Accompanying Youth and Young Adults on Their Journey asMissionary Disciples
Julianne Stanz and Tom East
"In virtue of their baptism, all the
members of the People of God have become missionary disciples..."
Pope Francis, Evangelii
Gaudium # 120
There is a deep hunger in youth and young adults-a hunger for love,
for truth, for meaning, for belonging, and for purpose that the culture cannot
satisfy. This hunger is satisfied in
friendship with Jesus Christ—a friendship that leads to community in his Church
and to fruitful sharing of love and care with those in need. Another way to describe this friendship is the
invitation to become a missionary disciple of and for Jesus Christ. Youth and
young adults begin their discipleship journey in baptism and continue on that
journey when they come to love Christ and follow His ways. They become
missionary disciples when they seek to witness and serve those most in need, beginning
with those closest to them. Our engagement
with youth and young adults should help young disciples encounter Christ. Accompany
them, promote belonging in the parish community, and lead them to missionary
Changing World of Youth and Young Adults
The world is rapidly
changing in response to global secular trends such as the increased use of
technology, global mobility, instant communication, and rising atheistic
scientism. Likewise, the religious landscape of the United States is
being reconfigured by long-term, fundamental changes. For many years now, surveys have
increasingly indicated that members of the youngest generations in the United
States are far less likely than older Americans to be religiously affiliated. The Pew Forum Studies of 2007, 2012 and 2015
for example, noted marked differences between the generations; in how
youth and young adults wish to be involved in religion and the means by which
they seek answers to their spiritual questions. Amongst the Millennial generation,
only 16% of Catholic young adults identify with Catholicism according to Pew
Research from 2015, the lowest percentage for any generation studied.
Young people are
full of life, are experiencing many transitions, and have incredible gifts to
offer parish life. Unfortunately, this
is a group which has become increasingly absent from our parishes. For some
youth, the declining religious participation of their family and the struggles
of adolescence can distance them from parish life. For some young adults, their
pursuit of higher education pulls them away from both the locality and their
parish church. For others, it is a busy career and the demands of a growing
family. The young people of
our parishes are the most mobile and diverse people in our congregations and
communities. Ethnic identity and culture can be an important ally in our quest
to empower youth and adults in discipleship.
This is especially important because youth and young adults are more
culturally diverse than our overall Catholic population.
Millennials and youth in Generation Z place a high
value on tolerance and acceptance. If we start with rules and doctrinal
concepts they may tune us out, ignore us, or they may argue with us. Instead, we begin with relationship and the
encounter with the person of Christ! We invite youth and young adults to deepen
their friendship with Christ and participate deeply in Mass, attend adoration
and frequent the Sacraments, to engage with God's Word and take time for
retreats, prayer and service.
invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal
encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least openness to letting him encounter
Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, #3
Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus,
young people are often filled with questions. They long to encounter Christ,
and they want to have someone to walk with them in their questioning. They want
a first-hand experience of God, and they want that experience to be connected
to their everyday life. As the late
Cardinal George stated so eloquently: "[Pope Francis] wants bishops to be
part of this culture of encounter — encountering Christ and therefore
encountering those that Christ loves. Once you have the relationship, then the
ideas make sense. Otherwise, it's a debating society. So you don't start with
the idea. You start with a person and relationship."i
Young people encounter God in the
sacramental life of the Church, in prayer, community, in the Word, nature,
service, witness, friendship, acts of kindness, hospitality, silence,
creativity, art, and music. How can we rethink our ministries with youth so
that we are providing a series of encounters and opportunities to reflect on
these experiences? How can we become architects of encounter for young people?
Church will have to initiate everyone—priests, religious and laity—into this
'art of accompaniment' which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred
ground of the other (cf. Ex 3:5).
