In many Catholic parishes, young adulthood can seem less like an age range than an age gap. Catholics between the ages of 18 and 35 are underrepresented in the liturgical and community life of most parishes, which many pastoral staffs fear is a reflection of the secularism and skepticism of this “millennial generation.” But their absence may be due to nothing more than plain apathy, which can be addressed by developing creative programming to facilitate full liturgical and social re-entry into the church community. This missing demographic can and should be reclaimed.
The first step needed to draw young people into the parish community is to bring them together as a lead-in to an interesting activity. (This is why smart pastors encourage young people to attend a specific Mass.) Liturgy is the center of parish life, but Mass alone does not effectively build community. People pray better when they know one another, and part of the purpose of young adult ministry is to make introductions. A good strategy for a coordinator of young adult ministry is to invite them into the church building for more than just Mass, introduce them to one another and then step away, allowing them to encourage each other to come back next week. And they will.
Young adults are searching for relational experiences with people who share their interests, but too often this is interpreted as a single-minded interest in finding a romantic relationship with another Catholic (turning young adult ministry into a youth group with beer). It is not the charism of the church to play matchmaker for young adults in (or estranged from) the church. Given the diversity of sexual orientations and relationship expectations among people today, effective ministry to young adults cannot be limited only to heterosexual single people. Effective programming needs to encourage an intragenerational social support system: older young adults mentoring younger adults. When these relationships are established, the differences between singles and married people that can threaten to fracture a young adult group will instead help bring it together.
American millennials hate groups but love crowds. They attend events (like lectures) and drop in on classes (like yoga). They may not join a church, but they may stop by for a Mass. Although this casual parish relationship is frustrating to pastors, it must be tolerated when courting the young adult demographic. Their problem with organized religion is not that it’s organized, but how it’s organized. Young adult “groups” and “meetings” aren’t as effective as young adult ministry event offerings. It is not enough to advertise a young adult mixer and expect people actually to mix in a room full of people whose only commonality is their neighborhood and religion. Instead, it is necessary to twist the pitch: to invite people to come to church to learn something interesting in the company of other young people.
One reason the Chicago-based young adult ministry program Theology on Tap is effective is that it meets young people where they like to hang out, in this case at local watering holes, and brings the ministry to them with speakers and peer-led discussions. By mimicking this approach, parish ministers can meet the interests of young adults with programs they will actually attend. If you get them into a church building, you have gotten them into church.
New and emerging models of pastoral ministry are based on imaginative ways to bring Christ to the faithful. Programming should start with two questions in mind: what do young adults want to learn, and what can the leader teach? The invitation should be limited to young adults only. Activities that are hands-on, experiential, social and fresh might include woodworking, carpentry, sailing, fishing, hiking, quilting or planting a prayer garden. An activity is especially beneficial if it has both a social and reflective component. If any catechetical connections can be developed, it can be made into ministry.
When a program concludes, the young adults might want to stay together like a small Christian community that meets regularly to sit together during Mass and share a meal afterwards or do service together. Ideally, classes and programs are just a bridge to ease the transition back into parish life. In the case of new people coming into the church, meeting other young adults in a welcoming social environment can confirm their decision to join the church. The goal is to make young adults know they are important and welcome, and to cycle young adults into other parish ministries.
Setting the Table
As the full-time director of youth and young adult ministry at a large parish in the diocese of Trenton, I organized cooking classes for 21- to 35-year-olds as a way to jump-start the parish’s long-dormant young adult ministry. Over and over, I heard young adults claim that going to church was not “feeding” them, so my strategy was to invite them to share a meal and teach them how to make it. I selected the menus, did the shopping and taught the classes. I am theologically educated but a self-taught cook. I based this ministry on my gifts and the popularity of television programming about cooking and entertaining. Although originally intended to run once per week during Lent, the program was so popular we extended it to 10 weeks. It attracted an almost equal number of married and single women and men.
Many millennials have been raised in homes where both parents worked full time, and cooking lost the daily priority it enjoyed when one person in the household, usually the wife/mother, was able to prepare a home-cooked meal and teach the children to cook. The cooking series was a creative way for the church to fill a natural need—everyone eats—that many people wanted to learn more about. Food is always cultural and contextual, which gets people talking about who they are and where they come from. But cooking was just the catalyst for the ministry.
