Not just our future, but our present—that’s how Pope Francis has characterized the place of young adults in the Church. Indeed, those aged eighteen to thirty-five are no longer the next generation; they are active now in all walks of life and, as such, represent a cohort of pressing concern for parish vitality (and sustainability).
Recently published findings from The Barna Group address this age group specifically. Based on information gathered from 15,369 young adults in twenty-five countries, The Connected Generation aims to equip Church leaders “not only to better understand 18–35-year-olds around the world, but also to truly partner with them in discipleship and support them in their callings.”
According to the study’s senior writer, Alyce Youngblood, “The research reveals a generation of driven adults who are wary and weary, wrestling with questions, longing for deeper relationships and facing significant societal, professional and personal obstacles. Yet,” she adds, “we also found that faith is one important factor associated with their well-being, connection and resilience.”
Outside the Sanctuary
Closer to home, The Disciple Maker Index from the Catholic Leadership Institute “invites parishioners to reflect on where they are on their journey of discipleship and identify their parish’s effectiveness in supporting that journey.” The DMI focuses on Catholic parishioners of all ages, rather than a single generation of any faith, and the experiences it surveys are more narrowly focused than those in the Barna study. Nevertheless, by segmenting the DMI data according to the same age group (currently 8,473 respondents), we discover some interesting complements between the two research projects.
One key finding of The Connected Generation refers to the formation of “resilient discipleship,” a concept explained by the Barna Group’s president, David Kinnaman, in a book about today’s new context for Christian faithfulness. Resilient disciples are those who:
- attend church regularly and engage their faith community beyond worship
- trust firmly in the authority of the Bible
- are committed personally to Jesus and affirm his death and resurrection
- desire to have their faith impact the whole of their lives.
Using a similar metric, the Barna report finds that 14 percent of the young adults who grew up in the Christian faith show the marks of being resilient disciples. Why this matters, the authors conclude, is because “resilience, more than just dutiful attendance, compels them outside the sanctuary.”
An Engaged Faith
Looking to the DMI cohort, we see similar marks of resilience.
The vast majority (92 percent) attends church on at least a monthly basis, including 81 percent of whom do so weekly or more. Beyond Sunday worship, they engage their faith in other ways, by participating on at least a monthly basis in:
- devotions, such as novenas and feast days (34 percent)
- Bible studies or prayer groups (26 percent)
- Eucharistic Adoration (24 percent)
- sacramental confession (14 percent)
- classes or workshops about the Faith (12 percent).
Concerning their trust in the authority of the Bible, more than two-thirds of the DMI respondents (69 percent) strongly affirm having a personal belief in Sacred Scripture as the Word of God.
Still, More Needs to Be Done
In terms of personal commitment, 24 percent report that their “relationship with Jesus is the most important relationship in my life.” Even more, 80 percent of them strongly agree that Jesus “died and rose from the dead for my salvation” (with another 15 percent simply agreeing with this belief).
As for the impact of the Faith on their words and deeds, the former is suggested in the DMI by how frequently persons in this age group share faith stories, and the latter by how often they volunteer for service. On a monthly or more basis, young Catholic adults say they share their own personal witness story (21 percent) or the story of Jesus (29 percent). With the same frequency, more than three in ten (31 percent) volunteer to serve a member of the community.
For resilient disciples everywhere, growing in faith appears to be a significant personal concern. Nearly two-thirds in The Connected Generation say it’s the primary reason for their going to Church. Among DMI respondents of the same age, forty-three percent strongly agree that their parish helps them attain this spiritual growth; in turn, 58 percent strongly agree that they would recommend their parish to others.
It would seem, then, that Catholic parishes do comparably well in connecting with young adults. Still, the relative percentages indicate that fostering the Faith of this generation needs further attention, for the well-being of the entire Church, in our present and our future.
Ascension Blog thanks the Catholic Leadership Institute for contributing this article.
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Fr. Tom Dailey, a priest in the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales (OSFS), serves as a research fellow and spiritual advisor at the Catholic Leadership Institute in Wayne, Pennsylvania. He holds the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He writes a monthly column and does occasional podcasts for CatholicPhilly.com. Check out his feature on CatholicSpeakers.com.