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Engaging Catholic Millennials and Gen Zers

“Young people are the future of the church!” We often trot out this phrase as we observe the alarming trends that trumpet the news that our active parishioners are aging. And fewer of them are giving financially, which compounds the challenge. Findings from our recent study with Villanova University prompted me to look at our research study, American Beliefs. The data provides some helpful insights.

“We can ask ourselves: How do we look upon others? How often do we see their faults and not their needs; how often do we label people by what they do or think?” he said. “Even as Christians we say to ourselves: Is he one of us or not? This is not the gaze of Jesus: He always looks at each person with mercy, actually, with predilection.”

Pope Francis

Of the roughly 15,000 respondents to the ACST American Beliefs research, about 8% could be categorized as Gen Z, and 14% as Millennials. While it is concerning that the response from these groups was low, it is also normal for this type of study. The good news is that over 3200 did respond! 36% of Gen Z respondents indicated they did not have any religious preference over the past 10 years. Again good news – this suggests 64% did have a preference. There is an opportunity to create relationships with people in this age group. Millennials are more challenging.  64% indicated they did not have any religious preference over the past 10 years. Gen X and Boomers indicate a much higher level of religious preference in comparison to Gen Z and Millennials.

For those that attend church, more than 50% would not drive more than 15 minutes to attend a service.  And 90% would not drive/travel over 30 minutes:: 

Catholic Life Concerns

In the national synthesis of the diocesan phase of the US synod we read: “youth…stressed that they should not be seen and spoken of mostly as the future of the Church, but should be recognized for their importance now and giving a significant voice in the present.” This seems obvious but it can be a challenge when our active parishioners and the majority of our priests are Boomers who align with each other in their sense of life concerns and spiritual needs, but are different from Millennial or Gen Z concerns.  

When we look at the top 5 Catholic responses, overall the obvious top concern has been the ongoing impact of Covid-19.  Second is social and political tensions. Fear of the future and financing future needs rank 4 and 5:

Gen Z respondents replace # 2 with fear of the future:

And Millennials return to the concern about social and political tension, and flip the future concern, placing a higher priority on financing future needs:

The other factors that appear are concerns from Gen Z and Millennials about racial tensions and mental health.

Parish response

What does this mean for us? It means we have to look for meaningful ways to invite young people into a relationship in our parish communities. Also we need to avoid grouping “young people” together in one homogeneous category. Contact people personally. Start with those who are in church now!

Here are some ideas:

  1. Incorporate young people into all aspects of your parish, from councils to worship, to ministry and mission.  Make sure they are part of the welcome team!
  2. Foster opportunities for young people to take part in parish life in a variety of ways. Keep in mind that Gen Zers may have a need for security and trust before they are able to consider a deeper exploration. Our Church has a wonderful, loving response to their concern about the future. But they may not be able to hear it at first.
  3. Millennials may be tuned in (negatively) to messages about financial giving. They already have concerns about financing the future and are not particularly open to financing our future. However they are looking for truth and authenticity. We have the Good News to help them, but the message needs to be mission-based with examples of how the parish ministries impact the parish, community and world.

Jesus went out, walking the roads.  And while He did at times speak to groups of people, the most compelling transformations were through His personal encounter with an individual or a small group. This example is important for us as a way forward for our parishes – finding ways to be more personal. This has to happen through all of us as part of the body of Christ, filled with the joy that comes from knowing we are loved, and overflowing to all generations.

Terry Poplava is a multi-disciplined executive with extensive sales, product marketing, strategy and leadership experience in supporting faith organizations. Terry’s professional experience includes organizational leadership, corporate development and growth. As well as, consulting with and training church leaders, and leading strategic and priority planning for churches and dioceses. He serves on the advisory board for the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche in St. Augustine, FL, as cantor at St. Andrew parish in Myrtle Beach, SC. and recently as Chairman of the Finance Council at St. Mary the Virgin Mother parish in Hartsville, SC.

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