Why do some young adults wander away from the Church and some do not? I do not think there is an easy answer to this. At least, I have not found one in my own experience of ministry. I have seen some young people fully immersed in the Church in high school and college who then just stop coming one day. I have seen other young people who had wandered off come back almost with a vengeance. A number of young people I have known wander in and out with some choosing to loosely stay on the periphery of all things Church related.
Certainly everyone is on their own journey of faith in life and there are movements in the heart that only God can see and everything occurs in God’s time. We all know that there are scandals within the Church that wound hearts and discredit the gospel and the community. There are voices against the Church and Christianity in our world and caricatures of religion too easily tossed about in society. There are also people not willing to change their view of the Church just as they, themselves, insist the Church must change (usually to their liking). There are some people who are just lazy spiritually.
All that being said; I do think young adults need the Church. No one person may be able to answer the big concerns noted above but I would like to offer a few thoughts as to why young adults need the Church:
1. You need more than just your peers.
I never really became a fan of the TV show “Friends”. I do remember watching it and being entertained to some degree although I didn’t always agree with the moral choices portrayed in the show. I do remember once being struck though by the fact that the whole universe portrayed in that show was that of a group of peers. Every now and then a person from another generation (younger or older) would pop in and out of the show but that was just a distraction. It was all about that particular group of peers and their enclosed world. I am sorry, but that is not life. Sadly, though, I think society and the Church have followed suit on this to some degree. There are retreat programs and youth ministry initiatives intentionally structured solely around peer-given talks and peer-led discussions. There are youth only liturgies. I would wager that the same trend can be seen in education, athletics and all forms of engagement with our youth. Is there a certain value and place for this? I would think so but all choices have unintended consequences. Dear young adults, I apologize but I think you have been done a disservice. Without it being intended, you have been taught to ultimately only value peer input and peer relationship. The voices of other generations – the insight, knowledge and wisdom of older generations that can help guide in life and help navigate its struggles as well as the hopes and dreams of younger generations have been stunted, in some regard, from your awareness. With this block can also come a forgetting of how God has been faithful and active in all generations and how God continues to be faithful and active.
In my ministry with young adults I would sometimes feel that I was banging my head against a wall. I learned over time to not get upset nor frustrated by this. They were just doing what they had been taught. I was not a peer and therefore my voice and consideration would sometimes just bounce off their perspective somewhere into the ether. But as I shared above, a world comprised only of peers with a particular generational perspective is not real life. One of the things truly wonderful about Sunday worship is seeing generations together in Church – young and old. Young adults, you are noticeably absent from these gatherings. You are missing out. You need more than just your peers and the Christian community needs you.
2. You need a deeper narrative than just the secular.
There are narratives that people set their lives by but not all narratives are equal nor are all equally true. One of the lessons taught in the seminary I attended was that the gospel narrative is the rule by which all other narratives should be measured and judged. Some might see this as condescending on the part of the Christian but that is open to debate. For our purpose here, I think what can be readily demonstrated is that Catholicism has a proven track record. Empires, movements, theories of thought have come and gone. Christianity has remained and has grown consistently and organically. The secular has a value (religious freedom and protection from oppression, the respect due the dignity of all persons, etc.) but the secular also has a narrative. It is not just an absence or an empty space. In the narrative of the secular, the sacred is pushed to the periphery, not acknowledged and therefore life is constricted. In this regard a generic Christianity will not do because it ultimately does not challenge or see beyond the secular narrative. It consists solely within that narrative. I believe it fair to hold that certain popular forms of contemporary Christian expression found often in non-denominational, evangelical and mega-church communities are, in fact, a step toward the secular narrative and a step away from the Christian sense of the sacred.
There is a deeper and fuller reality to life, existence and creation itself than just the measure of the secular. There is a transcendent, spiritual and sacramental dimension to life. It is fair to embrace the benefits of the secular while also acknowledging and not being bound by the limits of its narrative. The Catholic Church with its tradition, theology and worship provides for this broader perspective on reality.
3. You need an awareness of redemptive suffering.
The Catholic Church is at home with the crucifix and it is not because we believe that the resurrection should be downplayed and that Christ is still on the cross, it is rather that by his suffering on the cross our Lord has brought a redemptive dimension to all suffering. On the cross and in the tomb, God entered into even suffering and death. The crucifix reminds us of the cost of salvation that has been won through the love and obedience of Christ. This is a great mystery. There is suffering in life and sooner or later it is experienced by every person. We see suffering throughout our world. The crucifix and its bold display of redemptive suffering protects us against the temptations of choosing to ignore suffering in our world, getting lost ourselves in the darkness of suffering and giving in to victimhood in the face of suffering. Suffering, in Christ, can be redemptive.
4. You need commitment and not just new experiences.
When I was in campus and vocation ministry my schedule and responsibilities allowed and even required of me quite a bit of travel. Now that I am in a parish my travelling has been greatly reduced due to the commitment of being a pastor. This is not a bad thing. There are seasons to life and there are seasons to ministry. My faith life and my life in general is now being nourished more by the commitment of being a pastor than by a string of new experiences offered through travel and life situation. Commitments in life offer nourishment too! Our world does not emphasize this but it is true. Young adults do not get lost in the siren call of chasing new experience after new experience through life! Sooner or later, you will wear yourself out and frankly not be all that deep. Commitments in life are what lead to depth of personhood, awareness and insight. Do not be afraid to commit in faith and in love to Christ, his Church and another person if you are so called. Be willing to go deep!
5. You need a real community that is not perfect.
You need people who will not fit neatly into your box, who disagree and argue. I have known young people to leave the Church both because it is not “perfect” or because it does not fit into their own particular box of thought. Frankly, I think that this is quite poor on their part. On college campuses there is discussion about “trigger notices” and “safe zones” around discussions that students might find threatening or challenging. Social media and our current structure of news outlets may allow us to exist and interact in a universe occupied solely by like-minded people (this is one of the dangers of our contemporary information age) but the real world does not. It is okay to argue and it is okay to debate and it is wonderful to be in a Church that has this and the Catholic Church has it in spades! Many social commentators have noted that argument and disagreement are turn offs to young adults who like to avoid such things at all costs (again this is an unintended consequence of how the generation was raised) but life and insight is gained through respectful disagreement, discussion and debate. We believe that the Holy Spirit leads the Church and this is testified especially through moments of disagreement, discussion, prayer and debate.
6. You need holiness that sanctifies.
One of my favorite professors in seminary likened the Catholic understanding of grace to a house that is being renovated from the inside out. Grace, in our Catholic understanding, does not just cover over our sinfulness but rather goes to the heart of who we are in order to heal the wound of sin from within on out. We are fully healed and fully restored through a lifetime of the working of grace and our cooperation with it. The ones who witness this most fully are the saints. Young adults, life can be different! We can know a holiness that heals, restores and is authentic! We are not meant to be defined by our sins, our stumblings and our weaknesses. We are all called to be saints. It is not just a nice thought but an eschatological truth. We are called to sanctification through and through and we should not settle for anything less.
Hopefully, these thoughts will prove to be helpful. Every generation has its blessings and every generation has its struggles.
Dear young adults, you need the Church … and the Church needs you. From a priest who has truly been blessed by his interaction with so many young adults, may God bless you and may God guide you.