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Changing Our Narrative to Build Bridges with Millennials

Photo courtesy of Jen Vazquez

By Joanna Thurmann

Each session of Santa Clara Faith Formation Conference 2018 began with a prayer of hope to the “God who builds bridges and who crosses borders.” The same bridge-building and border-crossing is needed in our ministry to millennials.

“Evangelization is the old model,” said Father Dave Dwyer, CSP, of Busted Halo Ministries during his keynote address on how young adults are reshaping the church. “Immanuelization is the new way. We must operate as the embodied and experiential presence of Jesus.”

He began by defining the demographic. The diversity in this age group is part of what makes it challenging. They can be in their late teens, twenties, or thirties. They may be single or married parents, in college, in the military or the work force. “That is a big chunk to bite off,” said Dwyer.

We often treat this emerging adulthood as pastoral juveniles and lump them with teen ministry. Yet their experience and practice of faith is increasingly not marked by religious worship. These are the people who check “none” on the box asking about religious affiliation. Currently, 36% of younger millennials say they are unaffiliated, and that number is growing.

To understand how to build better bridges, we must understand what has changed in the last hundred years. There was a rite of passage between child and adult. Mary was betrothed at 14. But many in their mid-twenties today do not yet think of themselves as adults.

“Their life has morphed into a new experience quite different from that of previous generations,” said Dwyer. Many macro social changes happening in the wider society, especially in North America, contribute to the disparity. This includes the increase in higher education, shorter careers and more job changes, contraception and the delaying of marriage, and a post-modernism that holds no ultimate truth.

In short, this has emerged psychologically, sociologically, and culturally as a different period of time. It is marked by intense identity exploration, instability, naval-gazing, a feeling of limbo, and yet a sense of endless possibilities. “Not all of this meshes with what we think of as church – tradition, stability, and permanence,” noted Dwyer.

Hence their religiosity varies as widely as their reasons for not attending. Depending on the study, this may be 25% committed traditionalists to 25% religiously indifferent or 20% irreligious. Reasons vary from disillusionment with organized religion to irrelevance and uncertainty if God exists at all.

Thus, our response must be a model of accompaniment, wherever they are found. We must learn what they want; to be welcomed and not judged, to be given opportunity, and to be needed. We must offer them a home and relevant preaching, allow them to question, and have some fun, too.

“We must be parish in a whole new way; move from church as Sunday event or a bunch of programs, to church as presence,” said Dwyer. “Instead of inviting people to events, we invite them into our lives.”

In other words, we must find God where He already is, in all things. “This is very Ignatian,” noted Joe Paprocki, D. Min., during his conference session on “Living the Sacraments.” He said, “the intersection of heaven and earth is wherever you are, as long as you recognize it.”

Hence we only need to help millennials put on the right type of night goggles to see what is already there, despite the perceived darkness. As catechists and ministers, we project, proclaim and spread this light.” The presence of God is invisible but we are a sacramental people. Our symbolic actions and our concrete accompaniment can change the narrative. From the world’s narrative of fear, pain, and death, Jesus offers rescue, restoration, and reassurance.

That is precisely what the millennials desire. “I want a place of rest from a world that is increasingly yelling louder and louder; a place to restore my soul,” said one millennial surveyed.