There’s a lot of hand-wringing over the sharp decline in youth participation in the Church in the last few decades. I won’t go into the stats b/c I have always believed that Math is of the Devil…
How do we in ecclesial leadership (lay and ordained) get young people into the pews these days?
I’m in a very unusual situation here at the
Here’s what works for us:
Teach the apostolic faith full on…no compromises on basic doctrine or dogma. This generation of college students can smell an intellectual/spiritual weasel a hundred miles away. They would rather hear the bald-faced Truth and struggle with it than listen to a priest/minister try to sugar-coat a difficult teaching in the vain search for popularity or “hipness.”
Preach the gospel full on…ditto. Tell it like it is and let the students grow in holiness. Yes, they will fail. Who doesn’t? But let them fail knowing what Christ and his Church expects of them. Lowering the moral bar comes across as expecting too little from them. What does that say about the Church’s view of our future ecclesial leaders? They can’t cut it, so we have to shorten the race.
Give them charitable work to do…present this work as a kind of “churchy social work” and they will not stay away in droves. I regularly cite Matthew 25 as my scriptural backing for asking them to do volunteer work in the community. Frankly, They have been beaten with the Social Justice-Work stick all their lives and most of what they hear sounds like the socio-economic engineering agenda of a modernist, socialist political party. This is attractive to some, but my experience is that students yearn for a chance to do something Truly Good for their community. If their leaders loudly and proudly attach volunteer work to the Gospels as a an exercise in charity rather than an experiment in social engineering, they will come.
Challenge them intellectually…these are smarts kids. They want to know what the Church teaches and why. They don’t always agree with the Church. Fine. Coming to holiness through obedience is a long, long road for some (..even for Dominican friars who try really hard!). They aren’t afraid of tough texts or difficult arguments. Just give them the documents, read along with them, answer questions honestly and clearly, and let them make the choices they will be responsible for. You have no control over what they will come to believe or practice. Fortunately, that’s not our task. Jesus said, “Preach and teach the gospel.” He said nothing about punishing those who will not hear or see.
Feed them…they’re poor and hungry. Yes, I mean feed them spiritually, but I also mean feed them literally—food, drink, and fellowship do amazing things for students on budgets and for students who have endured slap-dash catechesis and dumbed-down, irreverent liturgy.
For the ecclesial leaders over 45 y.o. (esp. campus ministers):
These students aren’t you at 18. Apply your own standards of liberality and let them explore the fullness of the Church’s ancient traditions. You had a crappy childhood at St. Sixtus of the Perpetual Frown under the bruising discipline of Sr. Mary of the Five Wounds of Christ, so religious habits, rosaries, crucifixes, devotional booklets, Latin, incense, sanctus bells, etc. all remind you of stifling dogmatic lectures, knuckle-rappings, silly moral imperatives, triumphal-martial Catholicism, etc. Guess what? They aren’t you! They didn’t have these experiences, so they don’t associate Eucharistic adoration and First Friday Masses with intellectual repression and physical pain. Let them transform these traditions and make them their own. This is what you did, right? Well then, be consistent and apply your own principles. If you don’t, they will simply ignore you as a dinosaur and look for unofficial leadership elsewhere…which is exactly what you did when your elders failed to allow you the room you needed to explore and grow!
You didn’t follow in the religious/spiritual footsteps of your parents, why would you expect them to follow in yours? More than anything these younger generations need our patience. Keep your contempt and snarky commentary to yourself. You only injure your already sketchy credibility.
You grew up (for the most part) in a sexually repressed culture crowded with rules and punishments. They didn’t. They grew up in the sexual chaos your revolution caused and still celebrates. If they want to figure out what virginity, chastity, and NFP is all about, let them. Again, your snarky predictions of their inevitable failure will only serve to further damage your credibility—it will not deter them. Also, ask yourself: why are you threatened by their desire to put their sexuality in the context of faithful marriage?
These younger generations respect ecclesial authority most when those in authority show themselves to be people of integrity and strength. They do not expect moral perfection from you, only consistency and heroic effort. Failure is a demon they struggle with daily. Your efforts to weaken the moral ideals of the faith so that they might “succeed” are patronizing. We have to own up to the fact that recent attempts to undermine the moral teachings of the Church are really about the Baby-boomer generation’s obsession with sex and its very public need to have their sexual lives approved and celebrated, especially by those most likely to disapprove.
Also, please, please, please don’t assume that they want their Christian lives to mirror their secular culture. You wanted the Church to look more and more like your “times.” They don’t. They want their Christian lives to be counter-cultural, against the secular grain. Yes, they are extremely naïve sometimes about what this actually means but you will lose them instantly if you think an MTV Mass is the hip thing to do. Why would they come to a MTV Mass? They have MTV (and worse) 24/7 on their cell phones. They don’t need or want you for entertainment. Church is not a concert or an amusement park. What they don’t have on their cell phones is the Real Presence of Christ in his Eucharist.