By definition almost, young adults are hard to define, given that the term “young adult” can mean anyone from 18 to 45 (or higher), depending on who is doing the defining.

And when it comes to serving or including them in the life of the parish, young adults can be the most challenging of any group, given that not only their ages but also their life experiences, influences, backgrounds, marital and family status, and interests stretch across the board.

Understanding that diversity, however, is a key step toward helping young adults become fully integrated into the life of a parish, said presenters at a Santa Barbara Region Congress workshop Oct. 8. And it is a shared responsibility.

“Everyone is responsible for ministering to young adults,” said Christine Gerety, associate director of outreach and pastoral care at St. Monica Church, Santa Monica, in a Congress workshop held at Bishop Garcia Diego High School.

“The age group of 18 to 39 comprises 40 percent of the Catholic population in the United States,” she said. “Are 40 percent of the people in your parish pews, or 40 percent of the people serving in your parish ministries, young adult Catholics?”

Gerety and co-presenter Heather MacDonald, consultant for youth and young adult ministry in the Santa Barbara region, addressed what they called myths others may have about young adult Catholics, including “Young adults are spiritual but not religious,” “Young adults don’t commit to anything” and “Young adult ministry looks like ….”

“The reality,” said MacDonald,” is that there is no such thing as ‘young adult ministry in a box.’ How could there be, for a group that stretches from 18 to 39? Only your parish knows what young adult ministry should look like.”

What is necessary, they stressed is ensuring that young adults, however they are defined, are invited to be part of the entire parish and represented in all ministries, as opposed to having their own group apart from everything else. “Match their talents to the needs of the parish,” said MacDonald. “They will commit to serving if, like anyone else, they feel what they have to offer is appreciated.”

Gerety cited a number of factors influencing this group, including the difficult economy and job market, the high cost of education (despite the demand for more skilled training), and the tendency for more young adults to live at home longer while delaying marriage and family life.

Sociological factors --- notably, the wider occurrence (and acceptance) of divorce, of having children outside marriage, of families in which both parents must work to make ends meet (or in which there is one parent and children are sometimes left alone), of a world both linked together by technology and made more unstable by the threat of catastrophic war and violence --- have profoundly impacted those who today comprise the 18-39 segment.

The impact of rapidly-advancing technology, and particularly the rise of social media opportunities, cannot be discounted either, especially among the younger segment of this group who have literally not known life without cell-phones or the Internet. And the fact that their parents raised them in an age far more open to “shopping for” other parishes, or even other faith traditions --- and certainly to engaging people of different faiths --- than their “baby boomer” parents experienced has had an effect.

And yet, said Gerety, today’s young adults (especially the younger component) still belongs to what may be described as “the age of possibility,” finding their way, discovering their gifts, wondering how or if they fit into society and, for that matter, the church.

“It is our job,” she said, “to help these people develop into who they are feeling called to become, to help them realize what they have to offer, and to invite them into the life of our parish communities.”

One appeal of Facebook, for example, is that it offers community, but also support and immediate response. “It is more than just an exchange of information,” said Gerety. “To this generation, an institution that responds means it cares.”

While a ministry-in-a-box approach is not desirable, much less possible, MacDonald noted that young adults can certainly be drawn into the life of a parish that offers good liturgy, opportunities for service (including social justice outreach) and social gatherings.

With respect to spiritual offerings, “low-pressure” options like Theology on Tap that give young adults a chance to connect with others as well as their faith can be an effective entrée into the wider parish life.

“It is important,” said Gerety, “to be open to each person, to meet them wherever they may be in their faith journey, to be inviting and not judgmental.”  

And that means exercising prudent pastoral leadership: to call, form, guide and challenge young adults, just as would be the case with anyone else in the parish community. 

“We are called,” said MacDonald, “to inviting all cultures, all states in life to participate in the life of the Church, just as all are called to the table of the Lord.”

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