Open Thread: LOST? Twenty-Somethings and the Church

Gen and I are heading up to NYC tomorrow for Fordham’s LOST? Conference on young adults in the Catholic Church. Right up our alley. Lots of great speakers on tap, so if you can’t be there yourself, check back here throughout the weekend for updates and reactions from us and others.

And use this post as an open thread on the impossibly wide topic of twenty-somethings and the Church. Any questions for conference attendees/heavy-hitters Peter Steinfels or Jim Martin, SJ (or others)? Post ‘em in the comments section and we’ll see what we can do!

UPDATE 1/29/11: Live, from New York, it’s Saturday morning at a Catholic conference. Will be here throughout the day with some highlights and questions, after the jump. Please hit the comments section to chip in!

UPDATE (10:00 pm): Back in South Jersey after a long, rich day in NYC. My battery gave way around 2:45, and the only outlets to speak of were way off on the side of the auditorium, so I was left in the dark the last few hours. The 3:00 pm session started with a video of young adult New Yorker Catholics (and lapsed Catholics and non-Catholics) being interviewed on the street about their faith and the church. A lot of the same things conference panelists had been talking about on behalf of twentysomethings all day long, but it was nice to hear it straight from the horses’ mouths. Panelists followed up the video by speaking about an incredibly wide range of issues (conversion, martyrdom, campus ministry, psychoanalysis, intro theology courses, etc…phew!).

The conference’s final session was a wrap-up “where do we go from here?” discussion. I loved the way the panel’s moderator, Jim Martin, phrased his final question. I might/will steal it down the road. He had one question, he said, that he wanted to ask three ways. First, in business language: What are some best practices we can take back with us to help improve our company? Next, in academic language: Based on the data and our experiences, what have we learned? And finally, in theological language: Where is the Holy Spirit leading us from here?

Gen and I will offer our two cents on that question and toss up some final thoughts later on. And be on the look-out for a video with some reflections from twentysomething conference attendees themselves! What a thought!

2:00 p.m.  Session IV
“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” Yearnings of the Spirit

Prayer, preaching, service, Scripture, liturgy, sacraments: what do twenty-somethings seek and where can it be found?

Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, Fordham University

Marilyn Santos, Director of Youth and Enculturation Ministries, Archdiocese of Atlanta
Tami Schmitz, Asst. Director of Spirituality, Campus Ministry University of Notre Dame

Joe Nuzzi, pastoral associate, St. Francis of Assisi parish, Manhattan
Meredith Fabian, young adult leadership team, Ascension parish, Manhattan, and international liaison, Covenant House

-Ms. Schmitz mentions the big three yearnings for twentysomethings: catechesis (learning more about the content of their faith), connection (quiet times for connection with God), community (a welcoming place to connect their life stories to the story of God’s ongoing revelation to us). “If you’re part of a faith community, you can’t be lost, because someone will come looking for you when you’re not there,” she says.

1:00 p.m.  Session III
Frenemies?  Popular Culture and Catholic Culture

The complex encounter between church and culture:  How do twenty-somethings navigate the varied terrains of church culture and popular culture?  How does the church engage the media-saturated, sensory-charged, and socially-networked lives of twenty-somethings?

Tom Beaudoin, Fordham University

Rachel Bundang, Religious Studies, Dir. of Social Justice Education, Marymount School
Bill McGarvey, former editor-in-chief,

Matthew Boudway, associate editor, Commonweal
Amanda Daloisio,  New York Catholic Worker, Witness Against Torture Community

-Bill McGarvey flew through his ten minutes with a lot of great little bits. Here are a few: “Millennials can’t even bother with hostility because they don’t see religion as something relevant to their lives.”

Just because someone is a seeker doesn’t mean that they’re lost. Today, the parable of the 99 sheep is flipped on its head: one sheep is left in the church, and 99 are wandering around somewhere else. But the church is more concerned with the one they still have, and don’t really know what to do with the 99 running around in a geography without bounds.

