate the goodness in young adults.
• Listen to them.
• Observe and be involved in their lives (you will find God present and active there).
• Affirm the goodness of young people.
• Be present when things get tough, and don’t sugarcoat the hard times.
• If you don’t invite them to share their gifts, they probably won’t.
• Give them space.
For Hayes, God and church have been front and center in her life. That’s often not the case for the young people she has gotten to know through her work as youth ministry director for St. John of the Cross Parish in Western Springs, IL. And that’s okay.
“They are finding community and love in other places” than church, Hayes said in a recent interview with Catholic Research. “To me, church is about God’s love for us, and all I do and experience is from that. Many young adults are finding that goodness and love in other places. They didn’t or don’t find it at church. They are having good experiences and living their faith but not in a traditional way. They are still living the laws that Jesus taught us, but in a different way and place.”
At St. John of the Cross, Hayes’ primary role is with high school students. Once they’ve graduated and moved more fully into their young adult lives, it’s not unusual for their paths to continue to cross. Many are now finding community, meaning, and friendship in volunteering, at a fitness class, in work and friendships, “the way they support and care for others,” said Hayes. She has come to understand her role with these young adults as “naming the goodness [they] are finding in those places and try in the most-kind way to encourage those elements and connect it back to what I know as the truth of church. I’m not quoting Scripture, dogma, catechism.”
Results shouldn’t be the goal, she said. “You don’t get results, you plant seeds.”
Despite the diminishing presence of young adults in church life, it’s important that the church offer appropriate opportunities for young people to be involved, Hayes said. Some church efforts at working with youth have been successful, she said. She cites World Youth Day pilgrimages and campus ministry retreats as two examples.
As a college student, Hayes herself participated in theology on tap—young adults gathering at a local bar to hear a speaker and then discuss a topic related to theology or spirituality. (Hayes noted that some parishes have begun to offer theology on tap in parish settings, but added, “bars are a better place” because that’s “where young people go.”)
Hayes would like to see churches offer more opportunities for intergenerational sharing, with older adults modeling their “deep and abiding faith,” and young people sharing their millennial attitudes of inclusivity and acceptance of differences.
“I know these generations can help each other—how do we get them together?” Hayes asks. “How can we use the goodness of this elder generation,” as shown in “their faithfulness and devotion to a God who loves them regardless what they have done,” while assisting young people to teach older adults “how to be merciful, loving, giving,” even without being “formed” in faith.
Hayes said the findings of the recent Saint Mary’s Press-sponsored study on the dynamics of disaffiliation in young Catholics resonates with her own experience—i.e. that disaffiliated young adults may have left the church over some deep and unresolved hurt, or strong disagreement with one or more church teachings, or a gradual disengagement stemming from uncertain faith and lack of strong connection to a faith community.
Whatever the reason, guilt won’t bring them back, Hayes said.
Despite the statistics, Hayes maintains a sense of optimism. “I’m always looking forward,” she said. “I hope and pray that our larger church can listen. We don’t know all the answers, but we hear a lot and can understand a lot when we listen.”
Jerry Ruff, Senior Editor and Writer
Saint Mary’s Press Research