The question came up at Sherry Weddell’s Intentional Disciples discussion forum: How does one attract and keep “young adults” in the parish? I’ve been that young adult and I’ve spent a fair bit of time talking with the faithful Catholic young adults who don’t show up at the St. Moribund’s of this world, so I’ve got a pretty good grasp on the dynamic. I’m sorry to report the answer is exceedingly simple:
1. Be serious about following Jesus.
2. Get out of the way.
Don’t believe me? Let’s talk.
What is a “Young Adult”?
In Catholic world, the code word for childless twenty- and thirty-somethings is “Young Adult”. If you’re under forty and have children, you’re a “young family” and the parish thinks it knows what to do with you. If you’re 18 -20 you’re supposed to be in college of course, so campus ministry is responsible for you — you’re someone else’s problem. 18-and-under’s are “youth”. Once you turn forty, you’re technically a grown-up.
So let’s be clear: the term “Young Adult” as used in parish-speak is pretty silly. But it’s very existence tells us about the nature of the problem. I’ll keep using it because it is shorter than saying “Childless 20- and 30-Somethings.”
Why is Young Adult participation such a problem?
The trouble with young adults is that there is nothing other than Jesus to keep them at church. A core group of teenagers can be counted on to show up at youth group because their parents won’t let them do anything more exciting, and the bars won’t serve them yet anyway.
Young parents, if they didn’t leave the Church forever already (most of the permanent departures from the faith happen between the ages of 18-24, if I have my statistics memorized correctly), show up for baptism prep, and again for 1st Communion. You can rope some of them into continuing at church, even they aren’t all Jesus-y, just because they want a wholesome place to raise their children.
Childless young adults, in contrast, have no pressing reason to show up. They are allowed to go to other more interesting places. There’s no way your four-hymn sandwich can compare to listening to a good band. Your sacred art pales in comparison to what the best museums and galleries offer. Your free doughnuts mean nothing. And if they want friends, there’s a much larger pool of friends to be had outside the parish than in it.
Young adults are thus the canary in the coal mine. You can gauge the health of your parish and the health of your diocese by how large a presence of young adults you have.
–> Because young, childless adults have so much more free time than anyone but retirees, and more physical energy than even toddlers (who nap), a healthy church is one that is visibly marked by the presence of young adults in every aspect of parish life.
Won’t they come back when they have kids?
Nope. A few do, of course. A few come back out of concern for their children or for family tradition. A few will have a conversion experience and return on their own, kids or no kids. But statistically speaking, once a young adult is gone, consider him gone forever.
So how do you possibly attract and keep these young people who have 10,000 better places to be? By offering the one and only thing that the Church has and no one else does.
Young Adult Revival Step 1: Jesus.
The only and entire answer to the young adult problem is to be a parish given over entirely and wholeheartedly to the Lord. Period.
Oh yes, you think you’re doing that already. The Lord is in the tabernacle, you have the Mass, and the ladies in the crafting club really love their faith community, yes they do.
If you don’t have young adults, you aren’t there yet. Don’t cry real estate problems. Don’t cry “they all moved away after college!” Don’t cry “they just don’t care, that’s their problem.”
No. If your parish is lacking young adults, you are not doing what God expects you to do. Your parish is a failure.
Yes. I said that.
The absence of young adults is a measure of your spiritual desolation.
So let’s talk about what worshiping and serving Jesus looks like:
1. It doesn’t matter what style music you have, as long as it’s rendered well enough that no one’s ears hurt and people can understand what you’re singing. It matters that your worship is centered on God and God alone. If your number one concern is worshiping God, not placating the music team, your music will naturally drift towards the very reverent and very beautiful. It will resonate in the souls of those who long to worship to God.
If your music at Mass is about anything other than worshiping God, you’re competing with the concert hall. You’ll lose.2. Your liturgy is about the worship of God. If young adults want to feel good, they have friends and magazines who can tell them they’re okay. If they want “community” they can do a whole lot better than your place. If your liturgy is All About Us and How Wonderful a Community We Are, there’s no compelling reason for a young adult to show up. You aren’t that great, God is. Brunch out with friends is way more All About Us than your five-minute welcome time.
3. Your homilies provide a substantial education in the business of serving God. A good number of your Catholic young adults are down the street at Faith and Grace Evangelical, where the sermon runs 40 minutes of serious Bible study and exhortation to Christian service. People who are showing up for Jesus don’t want to hear about how special they are. They want to understand the Bible, learn how to pray, and learn how to live. They want instruction. They want reminders. They want to know what it takes to be a saint — like the canonized kind, not the slipped-in-via-purgatory kind — and they want to be pushed towards sainthood every day of the week.
Yes, this means you have to choose. You can keep preaching the “You’re so wonderful!” message to the core group of pewsitters who’ve been coming for that message for the last forty years, or you can start preaching Jesus. You’ll lose some of the I’m So Special crowd, because they’re just there for the affirmation and the doughnut hour. Jesus comes to console, to cherish, to welcome, but all that welcoming doesn’t end with cocktails on the patio. It ends with the Cross. Until you are teaching your congregation how to get up on their cross daily, you aren’t teaching your congregation.
4. Evangelization. Geography happens. The 20- and 30-somethings in your community are not the same ones who graduated from your youth group. The only way to find them is the way you find anyone else: By evangelizing.
Have you knocked on doors with prayer teams, seeking out the lost and inviting them to get a little bit closer to God? Have you gone into the streets to do works of mercy, in a quest to serve those who haven’t come to you? Are the members of your parish forming Bible studies among the guys at the office and the ladies at the gym — Bible studies which they are equipped to teach because they’ve been thoroughly taught how to read, study, and teach the Bible?
If your method of going out into the world and making disciples is to sit home and hope people show up on Sunday, you aren’t evangelizing.
If you aren’t evangelizing, you aren’t serving Jesus.
Young Adult Revival Step 2: Get out of the way.
Young adults are not babies. Out in the wider world, they have real jobs with serious responsibilities. By the age of 30, the leaders among them are holding key management positions in major corporations. Even the “followers” of the young adult crowd are doing work of tremendous consequence.
I can remember a church staff member speaking to me ominously once, “Oh, but if you want to do that it will involve a lot of paperwork . . .”. Um, I have an MBA. I’m an accountant. The 1040 instruction manual makes perfect sense to me. These are skills and credentials I’d acquired by the age of twenty-three, thank you. I assure you I can fill out the paperwork, if you’ll be so kind as to let me know what the paperwork is.
We don’t say to young people, “Gosh, sure, you want to be a nurse, but that involves poking people with needles. Maybe when you’re older and you’ve paid your dues.” No. We train them to poke people properly, then let them loose in the room with a bin of sharp objects.
I’ve been involved in congregations (both Catholic and Evangelical) where the pastor sized up the young adults, saw they were properly equipped, and gave them free reign to do their thing. Young adult participation flourished.
I’ve likewise encountered young adults who want to do more, to connect, to create. I invite them. “Why don’t you ask about forming a group here at your own parish?” To which they answer with a curt shake of the head, mouth closed tight against the stories they could tell. No. That doesn’t happen here. We’ve tried.
Even the most devout of the faithful know when it’s time to shake the dust off their feet and go elsewhere.
Cover art courtesy of the Siena Institute.