Pop culture and social culture today are transparent, unfiltered, democratic, and collaborative. Church culture is none of these things.

Catholics have a poverty of imagination in thinking about culture in general. Bob Dylan, the Clash, Bruce Springsteen, Radiohead introduced Bill to truth for the first time even though he was a “trained Catholic.” He finds this Ignatian (see God in all things); I find it, more broadly, first and foremost sacramental. Our sacramental imagination as Catholics bursts through all the world, as God comes to us in pop music and in redwood trees and, yes, of course, in the Eucharist.

God’s first language is our experience, not religion.

OK, battery dying..will have to recharge after the session.

11:00 a.m.   Session II
Sex and the City of God

Hooking up, casual sex, cohabitation, later marriages, and same-sex relationships are cultural realities for twenty-somethings. How does this affect young adults’ ties to Catholic communities, teaching, and values, and their own desires for lives of integrity and wholeness?

Robert Parmach, Fordham University

Donna Freitas, Assoc. Professor of Religion and Writer in Residence, Hofstra University
Colleen Carroll Campbell, Author, Columnist, TV & Radio Host

Patrick Landry, middle school teacher and graduate student, Northwestern
Paul Schutz, musician, liturgist, and graduate student Fordham

-Ms. Freitas says evangelical college students and Catholics are quite divergent in their approaches to sexuality. Evangelicals at Christian colleges are extremely adherent to their faith and moral codes; “it is the core of their identities.” This has a big impact on their lifestyles. There is a vibrant culture of chastity, and the “don’ts” are really meaningful. They don’t come across as “don’ts”: they are peer-supported and seen as goals, not laws. At all other colleges (Catholic, private non-religious, public), the hook-up culture is prevalent. Catholic youth learn and repeat: don’t do it; don’t use condoms; don’t be gay. “This is incredibly upsetting to them [us],” she says. She says Catholic youth are angry, frustrated and activists. Human dignity in the context of service/justice activities can apply to questions of sex and morals: Where was the human dignity at that party you were at Friday night? I like that connection between social ethics and personal, moral ethics, a connection that is often missed. Folks tend come down more strongly on one side or the other.

-Ms. Campbell says millennial Christians (“the new faithful”) are good at integrating sexual ethics, spiritual practices, and social justice concerns. “The reasons behind the rules of Catholic teaching” must be communicated to move from Freitas’ list of “don’ts” to something more meaningful.

9:45 am: Session I
On Your Own?

Student loans, job searches, finding friends and housing, the parish and social scene—a look at the economic, career, social, and religious challenges twenty-somethings face.  What are the implications for religious communities?

Christine Firer Hinze, Fordham University

David Campbell, Assoc. Professor of Political Science, University of Notre Dame
Carmen Cervantes, Executive Director, Fe y Vida

Greg Eirich, sociologist, Columbia University; Jennifer Sawyer, Fordham University

-Ms. Cervantes quotes these stats: 1st generation Latino immigrants are 75% Catholic; 2nd generation is 62%; 3rd generation 50% (sobering numbers after the “Latinos will save the American Catholic church” chorus from last night’s forum). This mirrors the trends we saw from the early, mid-20th century when European, Catholic immigrants came over and largely stuck to their communities. As they assimilated, the proportion of practicing Catholics dipped.  The situation with Latino migration seems a bit different, as it doesn’t seem to be slowing down at all; the consistent influx of newcomers and the ability to maintain Spanish as your primary language so easily in the USA might preserve the culture here in a way the European migration last century didn’t. But we’ll continue to face retention challenges as Latino immigrant families remain here for generations. Ms. Cervantes mentions the challenge to establish Spanish-speaking communities in what had been Anglo parishes and schools. “We are not here to save the church,” she says. “We are church, and we are struggling to be church…We are church, but we are not allowed to be church.”

