Everybody needs community. That basic need for fellowship can either draw young adults to affiliate with a church or church group, or prompt them to look elsewhere.
And as studies and statistics show, churches aren’t trending so well these days.
That’s one of the many insights gleaned by Katherine Angulo, associate director of youth ministry for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, from more than 18 years working with young people.
“The sense of community is now being built in other areas and not the church,” says Angulo. One such place is the local gym. “People love the gym because they know who you are there, they give rewards for milestones in your life. The social milestones once celebrated in church are now celebrated in the gym.” The business world offers similar experiences, she said. “In Texas, one young professionals network is doing this job of building community and celebrating milestones. In church young people don’t know who is sitting next to them, but in the gym or their business environment they know people. The church is only beginning to realize it has a big issue.”
True communities provide more than recognition, said Angulo. They can also be a critical source of emotional support, especially during times of stress, something young adults have plenty of these days. Two major sources of that stress are finances and information overload, she said.
“After the financial collapse of the US economy in 2008, many [millennials] saw their dreams of a good job, a good career disappear. They moved back home, took low-key jobs, were not fulfilling their dreams. That was a big frustration, especially for a generation that had been so successful, where everyone was a winner—then this reality happened.”
Other stressors include nonstop war, terrorism, school violence—the fact that “someone you know in your school could hurt you.”
Social media doesn’t help with its relentless connectivity “to everyone and no one. You’re aware of what’s happening around the world but not connected in a personal way. There’s all this information and no time to process it—people are overwhelmed and hopeless.”
Unlike many prior generations, millennials don’t see institutions as a source of assistance or relief. “Young adults see problems coming from institutions—the government, the church.” Underpaid in their work and saddled with educational debt, they don’t turn to banks for relief, either. “They saw what happened to their parents in the recession.”
Families and Parishes: Problem, Solution, or Both?
”When parents are not fully committed to following the Catholic Church, but are following a salad bar system” of faith, then “kids have a poor diet of church. They are trying to decide if it’s even worth it, to follow that or not,” Angulo said. Parents may be divorced, family members often disagree with certain church teachings, and society at large often portrays faith and believers “negatively and aggressively,” she said. “If young adults don’t see the benefit of faith and the fruit of faith in their lives, in the lives around them—if no one around them has a strong identity with the church,” the young person ends up asking: “Why should I want to be attached?”
Angulo said that the communication happening in society about faith is “so harsh right now,” she has seen dioceses around the country beginning to explore new ways to provide a comfortable, relaxed, nonjudgmental environment in which to talk about matters of church, faith, and spirituality.
Inspiration for a number of dioceses has come through a ministry program called “Alpha,” a Christian faith exploration initiative built around food and good conversation. Alpha has grown from its Anglican roots in London to become a global exploration of the Christian faith that is available in the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, and all mainline Protestant denominations, according to its website.
For example, in some parishes in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, sponsors from a parish offer a meal, often in their own home, for young adults to gather and “talk about who God is and what has been their journey so far. It’s very hospitable, very welcoming. Parishes sponsor it,” and young adults receive a personal invitation to be involved.
Nationally, Katherine has noted efforts to tap “young adults themselves who are already active in the church at some level as ambassadors to the less connected who nonetheless maintain some level of attachment to the church.”
A ground rule for conversation at these gatherings is that “you don’t correct people or push an idea; you listen first. It’s not a class,” Angulo said. The purpose, she said, is to “build trust and comfort. This is not catechesis but precatechesis. We need to identify ourselves as a community first. Then trust and community will build, then you can start to do some catechesis to help faith grow deeper.”
Failure Is Part of the Deal
Not all evangelization efforts have been successful, she said.
“Unfortunately, we have a lot of failure stories,” said Angulo. “Some are cases where young adults had a very rigorous process during confirmation that was so overwhelming they didn’t want to be part of church when it concluded. Other times young adults didn’t feel welcomed back in the church after a mistake in their life; others wanted to get married in the church but the process they had to go through seemed ridiculous to them.”
“We fail to teach our members how to be disciples,” said Angulo, “and we also as a church make simple mistakes that hurt tremendously our aim as parish. We misjudge a situation or don’t know the whole story, we prejudge stuff and make uncomfortable situations that drive people away.” It’s “not so much the teaching itself,” Angulo added, “it’s not that people are thinking the church is out of date—people still want to understand suffering, the purpose of life, who is the creator, but they don’t like the way we sometimes present it to them. We need to listen and show compassion to them.”
“Churches need to recognize the value of young adults to the church community,” Angulo said, “and not only those who are present.” As a first step, she recommends “taking a look around beyond the pew we sit in each Sunday and notice those who are no longer there. Recognize that we are missing them. If we don’t recognize we are missing a treasure in those who are absent, that’s the worst approach, we have a treasure we are ignoring to claim.”
“For those [young adults] still around us, we need to engage them, ask how they are doing. When they are near to us, we must have a gentle ear to listen, provide guidance little by little. We need to offer a relationship. We are missing mentors in our faith. We need to say I’m imperfect, but trying, and you can try to. We need to send a message to the young church, we are not perfect, just humans trying our best. God is perfect. To convey that the church demands perfection is misleading. Church doesn’t mean perfection, church means a place I can go to improve myself, serve others, find a community that is going to support you through the journey.”
“It’s very important that we look at this situation not as a problem, but as a challenge, Young adults are not a problem, they are the church. If we want to see a church in 40 years, we need them. Sometimes when I hear the word ‘nones’ I see people completely dismissing them because they think ‘not educated, not holy enough to be respected.’ We need to listen to what they have to say. God isn’t making the mistakes, it is us. How can we present the faith in a more effective way to young adults struggling to find their way in the world? The concept that young adults without faith is okay is false; we see suicide, depression, unhappiness. They need us and we need them. We need respectful dialogue on both sides.”
Jerry Ruff, Senior Editor and Writer
Saint Mary’s Press Research