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Where are the Young Catholics?

Where are the Young Catholics?

“We need more young people!” —  a common cry in many parishes across the country. This very real, long-term challenge has our parish leaders trying to find the way to keep young people in the parish, or even in the Catholic faith. As anyone who thinks about this circumstance knows, there is not a simple answer. 

In a gathering of bishops exploring how to engage “millennials,” the leaders used data from MissionInsite to help the bishops understand that “millennials” are not a homogeneous group. The data indicate that there are dozens of categories of people within the age group associated with millennials that have differing priorities, lifestyles and use different communication media.

Know How To Relate

Feedback from 20 young adults in the same meeting ranged widely in perspective, from “the church is not relevant to me,” to “we need to be stricter.” Bishops learned they are often seen as unapproachable — hidden behind layers of organization who see it as their role to keep the bishop free from too many interruptions. The result is that the people have little personal contact with their bishop and find it difficult to relate to him. 

“He said to him, ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’”  Luke 15:31-32
Understand Your Meaning

When our parishes start decrying a lack of “young people,” the first thing parish leaders must do is clarify what is meant by “young people” — which age groups, with consideration for life phases from teen through early 20s, singles and newly married couples, young families, even “people under 50!”  Then there is data from sources such as MissionInsite that can provide additional details about lifestyles within those age groups.

A foundational factor is the example of family. Parents who demonstrate a commitment to the church and the faith, and participate actively, set a good example and habits for their children. Yet, parents are not able to cover everything. Research from ACS Technologies’ American Beliefs study indicates that young people are lonely and have few trusted relationships, especially with adults. And based on the feedback in the bishops sessions, they don’t have any type of perceived relationship with their bishops. The data indicate our appeal to young people must begin at a very basic level — friendship and trust.

Trusted Relationships

Trusted relationships is one of the points identified in a review of 5 years of podcasts by Jesuitical: A podcast for Young Catholics. The hosts looked back over 5 years for insights to understand what they have learned from topics, including Young Catholics, Social Justice, Spirituality, the Institutional Church, and Interfaith Dialogue.

Their observations on young Catholics show us what we often miss. In our zeal to attract “youth” we categorize them and treat them as a homogeneous group, when they prefer to be considered a full part of the parish. 

  1. Young Catholics need formal and financial support from the institutional church.

There are few defined career paths for lay vocations. The authors learned that the options default to academia or young adult ministry (or in my experience, social media). There is little financial and organizational support for young Catholics to develop transformational ministry for some of the things that they are most passionate about and are rooted in faith. 

  1. Young people are leaving the church – but it’s not for the reasons you think

It’s not that they are “leaving” the church. They were not ever really part of the church to begin with. Research indicates that trusted relationships with 5 adults makes a difference in the behavior of young people. Rather than a program or activities, our young people desire personal relationships.

  1. Stop putting young adult Catholics at the “kids table”

In addition to treating them as one “group,” are we viewing young people as a problem to be solved? When we do have young people in our parish, consider them as integral to the parish, serving in leadership roles and ministry including Mass.  As Katie Prejean McGrady states:  “I hate the term ‘Youth Mass.” It’s Mass — and young people happen to be engaged more in the work of the liturgy.”

Words matter. Names matter. Relegating people to a “group” out of convenience may not be a service to them. To engage those young people who are in our parish, or who were never really attached to the parish, we must get to know who they are and start to earn their trust. And “we” is adult parishioners, parish leaders, pastors and, yes, bishops. 

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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, consulting with and training church leaders, and leading strategic and priority planning for churches and dioceses. He currently 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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