-David Campbell is focusing on a “big reason people turn away from the church”: politics. Late 1980s and early 90s saw rapid acceleration in the percentage of people who classify themselves as “none” in affiliation surveys. Most “nones” believe in God, heaven, hell..just not comfortable with organized religion. Millennials are more pro-life and more pro-gay rights than their parents; they don’t see the world as left/right in the traditional way. Young Catholics are leery of partisan politics creeping into religion. No stats to back this up; I’m more of the school that people (especially my peers) aren’t really mad at religion anymore. It’s more of a “meh?” thing.

-Jennifer Sawyer, a 2009 grad from Fordham, speaks of the blessings and curses of being a millennial Catholic in NYC: plenty of stuff to do, not too many folks on board with the whole Catholic thing. People are confused when she wants to go to church on Holy Days. This sounds more in line with my “meh?” experience than Campbell’s insistence on the role of politics on our departure. People have difficulty being part of something that doesn’t really understand them, Jennifer says. Her comments had everything to do with the topic, but weren’t a response to anything offered by the first two speakers, because, well, they kinda went rogue with the prompt.

-Greg Eirich talks about the importance of big events like baptisms, Christmases, etc. to make second impressions on lapsed Catholics who are in church against their will.

-Cervantes says plenty of young adult Latino Catholics go to Mass, but that it’s a big challenge to find small faith communities with people of their own age. Weekly meetings “kill everything” she says, hilariously. Jives with my theory (first heard from Fr. John Cusick and Kate DeVries of the Archdiocese of Chicago) that event-based young adult ministry instead of group-based stuff lets transient, intimidated Catholics plug in to stuff more easily.

-Campbell emphasizes what Bob Putnam said last night: in order to stay viable, we need not only to figure out how to invite people back to the community, but how to invite people in to the community for the first time. How do we do both? And how are they different?

-Sawyer says that people she talks to about the church are upset about the church’s approach to issues of gender and sexuality. She says she wishes they could get to the core stuff and see the “immense beauty of the faith, the love, openness, and solidarity.”

-Eirich talks about what he hears from his lapsed Catholic friends. They tend to fall into one of two groups. One group has “macro” issues: concerned about THE CHURCH and big-picture political and media issues, and such issues cause a rupture. The second group has “micro” issues: they don’t have good experiences at Mass, and when they try it again, they have another bad experience that reminds them of something from earlier in their lives. Then they peace.

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12 Comments on “Open Thread: LOST? Twenty-Somethings and the Church”

  1. I find the very title of this conference interesting. While I was never a fan of the TV show, I think it can accurately portray how many young adult Catholics feel after college, specifically those who attended a Catholic college or university and were active in worship, ministry, service, etc… For example, I have several friends who moved to a new city, town, locality, whatever, and struggled to connect to a parish that offers what they were so passionate about during their college years. They may experiment or search around a bit, but I find that many end up attending Mass less and engaging their faith less. So I guess my question is who’s at fault? I don’t mean this in an overly-critical way, but more in a practical way. Do not enough parishes, dioceses, religious organizations offer the things that young adult Catholics are looking for after leaving a particularly active college/university religious life? Or is it perhaps that we young adult Catholics don’t do a good enough job in seeking out the opportunities that are already in place? Finally, might it be that we young adult Catholics aren’t willing to stick out our necks and create new opportunities to create the communities and forums for conversation that will engage our faith at various levels from worship to service. Hopefully this conference -and this blog – can be venues for such conversation.

