“Millennial seeks group, organization, or other friendly gathering of like-hearted people focused on self-betterment, community service, and mutual support. Must be nonjudgmental, supportive, authentic, highly relational, welcoming, open to change, and encouraging of new leadership. No proselytizing or high-pressure sales.”
Although it’s invented, this fictional “want ad” describes some of the priorities for many young adults today in choosing the groups and organizations they will participate in, according to John Poitevent, director of facilitation for Parish Catalyst, a Catholic parish renewal organization.
With increasing frequency, young people are deciding traditional institutions and organizations, including parishes, don’t fit the bill.
I recently interviewed John Poitevent from Parish Catalyst to get his take on how the church can better reach emerging generations.
“Millennials are aligning with parachurch organizations, nonprofits and businesses that have a strong sense of mission.” according to Poitevent.
Still some parishes are more successful than others in establishing relationships with young adults, he said. Poitevent cites St. Monica Parish in Santa Monica, which operates a coffee bar and book/gift shop that employs people coming out of the juvenile justice system, and St. Ann Parish in Dallas, which incorporates the Alpha program, described on the parish website as a no-pressure “series of interactive sessions where guests have an opportunity to explore life and Christian faith freely in a friendly, and informal environment.”
“Create a place where people feel safe and free to be honest without judgment, and they are more likely to stay and to come back,” said Poitevent.
In a blog for Parish Catalyst and reposted to this site, Poitevent notes the awareness among millennials of the variety of spiritual practices and faith communities available to them. “Their friends are engaged in other churches and organizations that are inviting them to belong and discover a sense of purpose,” he said. People are realizing they don’t just have to “affiliate with a particular faith for the sole reason that this is what their family has always been.”
Young people also “are longing for authenticity,” said Poitevent. “They want to be a part of something that more honestly communicates who they are. They are not just nodding and agreeing to things that don’t resonate inside.”
Young people also “are longing for authenticity,” said Poitevent. “They want to be a part of something that more honestly communicates who they are.”
To be relevant and inviting, parishes and other church organizations need to be open to new insights and ways of doing things, he said.
“Without losing who we are, we can connect more with people by building relationships and providing a place to wrestle with and talk about challenges” to faith and belief, he said. “What we’ve found is that relationships can transcend differences. We all have friends or family who don’t believe all the same things we do, but our love and care for them goes beyond that.”
“Without losing who we are, we can connect more with people by building relationships and providing a place to wrestle with and talk about challenges” to faith and belief, he said.
“At Parish Catalyst, we’ve done some research with parishes and identified five key characteristics of a dynamic disciple,” said Poitevent. Such a person “believes, grows, gathers, loves and leads” others to Christ. Parishes usually rate themselves highest in the beliefs area for parishioners, he said, and the lowest in leads.
“If you think about it, those two [realities] are at odds with each other,” said Poitevent. “When we truly believe in something, it is natural for us to share that with others and want to lead them to the same fulfillment we have found.”
Poitevent said that parishes need to be challenged “to create places where people feel safe to be open and honest about their faith journey,” motivated by the belief that “the Holy Spirit will [act] if we provide a place for that to happen. Pressure and guilt, stressing what people ‘should’ believe,
reveals our own lack of faith that the Holy Spirit speaks to people and changes their hearts,” he said.
At Parish Catalyst, Poitevent said, “We’re not telling parishes to just rebrand themselves and go soft on doctrine. We are encouraging them to connect with these three longings, which are three practices of the early church: authenticity, community, and purpose. We’re not asking parishes to move away from who they are called to be, but to go back and rediscover their roots.”
Poitevent said parishes “need to invite millennials into leadership, and allow them to use the sacred imagination God has given them. They will naturally create a parish that connects with their peers, coworkers and neighbors.”
Such efforts must not be merely symbolic, he said. “We must be willing to let go of our own agendas and mindsets, giving them the freedom to lead and create the future of the church.”
“We must be willing to let go of our own agendas and mindsets, giving them the freedom to lead and create the future of the Church.”
“Our own mission statement for Parish Catalyst is: ‘We exist to encourage Catholic Leaders to think Creatively, act Courageously and Renew the Church,’” said Poitevent. “Acting courageously means that staff and key volunteers, parish stakeholders,” must be willing to make difficult changes and to allow others to share in leadership.
“Parishes we see thriving in change and renewal have leaders who navigate those relationships and bring together a vision over making disciples,” said Poitevent. As a result, he said, these parishes become “more joyful and life-giving” places to serve.
Jerry Ruff, Senior Writer and Editor
Saint Mary’s Research