It’s been almost 35 years since the bishops of the United States have spoken openly about their vision for youth ministry (“Renewing the Vision”, 1976). The world has changed drastically in the last 30+ years, and the Church worldwide is facing new challenges in evangelizing her youngest members. I attended a conference a few weeks ago with bishops, theologians, and parish leaders discussed things like the effect of technology on faith, the approach pastors, and parish leaders can take to unify a multicultural parish—which is an increasing reality in our churches in the United States—and we also checked in on recent studies that pose alarming facts of when young people leave the Church.
These conversations stirred some questions up in my mind, and I’ve been reflecting on how we can work to solve them in our ministry to young people at St. Louis.
With the evolution of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) how can we better ground our young people in actual reality?
The Brave New World promised to us in late 20th-century pop culture is here. There was a time when self-driving cars, virtual reality headsets, and a generally robot-run life was just a fantasy. The sleek science fiction of the 70s, 80s, and 90s has become reality. Video games are becoming increasingly VR based. With a simple headset, a player can be transported to a totally different world for a fantastical adventure. Our phones (which we sometimes hold closer than we do our best friends) are equipped with AR that has the ability to insert images from another world into our own (think Pokemon Go, Snapchat Bitmojis, etc.). In general, technology is making it easier for us to escape from reality. When stress hits, when relationships get tough, when we don’t like what we see around us, we retreat to our phones and video games and TVs. It’s a numbing factor.
To combat this retreat from reality, we need to present more parish opportunities to get our young people in touch with reality. This was the conclusion from many bishops and theologians and it’s mine too. In a very physical way, the Farm Ministry at St. Louis is an incredible chance to engage youth with the very dirt they stand on. It also offers a chance to reflect on nourishment, well-being, self-care, and concern for creation.
What should our approach be in ministering to a multi-cultural population in the parish?
According to some recent data, Hispanics make up 71% of the growth of the Church in the United States recorded over the last 50 years. And it is growing. Something like 30 million new Catholics (of all races and cultures) in 50 years. And while we can debate the implication of illegal immigration on this number, they’re here and the Church is called to serve them. By the way, over 65% of Hispanic Catholics are naturalized, AKA, born in the United States.
Hispanic Catholic numbers are also growing because of a higher birth rate. Hispanic Catholics are having more babies than any other Catholic group, which is awesome. Check this out: “The median age of Hispanics is 28, significantly younger than White (43), Asian (36), and Black (33) populations. About half of Hispanics are younger than 30.”
So what do we do for youth ministry in this situation? Do we have three youth ministry groups, one English-speaking, one Spanish-speaking, one bilingual? Do we have separate young adult groups based on culture? Or do we find a way to integrate the communities in some way? These are questions that we have to face at St. Louis, and I need to do more soul-searching on this front, too. However, we can all start by engaging in our Hispanic community’s awesome Catholic culture at St. Louis. Have you had breakfast with the Guadalupanos on the 4th Sunday breakfasts? Do you really know what’s in a tamale? Have you attended the posadas at Christmas? Did you go to Our Lady of Guadalupe masses? Engage in the reality of Hispanic culture and its intersection with Catholicism.
What can we do to retain young Catholics who are leaving the faith and becoming “nones”?
This was the most striking fact that I heard at the conference, and I think it took a few bishops by surprise too. St. Mary’s Press compiled some new data in a study called “Going, Going, Gone” and it contains information that is going to change the way I do ministry at St. Louis.
The median age at which young people (5-25 in this study) leave the Church is 13 years old. I wondered how a 13-year-old can make such a decision, but then I remembered a few things. I was 10 when I knew I wanted to work for the Church. So it’s possible for young children to know what God wants from them, look at some of our saints and priests. Children are also growing up in a different time in which they can choose lots of things. Faith becomes one of those things to choose. Finally, after confirmation, most children (and parents) stop doing Church. They’ve finished, so they’re done.
And these children don’t come back to faith. They become “nones” at 13. Nones are people who don’t identify with any faith. They’re not even leaving because they want to be non-denominational. They’re leaving because they don’t care.
So, we’ve got some work to do. Ministry to families is so important in order to build up the domestic Church. The parish can only do so much, the responsibility lies on parents to lead their children in the faith. And if parents are feeling lukewarm about faith, then I need to do more (with God’s help) as our director of Adult Formation and Evangelization.
It’s not all bad. The reality is that our Church is trying to figure out the best ways to help our young people. How are we doing at St. Louis? And how can you, dear reader, help build up God’s kingdom at the parish?
To learn more about the 2018 Synod on Youth and Young Adults, click here.