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Millennial Young Adults: Shapeshifters

by timone a davis, D. Min.

“Let go.” “No.” “Let go.” “No!” “You must let go.” “No!” “You don’t understand, change cannot happen until you let go.” Sound familiar? Perhaps the conversation didn’t go quite like that in your parish. Maybe you didn’t have a conversation at all. More than likely it was your lack of movement that implied the conversation. Young adults are invited into the church and encouraged to join a ministry only to discover that nothing is altered to make them feel welcome. Catholic leaders aren’t letting go, even as they bemoan the lack of young adult presence.

To fully understand this phenomenon, we must first understand more about the people holding the leadership positions. Most are baby boomers who came of age during Vatican II. The church they grew up in was one of transition. Generation X, the next generation to arrive on the scene, did not pick up the torch. They were mostly concerned with all things Christian, not leadership within the church. Therefore, baby boomers have largely been the voice for the Catholic community. Into this milieu come the Millennial generation.

Millennials (born 1982-1999) are coming of age in the midst of uncertain times. The economy is unstable: home foreclosures are on the rise; oil prices are at record highs; and businesses are going bankrupt, laying off long-time employees. They are witnesses, victims, and survivors of new forms of violence: school shootings; workplace and shopping mall killings; increased child abuse and sexual assault; rising gang violence; and assaults on individuals because of their sexual orientation. Alongside this uncertainty are rising medical costs and declining health care coverage, especially for the poor and the elderly.

Technological advancements and availability have grown so rapidly that young adults don’t see themselves separate from it. The Internet has opened the door to e-mail, file sharing, Instant Messaging, and instant access to global and local information. Cell phones with video, camera, music, e-mail, and texting abilities allow young adults to keep their fingers on the pulse of “now.”
As post–Vatican II Catholics, Millennials have a more global view of religion because of the friendships they have made both online and in person. Because this generation interacts with a more diverse population than any other generation, they have been taught to be more tolerant of others. This tolerance extends itself to exploring other people’s beliefs as dialogue increases and notes are compared. The constant access to information at one’s fingertips keeps the questions rolling in. As one question is answered, another pops up.

Millennials not only question why they are Catholic and what makes them Catholic, they also question church leadership. They question the church’s teachings on sex, gender, and marriage, especially since the teachings come from church authority (clergy) who were the very ones involved in the church’s sex abuse scandal. As scholars William V. D’Antonio, James D. Davidson, Dean R. Hoge, and Mary L. Gautier wrote in American Catholics Today: New Realities of Their Faith and Their Church, “As the new generation of Millennial Catholics came of age, the scandal seemed to raise new questions about the importance of being Catholic, the substance of being Catholic, and the boundaries between Catholicism and other faiths.” This scandal, they wrote, further encouraged the beliefs “[t]hat one’s personal relationship with God is more important than the importance of the institutional Catholic church and that living a Christian way of life is more important than knowing what the Catholic church teaches.”

Millennials are a generation of shapeshifters, moving in and through the various cultural changes and technological advancements to form a new understanding of church. Most everyone wants to be an agent of change, but few think of change in terms of shapeshifting: altering the shape, reformatting the view, shifting the paradigm, modifying the program, reformatting the drive, renovating the room, editing the text. In a world where materialism reigns supreme, and the gospel of prosperity is preached all around, Millennials challenge us by asking the questions we don’t always want to answer, for example, “Why are you Catholic? What does it mean to be a Catholic today?” While many of us have not gotten beyond the “I’ve always been Catholic” answer, Millennial shapeshifters are no longer satisfied with this childhood understanding of Catholicism. They are calling the church to “real sense” faith formation, where solutions offer better ways to deal with this world.

Faith formation in the real sense requires that we shift the way we interact with young adults. We must open ourselves to authentic communication, change how catechesis is done, and take a serious look at the liturgy. Authentic communication begins with a personal invitation that extends the hand of Jesus. It is a sign of welcome that must permeate everything from the songs sung, the prayers prayed, and the art displayed, to the literature written. Listening is also a part of the invitation. The importance of authenticity cannot be stressed enough. Any sign that one is not genuine is reason enough for a Millennial to walk away. We must remember that they have a buffet of choices at their fingertips.

In their search for understanding and community, Millennials seek opportunities to discuss their faith. Therefore, small faith-sharing groups are important. They are also assisted in becoming adults in the faith.

Millennials want to know their faith. Many of them haven’t attended a religious education class in years. Instruction, however, must take into consideration their learning styles, varying presentations and formats. Location also has a great impact on catechesis. Whatever method one uses to teach, opportunities for discussion must be present. If discussion doesn’t allow time for the lesson to be completed as scheduled, don’t worry; Millennials will make time for the extra lesson.