It seems that nearly weekly, whether at an event or volunteering out in the community, I'm faced with the Catholic Church's dilemma of engaging young adults. Usually, as a young adult in the room, we are asked the question of "How do we engage you?" Now I'm in my early thirties and have been in the young adult scene for quite sometime, and based on my observations and experiences, I have 5 suggestions that I hope are helpful:
1) Find and use our talents. Over the years, I've volunteered in many capacities, and the ministries I've walked away from eventually didn't leverage my gifts and talents well. The leaders often knew my talents and interests, but they didn't use them or match them well to opportunities. They just wanted me to be a 'helper' and, while I appreciate the servant leadership mindset and do believe that we all need to do the humble tasks, we also all need to feel like our skills, talents and passions are well-suited to our roles - especially when we are volunteering beyond our day job.
Ask us what our talents and interests are, get to know us and our skills, and maybe even invite us personally to do something new. It's hard to say no to a direct personal invitation. When young adults' passion meets your parish or organization's initatives and they can make a difference - magic happens. There's no question that a young adult will make their passion a priority above other things, and commitment will flow from that
2) Build your pipeline. I remember our bishop telling us young adults to "push someone out" to make a place for ourselves if our parishes didn't make a place for us. Of course, he was kidding, but I think his point was that we have to make a place in the talent pipeline for young people, and I think he knew the reality that this is a challenge for our churches.
From the looks of it, 98% of our Catholic leadership roles have older people in them, and don't have young people being groomed to take the reigns. From what I've seen, most of these people don't like to give up their reigns even in small ways and ask or let young people lead smaller initiatives or projects for them. We're underutilized and we're missing critical opportunities to develop and mentor younger generations. Young people can make great leaders, but I often see those leaders flock to young adult only Catholic organizations because parishes don't make a place for them and their talents.
3) Meet us where we are. Truthfully, many of us are in very confusing spots in our life, our faith is wavering and fragile, and that makes commitments and engagement difficult. I know many young people who are struggling to figure out where they fit in the world. I know young people who feel hurt by God and others who are hurt by the Church, and still others who are navigating the demands and challenges of early years of marriage and family life. Many of us have no idea what we are called to be and are operating in the gray. We struggle in our walks of faith.
We need guides, mentors and spiritual companions to help light the way through this darkness -- and I don't see the broader Church meeting this need for us. They want us involved, they want us committed, and they want us bringing others into the Church, but they aren't walking with us and helping us to walk more securely in our own faith lives. Meet us where the pain and challenge is. It's there where you will find us. It's only when we feel secure in our walk of faith, that we are ready for the next steps of discipleship.
I recall a recent conversation I had with my Franciscan third order. They asked me what I needed in terms of support from the community, and I couldn't answer the question. I was surprised by it because I'm not used to getting any kind of support from a faith community. I would imagine that others my age feel similarly.
4) Don't assume we aren't at your spiritual level. I can't tell you how many intergenerational small groups I've been in where someone has made some comment that I can't relate to their more spiritually mature experiences because of my age. I can remember an instance where a facilitator brought up Richard Rohr's "Falling Upward" book and I said I had read it, and she said I was too young to understand that book. In reality, I completely understood that book and it resonated with me. Making these assumptions puts up barriers to dialogue and connection. In reality, many of us young adults are spiritually mature beyond our years. Some of the most devout people I know are young adults! Be careful, not to disengage those of us who are engaged, with these sorts of biases.
5) The little stuff works. The little things matter. Mailed invitations. Random reach outs. Offering to pray with you. Kind words. Hugs and pats on the back at church. Being warmly received by our parishes only makes our hearts draw closer to our churches, and it's hard to not be engaged when you feel compassionate love and a sense of belonging around you. Don't be afraid to talk to young adults, reach out and engage with them. Young people are hungry to be cared for and engaged with.
Engaging young adults is challenging in our churches and Catholic organizations - there's no question - but I hope these suggestions help move the needle and provide some perspective.