Evangelii Gaudium, 169
youth and young adults means meeting them where they are. A large part of the
young person's life is centered on questions such as, "Who am I?" "What is
my life's purpose?" "Who am I to others?" and "How can I contribute
to society?" Authenticity and accompaniment go hand-in-hand. Youth and young adults are interested in
making connections with their peers and forming lasting relationships. Deep
pastoral listening is the starting point for accompanying young people in their
journey of discipleship. Apostolic
Nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre remarks that "we are called to listen." If
we are to help young people discern God's plan for their lives, we might ask:
what are they looking for? They are looking to be heard. Earlier I mentioned the
idea of accompaniment, which implies going to them and being with them. To
this, we add listening to them. Listening is an important element of
discernment. Pope Francis said: "I think
that in the pastoral ministry of the Church many beautiful things are being
done, many beautiful things... But there is one thing that we must do more,
even the priests, even the lay people, but above all the priests must do more:
the apostolate of listening: to listen!'"ii
Maggie Melchoir, a young adult in the Diocese
of Green Bay stated, "Relationships are in many ways the nexus of young adult
life. Young adults are looking for connections in their life to link them to a
local and broader community. Successful ministry includes natural ways for
young people to meet and develop friendships." Providing mentoring opportunities for
youth and young adults represents an opportunity for parish ministry. Mentoring
involves not only helping young people to understand the faith but to model
what a lived faith looks like. In this regard, mentoring equips young people
for mission. "Catechesis encourages an
apprenticeship in Christian living that is based on Christ's teachings about
community life. It should encourage a spirit of simplicity and humility, a
special concern for the poor, particular care for the alienated, a sense of
fraternal correction, common prayer, mutual forgiveness and a fraternal love
that embraces all these attitudes."[iii] Guiding young people to identify moments in their
life when the Holy Spirit is moving helps to equip young people for
evangelization and for witness.
"Jesus leaves us the Eucharist as the
Church's daily remembrance of, and deeper sharing in, the event of his
Evangelii Gaudium, # 13
youth and young adults to see the parish as a place of community begins with
welcoming them into an environment where they feel at home, where they share
and dialogue about their ideas and questions, where they can share gifts in
ministries, service and leadership. In the parish community, young people see
disciples living their faith in witness and service. This engagement forms
youth and young adults to appreciate the essence of what it means to be a
Catholic community: we are people of the table, people of the Eucharist.
Sharing in the Eucharist is an encounter with Christ that immerses us in
the sacrificial death and resurrection of the Lord, deepens our relationship
with the community and sends us forth to bring Christ's healing presence to the
Sharing at the table of the parish echoes the experience of
gathering at the table of the home. Youth's experience of the home as the
domestic Church is foundational to their formation as disciples. Parishes have
a rich opportunity to inspire and engage parents by building relationships and
providing crucial support for families. The Church community can build a
network of disciple-building families by equipping them to pass along the faith
to their children, by providing quality formation opportunities and by helping
them through times of transition, sadness and loss.
"To be evangelizers of souls, we need to develop a
spiritual taste for being close to people's lives and to discover that this is
itself a source of greater joy. Mission
is at once a passion for Jesus and a passion for his people."
Gaudium # 268
inseparable from discipleship. At the heart of discipleship is a relationship
with a person-the person of Jesus Christ, whose mission is to bring us to the
Father through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. We are disciples not of
a program or a process but of a person. We are not chosen for something but for
someone. As disciples on the pilgrim
path, we are called to walk with others on their journey of faith and lead them
to Christ. In order to create a culture of witness, helping young people to
discern God's movement in their own lives is important and necessary. Many ask
the question "how can we encourage all of those young people out there, to join
us here in our parish?" Instead, mission asks "How can we get all of the people
in here, out there sharing the Good news?" Let us be missionary in our
outreach, in the kinds of questions that we ask, and in our work to
intentionally form missionary disciples.
with Youth and Young Adults
ministry in a missionary key seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that
says: 'We have always done it this way'… I invite everyone to be bold and
creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of
evangelization in their respective communities."
The key that music is played in profoundly impacts the
way we hear music. The same tune can be
joyous or sad depending upon the tempo and the key in which it is played. The same is true for our ministries. We are
challenged to minister to youth and young adults in a missionary key, which
means that we must bring a brightness, openness and newness to the way that we
engage young disciples. To connect with young people, we will need to employ
fresh strategies that are as diverse as the group we are attempting to
accompany and serve.
Many parishes struggle with the challenge of building
youth and young adult "programs" instead of ministries. They struggle to get
young people engaged and connected with the parish community and become
frustrated with poor attendance and low engagement. The goal of youth and young
adult ministry is not to form clubs or groups that gather. Such groups might be a result of developing
ministries around specific needs such as service groups, youth sports,
communities preparing for a sacrament, young mother's group, men's bible study,
Hispanic young adult ministry, and others, but these groups are not the end
goal. Small faith-sharing communities can be the catalyst for relationship building
within the parish but the overall goal of youth and young adult outreach is to
integrate youth and young adults into the life, mission, and work of the parish
and the Catholic Church. To accomplish this, parishes must dialogue about how to
facilitate encounters with Christ, how intentionally invite, welcome, and
include youth and young adults in parish life, and how to sustain these
connections by accompanying youth and young adults for mission.
