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Workshop Urges Parishes to Cultivate Young Adults
by Melissa McNally, Staff Writer
KEARNY, NJ - Focusing on the diverse and integral 18-to-39-year old demographic, RENEW International launched a new initiative, "Preparing a Place: Becoming More Young-Adult Responsive" to youth ministers and parish volunteers on Oct. 2 at the Newark Archdiocesan Retreat Center.

The program will be introduced to those involved in the popular "Theology on Tap" series and, if successful locally, the effort could go nationwide.

Gregory Welch and Margaret Rickard of Plainfield-based RENEW clearly defined young adults as separate from youths who, with the wide range in ages, can either be single or married, with or without children, settled financially or floating from job to job.

The "sons and daughters of the light," as Sister Loretta DeDomenicis, director of parish and outreach training for the archdiocese, referred to the group, is comprised of "Gen-X" (born between 1961-1968) and "Millenials" (born between 1979-1987). Each distinct group has different needs within the Church, Sister Loretta explained, noting that young adults are not confined by the idea of a parish as a place and view it as a whole faith community.

"What are (the young adult's) needs? What is driving them? If parishes put on a good program, people will drive for one hour to get there. They will make the time," Rickard said.

According to a 2005 National Center for Religious Studies (NCRS) sponsored study, 53 percent of young adults identify themselves as Catholics but only 26 percent of Gen-X and 15 percent of Millenials attend weekly Mass. "If young adults 'fall off' after Confirmation, we have to give them something to come back to," Welch stressed.

Possible reasons why young adults may not regularly attend Mass or actively participate in their faith ranges from lack of involvement once Catholic teens attend college and stop participating in CYO groups, a lack of discussion about topics by youth ministers that interest them (so-called "pelvic issues" such as birth control, abortion and pre-marital sex), and an over scheduling of their children and stress of managing a young family.

Young adults are still developing a personal identity, Welch said, that can cause them to question their faith. "They are wondering 'who am I and what is my place in the world?' Many see work as a means to an end and not a place for meaning but is a place to just make money. They find meaning elsewhere. There is not a single meaning to young adults so you cannot do a monolithic ministry. There are young mothers, singles, married people, etc. You have to pay attention to who is in your parish to discover what their needs are in order to minister to them."

Along with the diversity in lifestyles of young adults, there is diversity in the religious landscape of America. "There are societal challenges to young people as well, not just personal. There are more religions in the United States than anywhere else in the world. America is the Wal-Mart of different religions," Rickard noted. "This leads to the idea that each person has different or opposite truths. I lived with people of different cultures and religions and many young people have roommates in college and after.

Religion is like a dirty word nowadays. There are 'Cafeteria Catholics' that pick and choose what to believe. People are affiliated but don't belong. Most young people believe that it doesn't matter what religion you are just as long as you are a good person."

Although young adults are selecting what to believe in within the Catholic faith, they are hungry and are interested in learning about moral theology. Rickard encouraged the formation of small faith communities to draw young adults into the discussion of faith.

"One parish can't be everything to everyone. Young adults are not parochial and will go anywhere the best ministry is," Rickard said. "If there is a small Christian faith community, they will join. What we are aiming for is for them to live the faith as well as spread it. (The parish) has to develop good leaders and empower them to go out."

Welch believes addressing young adults is essential to the evolution of the Catholic Church. "Young adults are not the future of the Church; they are the present. We won't have a Church in 50 years if we don't minister to young adults."

In order to encourage the young adults in their spiritual journey, parishes have to first recognize the young adults in their parish. "The parishes need to first find out what people think about their church. You can either ask them over the phone or organize group to ask everyone their opinion. This includes people that are at Mass every Sunday to those that just registered and hardly attend. One of the blessings of the New Energies program is that through the surveys, we can see what we need to work on," Welch pointed out.

One of the most important things to consider, Welch explained, is to have one's parish ministries reflect the parishioners. "Ministry is repeatable. If you are not perusing young adults to continue your ministry, then you are not doing your job. People coming to church, by and large are young adults. Hand parish groups down (to younger people). There is a lack of young-adult outreach, programming and participation. When you see the results of the survey in black and white, you can figure out what to do from there," Welch said.

Liturgy is an area that can impassion young adults to become more involved. "As the old saying goes, you can't have fire in the pews with ice in the pulpit. The preaching has to be relevant, challenging and life-giving. The Word should come alive by preaching. Music also should be uplifting, prayerful, well-performed and participatory. The parish also has to be hospitable and consistently welcoming," Welch said.

Welch also sees an opportunity to stay in contact with young adults during "teachable times" where they can return to the Church. The Sacraments of Marriage, Baptism and Confirmation are times the parish can show their support and encourage spiritual growth. "We are offering the Catholic faith as a spiritual path to follow through life. It is not about dispensing sacraments; it is about coming together and unity. It is not going to be easy to entice young adults, but it is worth the effort.
Reprinted with permission, appeared October 25, 2006
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