Reaching our younger generations for Christ

Questions that I am asked most often include, “How do I keep my children practicing their faith?” and “How do I encourage my children, grandchildren, family members or friends to come back to their Catholic roots?” These are not easy questions, and part of the difficulty in answering them lies in our identity as Catholics today.

Catholics are no longer the homogenous group they once were, holding the same  beliefs and practices in common. When people say they are Catholic, it may mean that  they attend Mass daily or once a month or attend only at Christmas or Easter. For others, it might mean they no longer go to Mass at all, but still want to be married in the church or have their child baptized.

This distinction is critical, especially when it comes to our youth. According to a 2018 study conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown and Saint Mary’s Press, 74 percent of young people said they stopped identifying as  Catholic between ages 10 and 20, with a median age of 13. But it is important to know that while they may have stopped identifying with their Catholic faith, they may still be in attendance at religious education, attending Catholic schools and present regularly or  periodically at Mass.

However, recent research gives us some hopeful insights when it comes to those young people who researchers call Millennials and “Generation Z.” Generation Z is the generation that is roughly between the ages of 7 and 22 currently, while Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996. The new Barna Study, “Reviving Evangelism,” revealed that Millennial “non-Christians” (which would include anyone who would not describe themselves as a Christian, including Catholics who no longer identify as  Catholics) are twice as likely to be curious about Christianity than older “non-Christians.” Thirty-six percent of young adult non-Christians say, “I would be interested in learning more about Christianity and what it could mean for my life” versus only 16% of older non-Christians.

Independent with shorter attention spans than previous generations, the new Barna Study also revealed that  Millennials/Gen Z want to explore the Christian faith through: One-on-one conversation with someone who is a Christian. (Fifty-three percent of millennials said this  would be their preferred method versus 32% of older non-Christians.)

They are less likely to be open to the following methodologies than older Christians:

1. By sitting as an anonymous listener in a crowd at a Christian event or service.
2. In a small group made up of mostly other people who are not Christians but who are  all interested in exploring faith together.

Research also reveals that Millennials and Gen Z have higher levels of anxiety and depression than any previous generation. This puts them in a constant “flight or fight” mode and makes it very difficult for them to think far into the future. Young women are particularly susceptible to the effects of toxic or hyper-social media, according to  research.

In a world, rich in material wealth but often impoverished in spiritual health, youth and young adults are being ravaged and broken by the rampant pace of life today. So what does this mean for you? One of the best ways to build trust with youth and young adults is through listening and sharing your own story of faith with them. Speak about how God is moving in your life and don’t be afraid to tell young people how your life has been transformed by your faith.

Remember, young people are open to learning more about faith and your witness might  be one of the most important ways of doing so. A thoughtful and inviting presentation of the Gospel that helps youth and young adults wrestle with their feelings of anxiety and shame can help them see their own story in the Christian story.

Despite all that the world faces, Pope Francis reminds us that every child, youth and adult “God puts on our path is not a glass that we must fill with content or a person to  conquer. The Lord already dwells in their heart, given that he always precedes us.”

Leading with the “yes” of who we are and off ering a sign of hope is always more powerful than telling people what we say “no” to. Will you share Jesus, source of hope  and light, with others? Our younger generations in particular, are counting on us!

Stanz is director of Parish Life and Evangelization for the Diocese of Green Bay.