In many parishes, much of the effort put into youth and
young adult ministry focuses on participation and promoting education in the
faith, with the transmission of information rather than accompanying young
people on their journey of discipleship. Dr. Christian Smith, in his work Young Catholic America, identified
specific pathways for Catholic youth who remain committed and practicing. These
youth were "well formed in Catholic faith and practice as children, whose faith
became personally meaningful and practiced as teenagers, whose parents (reinforced
by other supportive Catholic adults) were the primary agents cultivating that
lifelong formation."iv His work
emphasizes the importance of religious experience (encounters) as well as the
development of the skills that are needed to participate in the communal
practices of faith. Young people will continue to practice their faith as young
adults when they are accompanied by other well-formed adults passionate for
their faith and can contribute personally to the community. Youth who never
become skilled at participating in liturgy or being part of the faith community
will likely not continue as young adults.
Dr. Smith notes that "…Catholic youth who become more adept at being
Catholic, like attending Mass or Sunday school more, will continue to engage in
these behaviors during the transition to emerging adulthood."v
This research points the way to renewed ministry in
forming young disciples intentionally that goes beyond getting them to show up
while they experience energized performances that lack imagination and depth.
Young people are looking for the adventure of a
lifetime. As Church, we can propose the challenge and adventure of missionary
Persevere and Remain United In Me
In this age of uncertainty
and increasing cynicism, the Catholic Church offers the person of Jesus Christ
as balm for weary souls where the thirsty can drink at the fountain of pure
love, mercy, and goodness. We must seize the opportunity to reach out to the
marginalized, the searching, and the hungry and to renew our commitment to
evangelizing and engaging young people at all stages of the life cycle -- in
fresh and new ways. Studies from Gallup and the Pew Forum indicate that there
is a widespread spiritual hunger in
our society – a quest for meaning and for a deeply personal experience of God
and of community. The Catholic Church has the answers to their questions
and to their longings- the person of Jesus and the support of the Body of
Christ who will walk with them on the journey. Youth and young adults will face
a variety of challenges, discouragements and even persecution as they live and
grow in faith. Disciples remain in Christ and remain in His body, the Church.
Disciples keep doing what disciples do: pray, learn, heal, serve, and witness. For youth and young adults, and those who
work with them, discipleship is not always an easy road to walk but the
Scriptures tell us that "...By your perseverance you will secure your
lives." (Luke 21:19) The Greek word for "persevere" is closely
related to the word used in the Gospel of John when Jesus says, "remain in
me." It can be understood as "don't depart when others do..." or
"hang in there, even under pressure." We must persevere; support one
another as a community of missionary disciples striving to reach all youth and
young adults for Christ!
Practical Principles to Guide Accompaniment of Youth and
Look broadly at the youth and young adult
populations and develop targeted ministries for different segments.
Some youth, and young adults are looking to go deeper and become more engaged
in formation and service. Other young people need deeper prayer experiences.
Some young people are anxious to come to weekly gatherings and join
communities; others resist this kind of participation but are longing to have
someone to talk to about their faith. We need a differentiated approach that
begins with the variety of young people in mind.
families and see parents as part of our ministry. Parents
need to be inspired and equipped to take the lead in the spiritual formation of
their children. This looks different when children are youth and young
adults. We can help families make this
transition. What can we do to
strengthen and support families as they share faith across the
generations? For families that are
struggling with faith and active practice in the community, our work with youth
can be a spark that evangelizes the whole community. Families with young adults often face
different challenges. We can support parents
as they continue to foster the faith life of emerging adults.
Look broadly at our community and engage
lots of disciples who are willing to spend time with youth and young adults.
Notice we didn't say "recruit more ministry leaders." Discipleship is about
developing the practices of being a disciple of Jesus which is something we
learn in community and in relationship with other disciples. Who are the youth
and adults in your community from whom you want young people to "catch" faith?
Focus on spiritual growth and attend to
youth and young adults in a comprehensive way.
Youth and young adults are more than just a family member or learner. Our
ministry responses and faith formation need to address and engage each young
person and assist them in taking the next step in their journey. It is
especially important to invest time in helping youth and young adults who are
evangelized to take the deeper steps toward accountability, witness, and
engagement in mission.
young people do what disciples do and get good at it! Our
ministries could focus less on participation and learning information and more
on the skills and practices of being a disciple. When youth and young adults
are good at praying on their own, reading the Bible, participating in Mass and
the Sacrament of Reconciliation, engaging in service, and witnessing to their
faith, they will continue to do these things and seek communities and
relationships that support them in being disciples.