    • mhlaskey says:

      Thanks for this, Michael. You raise a lot of worthwhile points and ask great questions. That post-college transition is killer. The places where I think it’s most successful are usually the urban centers where there’s a critical mass of “emerging adults” (unmarried, not settled down, transient, etc.). I spent a semester of college in DC, and the parish around the corner was a hotbed of young adult activity (St. Thomas the Apostle in Woodley Park). Folks from around the District filled up the Sunday evening “young adult” Mass; other Masses at the same parish had only a handful of attendees. I wish I had found out what made that happen. I participated in a small faith sharing group that was led by two parishioners. I’m not sure if there was even a professional young adult minister to speak of; I never saw one. Besides the leadership roles taken by fellow young adults, I was really impressed with the wide range of activities. Some social, some service, some liturgical, some faith sharing. Plug in where you want, however you want. I think that an “event-based” approach like this is preferable to a “group-based” approach for several reasons. For one, folks our age are moving around so much, it’s hard to sustain a regular group. And second, groups can be, well, kinda nerdy. If you’re not in the group you’re out of the group. What if I just want to dab a toe in the water? That’s when a variety of events is nice. My question for St. Thomas would be what facilitated the creation of that culture in an otherwise sleepy parish? What elements are key to replicating it in other areas? Unfortunately, the terrain away from urban centers is a lot more barren. And even where young adults abound, there are so many life stages that make up “young adult”: single, moving toward marriage, married without kids, married with kids, etc. How can churches offer things for everyone? Or is it silly to try to target everyone at once? So, if you’re involved in a parish/center/movement with a strong young adult presence, what contributes to the culture? What keeps it moving? Hollaback.

      • I’ve had the great privilege of witnessing the birth of young adult ministry in Indianapolis. When I moved here in the fall of ’08, there was a Theology on Tap group that met every other week for six sessions total. Now we have a regular group of probably 200 people at 7pm Mass on Sundays. By the grace of God, we had a priest, an Echo apprentice, and four FOCUS missionaries all assigned to young adult and college campus ministry in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis in the fall of 2009, and it’s been absolutely incredible to watch how things have developed.

        One thing that stands out would be the impressive _variety_ of events, but also the generally short-term scale of them. We’ll have, for instance, a series on prayer for the season of Advent, or small group discussions about building Passionate (i.e. characterized by Christ’s Passion) relationships during Lent, or monthly socials that run the gamut from ice skating to an open house party in the enormous rectory of the pro-cathedral where the group meets. Some of the group’s leaders are among the most innovative, creative, imaginative people I know, but with impressive grounding in Catholic theology and practice.

        We also have opportunities beyond opportunities for people to get involved, and those also require only short-term commitments. At Mass, we have greeters and ushers and servers and lectors–and all of those positions are assigned on a monthly basis. It seems young adults shy away from commitments even as long as a semester because of uncertainty about what the future holds, but it’s pretty easy for someone to commit to being a greeter once or twice during the next four weeks.

        Interestingly, though it’s been largely event-based, a group atmosphere has also developed, but one that is extremely open. One new person comes and is instantly invited out to Steak ‘n’ Shake after Mass or to the movies on Friday night. The more outgoing members of the group seem to have made a habit of meeting the people who linger after Church looking like they’re just waiting for someone to come talk to them, and once that introduction happens, the newcomer is then introduced to probably three or four people with whom she might have something in common. It’s great.

        It would be hard to put a finger on specifically what this ministry has going for it such that it could be replicated in other places, but I think if there are at least a couple of people who can give significant time to the ministry, either as their occupation or as a major volunteer position, it helps other people come out of the woodwork who know they have something to offer and just need direction on how best to do it.

        Sunday evening Mass is pretty key, though. If I had to tell anyone where to start, that’d be it. And if you can do it at a parish located near a university, it’ll be that much better.

  2. Bethany says:

    I’ve been in both environments post college (for me a lot of college, so it was delayed a bit) and definitely the large urban center has been the best and most engaging. So many opportunities to socialize, serve, and lead. However, I’ve also lived in three very small Upstate NY cities where it was incredibly hard to find my fit in the faith community. In two of them I abandoned all hope of finding people my age and instead pursued service: being a catechist, helping on a building project, designing the church newsletter, other media help, etc. I found so much joy from being a catechist for K-1st graders and met many parents and church leaders that way. The third seemed destined to be me in a pew Sunday after Sunday with no interaction or even recognition from others that I was there. I guess what I’m saying is that volunteering for responsibility is key, and if I had stayed in any one of those cities longer, I would have continued to dig in. “To whom much is given, much is required” rang in my mind often when I felt displaced and out of touch. Maybe the churches needed me as much as I needed them, especially those that had few under the age of 60. There are 21st century talents and gifts to share that young people might not even consider skills. All that being said, I’m also incredibly blessed to have found my best fit in Philadelphia.

