By Chris Ángel, PT editorial assistant and masters student in liturgy.
It’s one of the most common worries of every parish: Where are the young adults? Why aren’t there more of them in the pews?
Laura Kelly Fanucci, graduate of Saint John’s School of Theology·Seminary, has done extensive research on young adult ministry. She is sharing her results in Saint John’s “Theology Day” series. Her research focuses on Roman Catholic churches, but also includes other denominations and has relevance for them. She confirms that, in some ways, it really is as bad as people think. Young adults are the largest inactive group in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. While many parishes have groups for adolescents and seniors, few parishes are able to fund young adult ministry positions. Those that do often find that it’s one of the first to be eliminated.
Fanucci emphasized that “young adult ministry” is very diverse. When people think of “young adults,” they’re often thinking of college students or graduate students. However, as many churches (and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) use this term, “young adults” are men and women from age 18 to 39. This very diverse group includes college students, parents with young children, single people who are dating, current and former members of the military, recent volunteers in programs like AmeriCorps, people working long hours at their first job in a new area, and many more.
Demographic data on young adults and how they view religion are instructive. Many of today’s young adults are members of the so-called “Millenial” generation (born 1980 and later). Millenials have grown up amidst pluralism and diversity. Many of these young adults believe that the church provides just one more voice in a cacophonous crowd. One reaction to this pluralism can be seen in what Laura called the “new conservatism,” where a small but growing percentage of Catholic young people are attracted to elements of Catholic tradition such as the Tridentine Rite Mass and Eucharistic adoration.
Fanucci offered a possible explanation for this new conservatism. Religious behavior is often a cultural reaction, not merely a theological one. Consider Eucharistic adoration. Many young adults who are drawn to Eucharistic adoration mention how wonderful it is to be able to pray in complete quiet. This is a novelty for a generation that has grown up with personal MP3 players, cell phones, and nearly constant distractions.
Fanucci shares success stories and brainstorms on ideas to help churches reach out to young adults. The 1996 statement of the US bishops, Sons and Daughters of the Light, provides many suggestions. The things most attractive to young adults are things attractive to any age group – strong catechesis, vibrant preaching, and dynamic music. Web sites and social ministry can be part of a successful outreach; see, e.g., the site Busted Halo, run by the Paulists in New York City. Much of their material is of special interest to young adults – relationship issues and vocations, catechesis on basic elements of the faith (such as a how-to video on going to Confession). Many young adults work long hours, including evenings, weekends or even Sunday mornings. Hence, some churches have liturgies on Sunday evenings, or hold Bible studies late in the evenings.
There is no magic solution to the problem. But as Fanucci stresses, there are plenty of reasons for hope.
Laura Kelly Fanucci will be presenting “Call and Response: Young Adults and the Church” twice more in the “Theology Day” series: in Alexandria, Minnesota (October 21) and in Minneapolis (October 28). For more information, or to register for this and other Theology Day presentations, go here.