Although they have long histories, many Catholic parishes in the United States has become plagued by an issue many pastors have noticed, one that could lead to a shorter history than they would like. With many millennials, or young adults born during an ill-defined time period that usually includes the 1980s to late 1990s, not attending Church or participating in religion in general, parishes have been put in a bind.
While few like to think of this prospect, churches must face the grim reality that in several decades, once churchgoing members of older generations have passed away, parishes will likely not survive if millennials continue to stay away in large numbers. In response, St. Joseph University Parish in Buffalo is participating in an 18-month initiative to form a "learning community" on reaching out to millennials as part of Parish Catalyst, a national program to revitalize Catholic parishes and promote their overall survivability.
According to campus minister Father Jacob Ledwon, who formed the learning community with Father Greg Jakubowicz, OFM, Patty Spear and Christine Marino, all part of St. Joseph's pastoral team, the issue is complex. The parish is starting a millennial coalition, including young adults and the parish council, to decide on its long-term plan. Parish Catalyst contacted Father Ledwon last year to participate.
"This whole issue with millennials was not even on my radar screen," Father Ledwon added. "We've operated with the old mentality, 'Well, you know, after college they'll probably drift for a while, but after they get married and have kids, they'll come back,' but that doesn't happen anymore."
Spear, the parish's pastoral associate for youth, young adult and young family ministry, said the parish has been part of Parish Catalyst since October 2016. "We took part of our pastoral team to Los Angeles, for what will be a total of four gatherings. We are meeting with 10 other parishes. We come together with, they call us a cohort of parishes," Spear said. "Every time we go, we're going to learn a little bit more about millennials. We'll get a lot of information and knowledge, and we'll also look at our own pastoral practices, all the things that we're doing, and go a little bit deeper. At the end, we'll have more of a plan."
From June 9-11, St. Joseph's invited John Poitevent, a Texas-based consultant and strategic planner, to the parish to help with the coalition it is forming to attract young adults. On June 9, he addressed many topics ranging from the magnitude of the Church's millennial problem, to values many millennials share, to common negative stereotypes that have plagued not just young adults today, but for many decades.
"I was a missionary, and so I understand that you can be trying to do the right thing for a culture, but if you don't connect with that culture and understand their values and the rhythm of life, you won't be able to connect with them. In learning about millennials, we're not trying to become more savvy or more hipster. We're trying to find out, 'How can we share the hope that would bless your life in a way that connects with you?'" he asked.
Poitevent likened the state of the Catholic Church today to that of a failing business, one that continues to focus on how things worked in the past, and continues to spin its wheels, without adapting methods to the changing times. He stressed, in no uncertain terms, that if the Catholic Church does not appeal to a generation that is largely distrusting of institutions and is much more socially liberal than older Americans, it is in trouble. He compared Blockbuster to Netflix, warning that the Church does not want to be Blockbuster.
"Everyone is concerned about millennials because if you have a business, and you don't capture their attention, you're going to die," Poitevent continued. "I can tell you that the same can be said of the Church. Every generation needs to look at the next generation and say, 'How can we teach them and introduce them to the great things of God, that He loves them and He has a purpose for their life?'"
Poitevent presented statistics to help the participants know more. Today, there are 79 million millennials, making them the largest living generation, overtaking the baby boomers. Since the 2008 stock market crash occurred as many millennials were graduating from college, jobs were scarce and many graduated with thousands of dollars in student debt, unlike most baby boomers. Debt did not allow them to save, which is why some have opted not to get married or have children until they are financially secure, or at all.
Compounding the issue further: 35 percent of millennials have no religious affiliation at all, double that of previous generations. 59 percent of those who grew up Christian walked away from formal Christianity altogether, and 35 percent of Christian millennials say Church is not important. In terms of church attendance, about 18 percent of churches have zero millennials. These numbers came from the book "You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church ... and Rethinking Faith," by David Kinnaman.
"If that number is not increased, once they become 75 percent of the population and the rest has moved on, what is the Church going to look like? A Church without millennials is a church without a future," Poitevent said. "That is why this is an important issue for us. Churches that are connected with millennials are making it a priority. They have a strategy, which is exactly what your leadership is doing."