    • mhlaskey says:

      Thanks Bethany. I dig your point that folks in our generation might have “21st century talents” that a church could be dying for. In general, I like the thought of using what you know/what you’re good at/what you’re trained in at church. For instance, in a parish with a lot of professionals, I always thought it’d be sweet to set up some free legal advice night in an underserved area as opposed to sending lawyers to a soup kitchen. Not that that’s bad, but I find people have a different sort of sense of ownership when doing something they’re passionate about/seeing how they can use their skills for others. But stepping out on a limb like that requires some chutzpah and dedication to a faith community that goes above and beyond. I think young adult ministries (and youth ministries from that matter) can’t be inward looking, but should direct they’re participants to plug in to the parish at-large. That still requires a “young adult ministry,” though. It’d be hard to expect folks just re-entering parish life (and for the first time on their own) to take big-time ownership without some sort of institutional support. But it’s also not possible for that support to exist in a lot of small-town/suburban parishes. I know the Archdiocese of Chicago was working with some regional young adult ministers to help parishes that couldn’t afford their own get something going. Wouldn’t it be cool if that were a priority for dioceses with a lot of suburban areas? Gen is kinda doing regional young adult ministry that way, so maybe she can add something.

  3. Bernadette says:

    I have no doubt Ms. Schmitz is a dedicated, intelligent, competent minister with her heart in the right place — but frankly, I find the statement “If you’re part of a faith community, you can’t be lost, because someone will come looking for you when you’re not there” utterly baffling. I am 28 and have a master’s in theology; I was for a long time incredibly involved in my parish — started a social outreach program, chaired several committees, and was asked to consider serving on the parish council. For the past two years, however, I’ve found it simply too painful to attend a Catholic Church due to the response to the sex abuse crisis and strident anti-LGBT rhetoric of so many in the hierarchy and have worshiped with a local Episcopal parish. It makes me physically ill that I am not able to worship in the church that I care so deeply about without becoming angry and filled with despair. I feel, in a word, lost — I was VERY deeply part of a faith community, but no one has come looking for me. I am NOT saying it is their responsibility to do so, and I am WELL aware of how overburdened pastoral staff are today, both lay and ordained — so this is not an indictment. It is rather a plea for us all to face up to reality and try to look for a solution based on what is actually happening rather than what we wish were happening. I feel lost and discouraged when I was heavily involved with my parish — and being heavily involved didn’t change that. I reduced my commitments, and no one asked why. I stopped attending the church, and no one asked why.

    I firmly believe that all involved are doing the best that they can.

    So let’s drop the utopian scenarios, and acknowledge that feeling lost isn’t just something that happens to the disconnected and uncatechized.

    • Bernadette says:

      That should read “I _felt_ lost…” rather than “I _feel_” — apologies.

    • mhlaskey says:

      Thanks, Bernadette. I’ll reply more fully when I have more than a minute, but I wanted to come to Tami’s defense quickly. In no way were her remarks “utopian”; she described the challenges of working in campus ministry and in coming up with programs and encounters with Christ that will capture the hearts and minds of ND students. She was talking about what faith community is supposed to look like, and how important a vibrant community is for college students. Out of context, I see what you mean, but I think the sentiment you find baffling has more to do with my hasty editing (a part of live-blogging, I’m afraid) than her content. I liked the aspirational tone of the quote.