Baking Bread to Break
Food is mentioned over 30 times in the Gospel of Luke, more often than Jesus heals the sick or uses parables. The church recognizes the importance Jesus placed on food; after all, celebrating the Eucharist is the central activity of parish life. The nourishing spiritual food of the Eucharist brings the people to Jesus and Jesus to the people. Examining how eucharistic people eat and share food outside of the liturgy seemed like a natural deconstruction of this central spiritual experience. The question that led the project was: How has Jesus called his disciples to cook, eat and share food?
Although donations were accepted for my program, the parish contributed a budget to cover the costs, which came to about $10 per person per class. It is important that such activities be free or require only a nominal fee, because the church does not sell ministry. The young adult demographic is surely worth the investment. The ideal class size is between eight and 12 people, and ideally drop-ins or last-minute e-mail reservations should be accepted. It helps to encourage people to bring friends or even a date, and to advertise on the parish Web site and publish a bulletin announcement encouraging churchgoers to pass along the notice to their young adult children or friends.
Good cooks are usually horrible instructors, because they are too practiced and intuitive to remember the basics. Likewise, faith cannot be taught. Both food and faith are seasoned with dashes and splashes, adjusting to taste. In the kitchen and in the church, imperfections, mystery and surprises abound. There are no secret ingredients.
Teaching young adults to cook has to start out with the basics; breaking into a theological conversation has to be just as elementary. The role of the leader is to encourage conversation, like a good host, and introduce people more than once if necessary and ask open-ended questions. Politically charged discussions can splinter any group and make people scared to return, so it helps to keep it light, at least at first. If ministry is the translation from Christian language into the vernacular, then it helps if the instructor is fluent in both. And more than anything, the instructor has to reflect the hospitality that the church strives to offer to everyone.
The classes followed the same format every week. Until everyone arrived, people would mill around the kitchen with a soft drink or a glass of wine. Once the company was assembled, there would be about 10 minutes of introduction and explanation about the class. A lesson on lamb stew, for example, was prefaced with a few minutes of discussion on each of the following diverse topics: Jewish temple sacrifice; Jesus as the Agnus Dei, the “Lamb of God”; the ethics of organically raised and free-range meat; and the culinary effects of slow oven braising.
As soon as possible, members would be at the cutting boards learning by doing things themselves. Our group started using sharp knives to slice into raw meat on the very first lesson. Pulling a group of people out of their comfort zone requires one to earn their trust, so it was important that I made sure the directions were very clear. Once everyone was chopping and chatting, I was able to step out of the way to witness the real ministry that was happening: a collection of strangers becoming one body. After about an hour in the kitchen, it was time to share the feast, but not without saying a prayer. Saying grace, like the work of creating the meal, should come from young adults themselves, even if they need encouragement to find their voice.
During the Feast
The meals were chosen for their catechetical potential. One week, we baked bread from scratch and enjoyed a wine tasting. Another time, we simmered soup in the monastic style and talked about Sabbath rest in our busy world. One week was devoted to making a meal to be delivered to a local shelter for women and children. During Holy Week, we prepared traditional Jewish recipes and discussed the symbolism of the Seder meal. The last meal together was a potluck so that all could showcase their new skills. All the recipes were collected in a weekly booklet that also contained a theological essay on the week’s topic and a bibliography. Since some people were more interested in theology than others, the booklet acted as another vehicle for catechesis and further reflection.
The connections between food and Christian theology were just one way the cooking classes served as ministry; the conversations that arose at the table also introduced other meaningful topics. In the course of the cooking series, five of the twelve participants became engaged, which led to discussions about Christian marriage, the outrageous price of weddings and the benefits (and sometimes the loneliness) of being single. The conversation naturally flowed around from career to travel to getting an apartment.
Over the course of the cooking class, I found that our little community became a communion, and individual members came to support and minister to each other. They were more than just friendly faces to see at Mass. They enriched the parish experience for one another.
The author shares her recipes for Easter here.