Reaching young adults today is all about listening

“Finally, the church is talking with us, not about us,” a young adult replied when asked about her faith and why she considers herself “Catholic-ish.”   She went on to be videotaped as part of the research study, “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation of Young Catholics,” commissioned by St. Mary’s Press.

It was a striking revelation for Dr. Bob McCarty, the study coordinator and research presentation coordinator at St. Mary’s Press, who presented a workshop Aug. 18 with a room full of Catholic pastoral ministers at Loyola University New Orleans.

McCarty said St. Mary’s Press contracted the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University in 2015 to survey disaffiliated Catholic teens and young adults between the ages of 15 and 25 to discover why they left the church and the role of young adult ministry in welcoming them back.

When the results of the quantitative survey were received in 2016-17, the research team knew they were incomplete. McCarty had worked in Catholic ministry since 1973 at the local and national levels, including 19 years as executive director of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry.

A more in-depth, qualitative analysis delved deeper into what young adults had experienced with the Catholic Church and why they left. The overall national study formed the basis of a report, “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics,” which was made available at the workshop. 

Since January, McCarty has been presenting his thoughts on the findings nationwide. He discovered a definite shift had occurred in how all age groups form religious identity today, and that includes young adults. 

“We don’t have a youth issue – we have a faith community challenge” on how we pass on faith to the next generation, he said. “We as church leaders need to think broader and collaboratively. This is a faith community challenge – what are we doing in the faith community to foster that spiritual hunger in all our parishioners?”

No specific map yet

While he said there was no silver-bullet solution to reclaiming young adults for the church, McCarty suggested new ways of creating effective journeys with young adults. Being attentive and listening to young adults and their thoughts and needs while on their faith journey is critical. 

Youth ministers can create opportunities – safe spaces – for young people to tell their stories. At St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Fulton, Maryland, where McCarty is a parishioner, they created pizza lunches for young adults to share their stories.

“Let them tell their story,” he said, rather than assume you know what’s going on. Pastoral youth leaders need to adopt a “listen to learn” mentality, not a “listen to respond” one. 

While he didn’t suggest discarding the entire current strategy to deal with young adults, he did say, “I think it takes a degree of humility (to determine what in my ministry map has to go) and wisdom (to determine what can stay) to do this well.” 

In past generations, the church was the cornerstone for meaning and purpose. While this hunger continues, how young adults find it today is different.

They are searching for what is genuinely holy and looking for people who live out their faith joyfully. They seek credible Catholic faith witnesses who demonstrate why faith works.

“As a pastoral minister, I believe there is a hunger for the holy,” he said. “It’s part of our spiritual DNA, imprinted on our soul of being in the image and likeness of God. … As church, how do we respond to that hunger? That is the challenge.”

The Catholic Church has to shift from seeing this as a recruitment challenge and look at it as an accompaniment challenge. New programs are not going to bring back young adults, he said, but establishing authentic relationships will.

“So, if we ever hope to educate their heads and hear their stories, I believe we have to engage their hearts,” McCarty said.   

He cited Pope Francis as saying the church should become their traveling companions, walking with young people on their spiritual journey.

“That is quite different (than current ministry),” McCarty said. “If we walk with them as they struggle through, then we might be the type of community they want to belong to.”

McCarty said the idea of belonging is critical. When pastoral ministers create a welcoming atmosphere for young adults to express what is important to them, these young adults become more receptive to those who accepted them. 

“Belonging leads to believing,” he said.

Shut up and listen

“I’m finding the real key here … is to listen closely to what they are really saying instead of how to respond,” McCarty said. 

McCarty discovered that young adults don’t make the decision to leave the church lightly or because of boredom. He offered a statistic – the median age of 13 – when youth stop identifying with being Catholic.

“There are kids sitting in your parish pews and Catholic school classrooms who have already checked out, stopped identifying with being Catholic,” he said. “Many of the parents didn’t know they were waiting to walk away. That has profound implications on how we do ministry today.”

McCarty discussed the importance of recapturing the 

missionary zeal of Catholicism – not going after already active young adults, but finding those who have been MIA in the parish. Seek them, 

know them by name and let them know they are missed, he said. He also suggested forming young adult teams to help.

Understanding the changing faith climate and opening their hearts to what young adults have to say about where they are in faith will help pastoral ministers unlock the world of young adults.

“Keep listening to what’s going on their lives,” McCarty said, “and don’t assume you know. Let them start to create the map. Their stories will tell us what we need to be doing.”

Participant Beth Simon hopes what she heard will help in addressing young adults.

    “This was one of the most instructive, fruitful and hopeful Catholic sessions I have ever attended,” Simon said. “Hopeful, not because of the level of disaffiliation, but rather because of the insight provided.”

Learn how to further the conversation that McCarty began at McCarty invites young adults to share their thoughts by video on the site. His workshop was sponsored by the Loyola Institute for Ministry, the archdiocese and St. Mary’s Press.

Christine Bordelon can be reached at

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