    • genjordan says:

      Hey Bernadette,

      Thanks so much for sharing your reflections here. If we, as Church, consider ourselves the body of Christ, then it is absolutely our responsibility to go looking for those who were a part of our community and left. The parish community should know your name, they should greet you when you come in the door, support and thank you for being on committees and starting new initiatives, and definitely follow-up with you when you leave. Thank you for all you did for and with your parish community.

      I think the challenge to readers of your post is to make an intentional effort to personally welcome the people in their own church communities–to know their names, ask them to dinner, and care about what’s going on in their lives. There aren’t many structures in parishes that facilitate this, so each of us needs to step up and make it happen. Thank you for your contributions here tonight. Please know you’re always welcome back.

    • Becky Schwantes-An says:

      Dear Bernadette,
      I am there with you. I was very involved in my parish to the point that I was hired as a part-time minister. Because I was young and fairly new to the parish, a lot of parishioners and staff resented me and did their best to make me feel uncomfortable, too young, too inexperienced or not wanted. There was a lot of pain in this particular parish because the bishop had forced out one of their pastoral associates. There certainly were parishioners who were wonderful and wanting to make the parish better–foster community rather than let the bishop win having it fall apart, but they were more of the exception. I left the position fairly suddenly one day after a dispute with the pastor, and I mostly got gossipy inquisitive questions rather than “why did you feel like you had to leave?” Really, there were very few inquiries of any kind.

      I had thought I would get married in that church. We didn’t. I would say our bi-culture, bi-lingual, inclusive-language, progressive Mass wedding was a bit of a swan song for both of us to the U.S./European Catholic Church. We have found community and liturgy we enjoy with the Roman Catholic Women Priests or the Ecumenical Catholic Church, but honestly, it brings me to tears that the Church has pushed me out and pushed so many out. I cannot worship in a church that excludes /oppresses women. I refuse to defend an institution that is not following Jesus in his ministry of radical acceptance by continuing to declare LGBTQ friends and family as “defective” or “disordered.” I cannot give a tithe to a church that does not take responsibility for the sexual abuse of children by priests in a moral and honest way. I love the Church, so I have chosen to give my Masters degree, time and passion to an organization that is actively working to make the Church a just and equal place while also fostering community for those of us who feel pushed out. I love working with Call to Action (and the young adult ministry called 20/30- ), and I love the Church. I just can’t be angry at Mass anymore. I wish the hierarchy cared that I left…the image that the Church is more concerned with the 1 sheep who has stayed rather than go searching for the 99 of us who have left so to have real dialogue with the openness of change, really speaks to me.

      Thanks to Mike and Gen for posting all of this about this conference. I really enjoyed reading it.

    • Mike says:

      Thanks again, Bernadette, for your reflections. I read in your comment a challenge to us as church: as much as we can control it, how can we make the church a place of radical welcome and love? I feel like that might be a central question to our generation of Catholics. I hope this blog is a place to hash out some ideas in that area.

      • What do we do when our world’s conception of tolerance (i.e., “I’m okay, you’re okay, we’re all okay”) conflicts with what we as Christians mean by love (i.e., “Willing the good of the other,” with the understanding that the other’s most perfect “good” is to become conformed to the image of Christ)? What would a Christian tolerance borne out of a love that wills that our neighbor be free from the confines of sin look like?

        It seems to be a very fine line. Is it possible to recognize an action as sinful while still being “tolerant” of those who are tempted by it, cling to it, or even perceive it to be a good?

        Moral epistomology disclaimer: I tend to start from abstract principles, and then use concrete instances to refine those principles. Until I have a general framework, I find it difficult to analyze particular situations. That’s why I’ve couched this in terms of “an action as sinful” instead of citing any specific action. I don’t at all mean to suggest that my way of approaching moral questions is the only way or even the best; it just happens to be my own starting point. If your approach is different, I beg your patience as I may need you to help me understand your approach in addition to the conclusions you draw from it.

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