Accompanying Youth and Young Adults on Their Journey as Missionary 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 witness.
The 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.
"I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least openness to letting him encounter them…" (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?
The 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)
Walking with 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 Passover." (Evangelii Gaudium, 13)
Helping 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 world.
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." (Evangelii Gaudium, 268)
Mission is 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.
Connecting with Youth and Young Adults
"Pastoral 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." (Evangelii Gaudium, 33)
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 discipleship!
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, discouragement, 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 Young Adults
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.
Engage 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 family members or learners. 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.
Help 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 engage.
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 https://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/cultural-diversity/intercultural-competencies/
Go 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 disciples.
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 zone!
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 Church
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.
iii United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, National Directory for Catechesis, 2005, #20
iv Dr. 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. 197.
vi United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Sons and Daughters of the Light-A Pastoral Plan for Ministry with Young Adults, 1996, pages 37-38.
Julianne 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 Catechist's Journey".
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 Angeles. 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)