There has never been a more critical time to engage and recapture the hearts of our young people in the community of the Catholic Church (Church) than now. Among American religious groups, the fastest growing group is the “nones.” This term refers to those who indicate “none” when asked to identify their religious affiliation. According to an October 2019 report by the Pew Research Center, a staggering 40% of Millennials (born 1981-1996) identify as unaffiliated with any organized religion. Church leaders have been wrestling with the reality of these growing statistics for the past decade. The absence of our young adults and young families in our pews can be seen in Catholic churches across the United States on any given weekend. What can be done today to engage Millennials and Gen Zers (born after 1996) in the life of our Church?
In writing this article, I culled together a few resources that I’ve found very applicable to this topic and that helped me develop the following recommendations for engaging young adults. Those resources include:
- In fall 2019, Changing Our World published a new report, “Understanding the Next Generation of Donors and How They Will Change the World.” In the report, we uncovered several key trends among Millennials and Gen Zers that can be applied to any nonprofit organization.
- Bishop Robert Barron, the founder of “Word on Fire Catholic Ministries” also chairs the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop’s (USCCB) committee on Evangelization and Catechesis. In November 2019, Barron presented five recommendations to his brother bishops on how to engage young people, especially the “nones.” Barron’s presentation was focused primarily on finding common ground with young adults by engaging them in the teachings and activities that are at the heart of being Catholic.
- I began my podcast, Advancing Our Church, in 2017. For my first episode, I traveled to Timonium, Maryland, and visited Church of the Nativity where I interviewed the pastor, Fr. Michael White, co-author of the popular book, “REBUILT: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter.” The book tells the story of how the parish implemented changes that dramatically improved Mass attendance, parishioner engagement and financial contributions. The book has since become far more than the story of one parish. It has sparked a movement to revitalize and refocus what it means to reach “the lost.”
5 Approaches for Engaging Young Adults in the Catholic Church
Engage Young Adults in Service and Social Justice:
Most young adults already understand the injustices in our world and the need for service to the poor. Bishop Barron’s first recommendation to the USCCB leads with engaging young adults in acts of service. As a Church, we have a rich heritage of social service throughout the history of our faith. Barron’s recommendation extends to helping young adults to understand not only the Church’s longstanding position on social justice issues, but also storied saints like St. Ambrose, St. John Chrysostom and St. Thomas Aquinas. National organizations like Catholic Charities, St. Vincent de Paul and the Knights of Columbus are woven into the fabric of how parishes and dioceses serve the needs of the poor. These organizations (and many others) present parishes and dioceses with a tremendous opportunity for engagement. Our research indicates that most young adults would rather volunteer than donate money and they typically get engaged with causes that are closer to home. A local focus is critical for this audience. Once engaged and through further cultivation, the opportunity may exist to emphasize how monetary donations make an impact on your mission. The key is cultivating their interest in service.
Create a Strong Message and Find Authentic Ways for Young Adults to Form Community
Before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote that the theologian’s task is “to draw from the surrounding culture those elements which will allow him better to illumine one or other aspect of the mysteries of faith” (DONUM VERITATIS). Ratzinger understood that each new era of Church leaders would need to make the Gospel relevant for their generation. Authentic teaching to young adults and communications requires time and energy. Establishing one-on-one relationships requires a desire that usually starts at the top of your organization and extends all the way through peer-to-peer messaging. Not surprisingly, our research indicated that personal connections motivate young adults to donate time and money. This includes a desire to help others that are being directly affected by a cause they support. An organization that adopts a model of engagement through service can also provide numerous opportunities to build community within the organization.
When I visited Church of the Nativity a couple of years ago, I was struck by how the parish went out of its way to engage in community building. Nativity had constructed a coffee house (within the church structure) where parishioners were welcome to spend time. I visited at 3:00 p.m. on a Saturday, just a couple of hours before Mass began, and was surprised to find young adults enjoying a beverage and visiting with their peers. How often do you see a bunch of twenty-somethings hanging out at church on a Saturday? This idea is inspired.
Create a Strong Digital Strategy on Multiple Channels
In his presentation to the U.S. Catholic Bishops, Bishop Barron reminded his peers that many who seek the faith do so through websites and that the beauty of our faith can also be expressed through an organization’s online presence. If you visit Church of the Nativity’s website, you’ll notice that the site comes alive immediately with a video experience of entering their church. Visitors can watch Mass online, listen to previous homilies, volunteer, give or plan a visit. There is a strong message right from the start that all are welcome at this parish. The website offers multiple channels for engagement, both for the passive visitor and for those ready to be engaged.
Organizations should also be present on multiple social media channels. Pew Research indicated that young adults primarily favor Instagram and Snapchat. Edition Research reported that 62% of the U.S. Population ages 12-34 are using Facebook and 70% watched a video on YouTube in the past week. A website is important, but representation on multiple social platforms is also essential, as it provides additional opportunities for engagement.
Offer Multiple Donation Channels
Many parishes and religious organizations around the country now offer electronic giving as part of their giving options. Our research indicated that easy donation processes and the ability to make frequent donations in small amounts are among the top ways to increase the likelihood that young parishioners will donate money. Non-credit donation options are also important. Parishes and organizations should consider adding Venmo, PayPal or giving through a text message, as options.
Encourage Participation by Starting Small
Our research indicated that many young adults believe that, due to their limited finances, their small gifts make little difference to a nonprofit. Understanding that each person makes an equal sacrifice, not an equal financial gift, will lay the foundation for future giving. Millennials and Gen Zers give back in a variety of ways, most typically via the donation of items. In the spirit of Stewardship, parishes and nonprofits have an opportunity here to help young adults find meaningful ways to make this type of contribution. Over time, young adults will have the opportunity to grow as a donor to an organization with which they share this type of common ground.
This generation has spent their formative years in a post-2002 Boston Sex-Abuse Crisis environment. Hence, young adults understand the need for strong accountability in our Church. Our study showed that young adults demonstrated an overall lack of trust that their money will be used effectively with nonprofits. If our Church is going to engage this next generation of prospective donors, then it must be prepared to be held to a high level of accountability. Good stewardship requires transparency, which includes publishing financial documents and further educating donors to better understand where their donations are being invested and the impact of their contributions. Young adults do their homework. Regular communication from any nonprofit organization is expected and using multiple channels to reach them is recommended.
I agree with Bishop Barron’s approach to find common ground with young adults and families as a means to engage people in the faith. There is no denying the exponential growth that Nativity parish has experienced by implementing its model to reach the lost. Perhaps the best way that I can summarize this article is to provide you with a simple experience that I had which encapsulates many of the principles I have shared with you.
As a former Youth Minster in a Philadelphia parish, I was always impressed at the response of our young parish families for requests of assistance. One activity we offered parishioners was the opportunity to prepare a casserole for a family that was experiencing a loss by working with a local Hospice Center. Over the years, I heard stories from families who participated in this take-home activity and were touched by this experience. Preparing a meal for another family (and discussing the reasons why) sparked new conversations in the home that otherwise would not have occurred. Not only did this activity make an impact on the organization, but families began to transform as well. Often, this one activity became a gateway that encouraged busy families to find more time to get involved with their parish and deepen their faith.
Engaging young adults and families in works of charity creates a pathway that compliments their interests and special gifts. It also creates an opportunity for the further development of their faith and deepening their identity as Catholics. Pope Benedict wrote, “Charity in truth is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity” and constitutes “the heart of the Church’s social doctrine” (Caritas in Veritate “Charity in Truth”).