A Variety of Experiences

Generations in Transition

Being a young adult means navigating the tumultuous years beyond high school graduation and emerging into the adult landscape. There’s a whole lot of transition, mobility, and movement happening at once and very fast. Jobs change, relationships come and go, money ebbs and flows. A young adult doesn’t often stay in one place for too long — sometimes by choice, sometimes not.

For many young adults there are very few opportunities for quiet reflection and critical discernment. Not many have had time to consider their life or their faith. One of the defining characteristics of young adults is their increased stress, fatigue, and depression without much time to attend organized activities and events. Many are far from feeling stable. Often, they are not treated as adults by their bosses, their families, or the church.

What happens if we fail to connect with young adults?

  • We may never get the attention of a whole generation of men and women whose focus is solely on their transitions — further emptying our pews and churches.
  • We can damage the Church’s reputation. If we aren’t seen as helpful or present in the critical times of young adult life, young adults won’t trust us now and even into the future (if and when they do feel settled and secure).
  • Without young adults, our churches may very well lose their dynamism, vibrancy, and an energetic enthusiasm to bring the Gospel to the world.
  • Young adults will continue to struggle and their pace may get even more frantic, and without connecting with them, some may never know the love and hope that Jesus and the Church can offer them.
  • We won’t be able to fully live up to the mission given to us by Christ to tend to those who need us the most (check out Matthew 25:31-46 — powerful stuff!).


Diverse Generations

Today, the young adult age range includes two generations: Generation X born 1963 to 1980, and the Millennial Generation born 1980 to 1995. Within these groups, there is great diversity in regards to career, lifestyle, education, church experiences, ethnicity, and culture. Authors, sociologists, and church leaders have also categorized young adults’ approach to religion and spirituality. This diversity (whether spiritual, cultural, or lifestyle) is a challenge. Avoid a one size fits all mentality when it comes to programming and outreach for young adults and keep in mind that not all young adults from ages 18 to 39 will respond to the same kinds of things. This has always been the case, but because of the increased diversity among the young adults of the 21st century, it is even more amplified.

The Breakdown of Young Adults

  • College Age: Including those in a university setting, the military, a trade/vocational school, or already in the working world.
  • Single: Including those intentionally single, seeking, dating, single again, divorced, widowed, separated, and single parents.
  • Couples: Including engaged, married, and those with and without children.
  • Religious: Including seminarians, novices, and those studying for religious life, plus young priests and vowed sisters and brothers.

So take time to learn the various cultural and generational nuances in your area so that you can minister effectively. But, believe it or not, there is actually an upside to all this complexity: the diversity means that there is a bigger pool of young adults out there than you might have ever realized. If all the registered or active young adults in the parish look eerily similar to one another, it might be a sign that you need to expand your outreach to include a more diverse demographic.

University of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith asked the question, “What do the religious and spiritual lives of American 18- to 23- year-olds look like and why?” in his book Souls in Transition (Oxford, 2009). He offers the following sub-sets of the religious practice of emerging adults:

  • Committed Traditionalists
  • Selective Adherents
  • Spiritually Open
  • Religiously Indifferent
  • Religiously Disconnected
  • Irreligious

See You on Sunday?

The reality is, for the most part, young adults are not in church. An extensive generational study by the Pew Research Center indicated that 26% of millennial young adults have no religious affiliation whatsoever. This makes the Millennial Generation the least religious population in modern times. Even among those who claim a connection to an organized religion, only a small fraction actually participates regularly. Catholic researchers at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University found that only 15% to 17% of adults from ages 18 to 45 who call themselves “Catholic” come to Mass on a weekly basis. This means around 85% of self-identified Catholic young adults are not coming to Mass this weekend.

Unfortunately, many young adult ministry efforts are aimed at the 15% who come instead of connecting with the 85% who don’t. Very few consider the growing group of young adults who claim no religion at all.

Sometimes, these young adults do step into our churches — but not for long. We see these men and women visit for Christmas, Easter, and Ash Wednesday, as well as their friends’ and family members’ weddings, baptisms, and funerals. Communities that pay attention to these occasions as moments of welcome and opportunities for making a connection often find these young adults open to an invitation to return. Overall though, we see that the vast majority of our potential audience is somewhere other than our pews on Sunday — and we need to go there.

Where Are the Young Adults?

  • Online: It’s the primary way to connect with friends and build lasting relationships (including marriage) — and the most trusted place to learn new things and spend all their time.
  • @ Work (or Campus): Young adults are overworked, overwhelmed, and overcommitted, so chances are, on Sunday mornings, they are either working overtime or taking a much-needed rest.
  • With Friends and Family: Young adults crave community — and with any free time, use it to connect with friends and family (either through social media or in person).
  • Praying: Surprisingly, even though young adults are going to church less often, studies show that many do strive for a spiritual life — through personal prayer, meditation and exercise, among other spiritual disciplines.

Recognize the diversity of these groups of young adults and find yourself in these groups. If you’re starting Young Adults Ministry from scratch, do what you enjoy but don’t forget the other categories of young adults who are potential parts of your ministry. Check other Young Adult Ministry in a Box Essentials for helpful tips and details on starting your own Young Adult Ministry.