Touch their hearts and make it personal.
Young people yearn to belong and to relate to people who care about them and
value them as individuals. To build this relationship, we need to learn names,
know youth and young adults, and provide ministries that move, inspire, and
Provide multiple contact points.
Youth and young adults grow in commitment through a variety of relationships.
They benefit from hearing different voices that provide an echo of faith.
Listen and include the youth, young adults,
families, and leaders from among the diverse cultures within the community. Dioceses
and parishes are learning new ways to come to know and include the needs and
gifts of people from various cultures in developing authentic and inclusive
ministry responses. The Bishops of the United States are calling
ministry leaders to develop intercultural competencies so that we have the
capacity to listen, welcome, include, and be formed by people of many
cultures. These resources are an
important part of our accompaniment of young people. See http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/cultural-diversity/intercultural-competencies/
where the youth and young adults are, including online. The
roots of youth ministry are to go to the corners where youth hang out. Young
adult ministry has a similar history. To do this today, we should be proficient
in social media, and use technology as a means to draw them towards gathered
participation with the faith community.
Engage youth and young adults in ministries
that help them belong, believe, and share their gifts.
These elements address fundamental human needs that profoundly shape the youth
and young adult years. Ministry that addresses these elements develops the
commitment and identity that are foundational to formation as growing young
Don't treat young adults like youth. A
starting place for any young adult ministry is to treat them as adults, not
post-high school youth. For example, don't list them under parents' names in
the church directory. Give them their own listing. Another important point
to remember is that most ministry with young adults will be conducted by young
adults themselves, in a peer-to-peer manner.[vi]
Empower them to make a difference. Young
people welcome and value opportunities that empower them to make a difference
in the world. To put individuals in situations where their involvement truly
affects another person is at the heart of faith. Ensure that ample opportunities are given to
perform service and ministry that directly impacts the life of another.
Be action oriented. Young people value instant
communication, respond quickly to action, and are adept at multitasking. They
would rather participate in service than talk about it. If you decide to invite
a young person to a parish committee, make sure that your committee is action
oriented. Youth and young adults do not respond well to sitting around talking
about ministry; they prefer to make a difference now. Long, drawn out meetings
without a clear focus are certain to make your committee a youth-and-young-adult-free
A Prayer for Those Who Accompany Young Persons
You call people from all walks of
life to You.
You have called me to walk with
young people and accompany them on their journey of faith.
Nourish me by your Body and Blood.
Sustain me through your Body the
Encourage me through Your Word.
Help me to be your hands, feet and
voice to all young people I meet.
I ask this in the name of your Son Jesus Christ. Amen.
i Cardinal George, The Chicago Tribune, Interview on
December 19, 2013.
ii Papal Nuncio to the United States of America,
Archbishop Christophe Pierre, November 14, 2016 – Pope Francis, June 11, 2016.
Stated Conference of Catholic Bishops, National Directory for Catechesis, 2005, #20
Christian Smith, Young Catholic America –
Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), page 186.
v Ibid, p.
Stated Conference of Catholic Bishops, Sons
and Daughters of the Light-A Pastoral Plan for Ministry with Young Adults, 1996,
Stanz is the Director of New Evangelization for the Diocese of Green Bay,
Wisconsin and is a consultant to the USCCB Committee on Catechesis and
Evangelization. She is currently an adjunct faculty member of Silver Lake
College of the Holy Family in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Julianne is the co-author
with Joe Paprocki of the book "The Catechist's Backpack- Spiritual Essentials
for the Journey" by Loyola Press and blogs monthly for the website "The
Tom East is the Director of the Center for Ministry
Development, Project Coordinator for Youth Ministry
Services, and Coordinator of the Certificate Program in Youth
Ministry Studies. Tom holds a Master of Arts degree in Religious Studies from
Mount St. Mary's College in Los
Previously, Tom was the Director of Youth Ministry and the Associate
Director of Religious Education for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Tom served as editor and author for numerous
publications including, Leadership for
Catholic Youth Ministry (Twenty-Third Publications, 2013) and Effective Practices for Dynamic Youth
Ministry (Saint Mary's Press, 2004). Tom was also general editor for Call to Faith – A Thematic Approach to Young
Adolescent Catechesis (Our Sunday Visitor-Curriculum Division, 2007)