In their pastoral letter Sons and Daughters of the Light (1977), the U.S. bishops stated strongly that the church wants and needs a stronger connection with young adult Catholics. So the question becomes: Who are these Catholic young adults? And how can the church best minister to and with them?
Several years ago, when I started the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s young adult ministry, I asked Eric Styles, a 24-year-old college senior, what the church should understand about his generation. He pushed back his long dreadlocks and responded: Just know that we’re not all the same. And our generation has many gifts to offer the church.
Since then, hundreds of young adult Catholics who have crossed my path have confirmed Eric’s observations. Young adult lifestyles, motivations and spiritualities cover a broad spectrum, with distinct colors as well as subtle nuances and shades. To make such breadth more manageable, I have developed a framework of eight groups into which I believe most Catholic young adults fall.
This framework, of course, has limitations. It is based on observation and experience rather than hard science. Each individual is unique and to some extent defies categorization, and many individuals fit into more than one group. These descriptions are not mutually exclusive; and some important factors, like race, ethnicity and socio-economic status, are not developed here. Nonetheless, I have found this framework helpful for understanding young adults and for developing ministry with them.
The Church in Mission
This group is primarily motivated by the image of Jesus who directs us to wash one another’s feet. Oriented to service since their 8th-grade confirmation, members of this group have carried this passion through their high school and college years. Many have immersed themselves in service projects or in long-term volunteer programs like the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Demographers call this segment the millennial generation, whose first wave is now graduating from college. The book Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, by Neil Howe and William Strauss, profiles this group in detail.
Challenges: Members of the Church in Mission meet the challenge of making countercultural choices in our consumption-driven society. Their preference for volunteerism and work that makes a difference often draws concern from parents and others whose emphasis is financial security.
Gifts: This group works tirelessly to meet needs and to do what needs to be done, without expecting to change the world immediately. They work seamlessly alongside those who are much older and younger, since service ministries are often multigenerational.
The Church in Search
As a result of people deciding to marry later (if at all) and the growing divorce rate, the church is now home to a large contingent of single and divorced adults, typically over the age of 30. Many of them have experienced suffering and loneliness in life and are dissatisfied with the bar scene and the superficial relationships that this culture offers them. This group is often drawn to the church as a place to find friends with similar values, potential partners and activities to fill their calendars.
Challenges: Young adults in the Church in Search embrace mainstream Catholic spirituality, but because of their single status they have difficulty finding a home in the average family-oriented parish, and they often turn to university and other singles-friendly parishes. Therefore this group makes great efforts toward tolerance and inclusion.
Gifts: The Church in Search devotes time and energy to community-building and ministry. A majority of them lead and regularly participate in regional young adult groups and weekend retreats.
The Church Youthful
Each year high schools produce a large number of young adults who have come through youth ministry programs. Many go on to college and are served by Newman Centers, touching base with their parishes during breaks and summers. Church Youthful people fall into the age range 18 to 23, and they are accustomed to having ministry built around their own schedules. The campus 10 p.m. Mass is one example. These young adults grew up in a church that served as an extended family.
Challenges: Parishes as well as youth and campus ministries could serve the Church Youthful by guiding them from a church in which ministry was focused on their lifestyle and was even done for them to a place of ever greater responsibility and leadership.
Gifts: The Church Youthful brings unlimited energy and a can-do attitude to the community. They have the physical stamina to lead all-night junior high lock-ins or construct booths for the parish festival. They see opportunities rather than limitations, and their enthusiasm is infectious.
The Church Apologist
The Church Apologist group is especially filled with awe for the transcendent God, and its members are dedicated to personal prayer, learning and spreading fervor for Catholicism among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Colleen Carroll explores their faith in her recent book The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy.
To counterbalance the often murky standards of our culture, members of the Church Apologist take comfort in the clarity of the new catechism and the teaching of Pope John Paul II. They see Christianity in combat with evil in the world and their language evokes military imagery, speaking of prayer warriors and soldiers of Christ. Their prayer centers on traditional devotions like eucharistic adoration and the rosary.
Challenges: Church Apologist people can experience tension within less traditional families and faith communities because of their views and the vigor with which they promote them.
Gifts: These young adults are highly motivated and capable of seeking out the many spiritual resources available to them, like Steubenville programs, Youth 2000 and membership in movements like Opus Dei or traditional religious communities. With their wholehearted dedication, the ministries they create can grow and become self-sustaining over the long haul.
The Church Devotional
Because of outward similarities and their preference for traditional piety, it is easy to confuse young adults of the Church Devotional with those of the Church Apologist. The two groups differ, however, in several respects. First, the Church Devotional is less attuned to internal church politics; they therefore seem surprised that their prayer practices would cause some to label them conservative. Second, they are less interested in drawing others into their particular spirituality or belief system. Many immigrants, particularly Asians and Hispanics, fit into these two groups.
