Sunday, November 27, 2005

Researching the Research on Young Catholics

Steve Bogner has a recent post about a recent CARA article about young Catholics, which I think was actually speaking about the work on the spiritual lives of American teenagers recently released by Smith and Denton. Since this is something I've been doing a little bit of work on lately, I wrote a lengthy comment in response, which I thought I might as well share here. These are impressions I've been putting together based on about 20 years of work in youth and young adult ministry, and in reading much of the literature that has been coming out lately. I'm not finished, but these are some of my initial thoughts. I'd welcome your comments. Here it is:

I've been doing a little research on the "research" lately. There are at least three different kinds of studies purporting to know something of what young people today are about and what there relationship is to Christianity/Catholicism. The first are the psychological/sociological studies of individuals and groups like CARA. Then there are the generational studies of people like Howe and Strauss. Finally, there are the anecdotal "studies" of people like Colleen Carroll and Tom Beaudoin. Put them each side by side and they don't really agree. But I think that each of them gets at a part of the whole picture. I have also been reading stuff from the Protestant community. Guess what they are saying kids want?: Tradition! So, I'm becoming convinced, as the experience I describe in the article suggests, that this is a significant part of the reality of what young Christian people are looking for today. But the Protestant literature is also quick to point out that there is not just one youth culture, but rather a number of "sub-cultures." They promote what they call a "missional" approach to youth and young adult ministry which recognize and speaks to these various sub-cultures. It's an interesting and, I think, important insight.
I've been involved in youth and young adult ministry in one way or another most of my adult life. And while we've gotten better about taking these ministries more seriously in the Catholic Church in the past 20 years, the commitment is still sporadic and intermittent, especially when it becomes a battleground for the ideology wars, which it too often does these days. We also have a tendency toward trying to come up with a "one-size-fits-all" approach to ministry to young people, which only ever reaches a portion of the young people in our communities. Retreat programs, which have been shown to be one of the most effective means of reaching young people often start off good, but then go on unchanged for 20-30 years, becoming increasingly irrelevant, as they don't take into account the changing needs and interests of young people.
So, unfortunately, I don't find the results of recent studies all that surprising, even if most likely incomplete and unrepresentative of many young people.
Yet, I think there is hope if we can do at least two things:
1) Encourage the interest of many young people in things traditional. To do this well, "liberals" will have to stop being threatened by this (most young people are NOT interested in turning back the clock to some experience they never knew, they want to incorporate the traditional into their reality) and "conservatives" need to stop seeing this as an opportunity to use young people to push their agenda.
2) We have to work on finding effective ways to reach young people who are typically not reached by the types of parish and campus ministry programs we have been offering for the last thirty years. One way I have discovered to reach those who aren't the typical campus ministry types (who participate in most of our programs) is through third-world immersion programs with a theological reflection component. I also think, though you might call me biased, that the potential for using The Spiritual Exercises and other tried and tested spiritual tools has yet to be sufficiently explored. After all, the Spiritual Exercises grew out of an experience of young adult conversion.


Anonymous Hector said...

I totally believe this. I can't explain it, but they seem to be attracted to tradition. maybe it provides a base or a support? A sense of belonging? My teenager kids were so excited this weekend with putting the Advent wreath together, blessing it, and begining the prayers .It helps with a sense of continuity...

10:51 PM  
Blogger Florian said...

At the moment I am reading "Long have I loved you" by your Jesuit brother Walter Burghardt SJ. Even more coincidently, I was reading today the chapter on "Crisis in the church", and there he makes almost exactly the same points as you make. He especially mentions the rediscovery of tradition by young people and the effect of experiences from programs like the JVC.
And all that written more than five years ago (another example, why tradition might be so appealing...)

More generally, I really love the book, it's full of insight, inspiring and fun to read.

11:39 PM  
Blogger CrankyProfessor said...

Interesting about those groups - but what about people 22-30 -- while they're busy paying off student loans and such can they go on immersion programs? What do you think might help them the most?

5:49 PM  
Blogger Christine said...

You are right and your analysis is accurate as far as it goes. As a recent young adult and still young adult minister, I think there's a lot to be said for tradition - and the roots that it implies and imparts which are very lacking in our postmodern world. And, I think you are right to say that young people are not looking to turn back the clock. Tradition is not the same as traditionalism. Keep the analyses coming!

6:44 PM  
Blogger katimugambalon said...

A youth survey was made a number of years ago in the Philippines. It showed that overall the youth here have not really lost faith; however, it also showed that the local church is unable to respond to their specific needs. I suppose that resonates with what you posted: that programs should be tailor-made to address these needs.

Another peculiar result: the most influential people for the youth here in the Philippiness are not the parents, not the friends, but the grandmothers. I suppose the youth indeed here are searching for something that would help ground them.

6:55 PM  
Blogger DilexitPrior said...

Do not fear, generation x is here. In all seriousness though, we care about the Faith and we are here to stay. We go to adoration, daily mass, pray the liturgy of the hours, and pray for our priests, vocations, the Church, the unborn, our countries, etc...We're willing to invest our time and energy to grow in knowledge and understanding of the Faith and being 'Catholic' is an integral part of our identity. We study our Faith, we defend our Faith, and we live our Faith. Just for example, last night, in the midst of studying for final exams, on the spur of the moment, half a dozen friends and I went to a perpetual adoration chapel to pray together. We know our priorities and try and keep them straight.

Among many of my evangelical friends there is a yearning for Tradition and sacred mystery. They are eager to explore both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches because they are looking for something beyond worship music and bible studies. They are not satisfied with evangelical culture and are seeking the roots of Christianity.

Anyways, I have a LOT to say on this topic so if you have any questions feel free to ask me or cruise over to my blog - "Letters From a Young Catholic" (, which reflects many of the issues that are of interest for Young Catholics today (evangelization, Theology of the Body, youth and campus ministries, defending the Culture of Life, etc..).

In Christ.

6:28 PM  
Blogger Steve Bogner said...

Mark -

Funny you mentioned Charis Ministries. A few years ago, Fr Sparough led my annual Ignatian retreat at Milford, and he was the spiritual advisor & close friend of Fr Jim Willig, whose book I just read & blogged on. He's a dynamic guy, and his Charis ministry seems to be doing a lot of good things for the younger generation.

10:28 AM  

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