In the quest to reach young adults in the world of ministry there are many different styles and models, all of which are in continual dialogue and development as we move from one generation to the next. As a campus minister in higher education, I have experienced the challenge of trying to adopt and re-image how I approach ministry in order to discern between what students are asking for and what they actually need in order to more fully develop as young men and women called to bring forth the Gospel. In evaluating this current generation, it seems that students are not really "seeking" so much as stumbling into things, more so than previous generations, or just not participating in the search for answers to life's big questions. In response, I have deduced ministry must come from a direction that both continues to give an ear to students, that continues to welcome members of all faith backgrounds, but is firmly rooted in our Catholic heritage.
Why do I say this? The first reason is because we are ministering to a generation that the ministry world has somewhat misread. For the last four or five years as a Campus Minister, I've encountered the term "seekers." This is a term that refers to a generation that seems to be missing from the pews, but who are still interested in spiritual enrichment and development. Unfortunately according to some relatively recent articles by the PEW Forum Study, this does not largely seem to be a reality, only a misperception of the religious climate of the millennial generation.
In attempting to minister to the "seeker" generation, we sometimes continue to leave the floodgates open for people to leave the Church because we are not giving them enough sustenance and substance. We all know that this current generation is a population of students who are not comfortable with and are reluctant to participate in institutional religion as a whole. According to the PEW Forum on Religion & Public Life's article on the "US Religious Landscape," members of the millennial generation are flocking away from their religious institutions of origin. This conclusion is particularly disturbing when we consider the rates of the population who are leaving the Catholic Tradition as the study explicates:
"While nearly one-in-three Americans (31%) were raised in the Catholic faith, today fewer than one-in-four (24%) describe themselves as Catholic [...] Approximately one-third of the survey respondents who say they were raised Catholic no longer describe themselves as Catholic. This means that roughly 10% of all Americans are former Catholics."
In A Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, Fr. James Martin says that there are many "paths" to God. Two of the six that Martin talks about and that are relevant to this discussion are "The Path of Independence" and "The Path of Exploration." The first is characterized by the tendency to make "a conscious decision to separate themselves from organized religion [...]." (32) Martin says that those in this path leave their religious tradition for many different reasons - some of which are because of very deep and hurtful experiences of abuse or because of disagreement about teachings or misunderstandings of teachings on moral issues. In response, these folks will continually search for a faith that perfectly fits who they are and what they believe, to no avail, because no religious tradition is "perfect." In regards to the second path, "The Path of Exploration," this group is characterized as not being comfortable/happy with the tradition in which they were raised. They go out on a quest to "seek" different faith traditions and understandings of the spiritual practices that world religions espouse to get closer to a higher state of being, but like folks in "The Path of Independence" they suffer from three major pit-falls. First, they again have "the danger of not settling for any tradition because none is perfect." (41) Second, they seem to "shrink" the existence of God as Martin explains:
"God becomes what one writer called a "pocket-size God," small enough to put in your pocket when God doesn't suit you (for example, when the Scriptures say things that you would rather not hear) and take out of your pocket only when convenient" (41).
And third, Martin states that people in this path suffer from a lack of commitment, they continually search rather than more fully developing a spirituality that is rooted in a God and a tradition that is bigger than them. (41)
Another reason for a rooted approach to ministry comes from PEW Forum Study's "U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey," that states there is significant statistical data that points to the fact that a large portion of the general population know little about their Christian faith and other world religions (with the exception of Atheists and Mormons). The main conclusion of this article is that "large numbers of Americans are uninformed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions - including their own." Coupled with the mass exodus from religious traditions of origin, it seems that folks are leaving religious traditions and largely do not even know what they are leaving behind.
So what does all of the aforementioned data and observations mean for us when we are trying to help students grow spiritually and relationally on our campuses? First, it suggests a need to move away from a focus primarily centered on reaching "spiritual seekers." Second, it points out that ministry needs to move away from attempting to "journey with" students on whatever path they may be following, without an assessment or exploration of where the particular person has been. This approach largely buys into the dilemma that is classified by a generation that is "spiritual but not religious," and there are a few issues that are problematic in this approach. If we unpack the statement "I am spiritual but not religious," one can deduce, as Fr. James Martin does that "freed from unnecessary dogma, you can be yourself before God." (45) This is an individualistic approach that rejects the social dimensions of faith and spirituality. It places the focus on the search or journey of the individual rather than the reality that the "seeker" is part of a larger community that is searching for the same answers to a lot of the same questions and that they have a community that they can rely on and learn from in their search.
Third, ministry must be rooted in the religious tradition of our Colleges and our Church so we can increase our ecumenical and interfaith efforts. This should be an initiative that grows out of the framework of ecumenism and understanding, rather than a somewhat relativistic overview that seeks to put faith traditions into one pot. A great fear of this position is that by being more fully "Catholic" we become less inclusive of other traditions, but this is not the case. We can more fully understand, appreciate, and affirm the faith of others by being more rooted in our Catholic Tradition that proclaims in Ut Unum Sint "The Catholic Church embraces with hope the commitment to ecumenism as a duty of the Christian conscience enlightened by faith and guided by love." (Paragraph 8) As the document Empowered by the Spirit states, "Catholics who are deeply rooted in their tradition and who maintain a strong sense of identity with their religious heritage will be better prepared to carry out [the mission of ecumenism and interfaith cooperation]." (Paragraph 8) Why? One needs to first understand the precepts of their own faith tradition in order to participate in open and honest dialogue that explores truths found in another. As Michael Heller states in his article, "A Renewed Young Adult Ecumenical Movement", taking seriously the charge of ecumenism, one needs to understand that, "being 'ecumenical' does not mean giving up who [we are] or [our] specific religious traditions, rather it encourages [us] to expand [our] understanding of other traditions and more fully enrich the life of the greater Church. "
For our Catholic population on campuses it is essential that we increase our opportunities for catechesis, meaningful worship and liturgy, and evangelization to those who have chosen to be apathetic to matters of faith and religion. By doing so, we have the opportunity to educate (or re-educate) and reach a generation of Catholic students who are often becoming more polarized in their positions, rather than more united in the Church - which is actually an expression of a deeper need. As Fr. Thomas Rausch points out in his article "Another Generation Gap" in America Magazine, this generation is being attracted to a more polarized definition of what Church means because those who espouse these positions "are addressing some real needs for a considerable number of contemporary Catholics, for example evangelization and religious illiteracy." Rausch quotes Robert Schreiter, C.Pp.S., as stating that often those who are entering religious life, and I would say those who are generally in the millennial generation, share the experience that "'all that they have experienced religiously and in other dimensions of their lives has been discontinuity and fragmentation.' Their 'conservatism' [and polarization] may actually represent a search for coherence and community."
As members of institutions of higher learning, we have the opportunity to more fully address the needs of our student populations by answering this call to a new effort of evangelization that helps our students more clearly understand our heritage. This new evangelization cannot be based in, as Rausch says, "narrow parochialism that exalts the uniqueness of the Catholic Church on the basis of a nonhistorical orthodoxy and shaky polemical arguments" nor should it be based in a position of "religious pluralism [that] has left many Catholics wondering if there is any reason for their faith commitment and ecclesial allegiance beyond subjective or cultural ones,” but rather in a genuine attempt to educate and motivate others to discover the diversity and range that the tradition offers. (Rausch)
As we find ourselves in an opportunity to re-imagine and address the needs of this generation we can be comforted by the fact that we already have the tools/information and Spirit behind us, we just have to be more firm and comfortable with using them.