Challenges: The Church Devotional is less inclined than the Church Apologist to join traditional movements, and they often look to parishes and regional ministries to help them learn about and share their faith. Theology on Tap, a popular program that brings presenters into local bars to interact with young adults on matters of faith and church, helps meet the social and educational needs of this group. [See this issue, p. 22.]
Gifts: Church Devotional people have a deep desire to grow closer to Jesus. They are well read and open to different ideas and to new methods of prayer. Members of this group make committed leaders and participants, especially for retreats and catechetical events.
The Church Busy
The Church Busy consists mainly of young professionals, married couples and young parents, whose days and nights are filled with career, travel, family and civic and social commitments. While they value their Catholicism, they are unlikely to attend events that take up an entire weekend or to participate in regional gatherings. Their church involvement is usually limited to parish ministries that occur on Sunday. They may also engage in short-term ministries, like marriage and baptismal preparation or support groups for mothers.
Challenges: Not surprisingly, the biggest challenge to ministry with this group is time. For this reason, it is best to offer them focused programs or short-term projects. The Church Busy needs to feel supported and affirmed in both their workplace and marriage and parenthood as an aspect of ministerial life.
Gifts: The church can benefit from tapping the experience and competence these young adults are developing in other realms.
The Church Creative
They may not wear all-black or sport tattoos, but many in this group embrace liberal values, politics and spirituality with an artistic expression. The Church Creative is educated and well read, and are likely to frequent art films, alternative concert venues or peace demonstrations. Tom Beaudoin wrote much about this group in Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X.
The Church Creative values prayer and contact with God, and these young adults are known for treating parish and even denominational boundaries with fluidityworshiping at a Mass one week, a Buddhist temple the next and a nondenominational megachurch the third. They value independent thinking, and might be heard quoting papal pronouncements about the death penalty or debt relief on one hand while questioning teaching about homosexuality or women’s ordination on the other. In my area, a number of African American Catholics fall into this group, sometimes blending in elements from African culture or the Baptist tradition as they inhabit urban neighborhoods in a creative class environment. In fact, the Church Creative is most comfortable in multicultural and university parishes.
Challenges: The Church Creative is like other groups: they are busy, with time and choices spread out among creative outlets and other responsibilities. The broad pastoral tent of our church must be maintained so it can respond to the differences and questions this group brings.
Gifts: Not surprisingly, the Church Creative develops ministry programs and prayer services that are artistic and innovative. Additionally, they are in a position to invite to the church similar young people who are unchurched, alienated or seeking a spiritual connection.
The Church Disconnected
A final group of young adults that poses a challenge to ministry is the Church Disconnected. This group grew up Catholic and may even have graduated from Catholic high school or college, but for a variety of reasonsor no discernable reason at allthey are now distant from the church. It is difficult to draw firm conclusions about why they are disconnected or how to reach out to them. Some are focused on advancement at work, while others are busy building intimate relationships or hanging out with friends. Some are put off by church teaching; others simply find services boring and the institution irrelevant.
Church leaders, parents and grandparents often wring their hands over what to do about the Church Disconnected. One pat response is, They’ll come back when their first child is baptized. Tom Beaudoin is skeptical about this laissez-faire approach, however, because nondenominational megachurches now actively reach out to them. Whether they will return to Catholicism is an open question.
The Church Disconnected is mission territorya fertile field for carrying out Christ’s commission to spread the good news. Heeding that call, Jesuits of the Chicago Province are actively responding. Charis Ministries retreats, which boasts several hundred participants in its first three years, targets recent alumni of local Catholic high schools and universities. They are encouraged to come, whether your faith life is confused, conflicted, committed or anywhere in between. The peer-led retreat then offers a chance to step back from the stresses of modern life and sort out what you believe.
James Joyce once characterized the spirit of the church thus: Here comes everybody. He could have been talking about the broad spectrum of today’s young adult Catholics, with the wide variety of spiritualities, gifts and challenges they present to ministry. From as far back as the days of 1 Corinthians 12, we have known that different people and groups possess certain gifts to benefit the whole body of Christ. Just as the Dominicans claim the gift of preaching and the Sisters of Mercy service, each of these Catholic young adult groups brings unique riches to the faith communityriches to be mined, polished and put to good use.
Furthermore, in addition to capitalizing on their own gifts, the young people in each group can grow and develop through exposure to the complementary charisms of the others. For example, the Church in Mission can find rest in the contemplative stillness of the Church Devotional, who can in turn touch a unique face of Christ through Christian service.
The task of inviting, welcoming and ministering with such a broad spectrum of young people may seem daunting. The U.S. bishops’ young adult ministry pastoral begins by apologizing for past failures in this area, and others have proposed that church communities make a preferential option for the young. Many national and local efforts are underway to develop young adult ministry, but the roads and the road maps at this stage are still under construction. Still, this much is clear: the church needs all its sons and daughters of the light to show forth the glory of the rainbow.