By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published March 23, 2017
ATLANTA—Jennifer Lewis as a young adult in her early 20s was done with the church.
As a graduate student at Georgia Tech, she didn’t see “a merciful God in the Christians I knew.” She walked away from the faith of her childhood for a few years.
But now she is a coordinator of the young adult program at the Cathedral of Christ the King. Thousands of young adults receive emails or news on Facebook about gathering for everything from daily Mass and dinner, the Lent series Resisting Happiness, collecting clothes for people getting out of prison, or wearing with pride awful sweaters for the Tacky Sweater Christmas Party.
Attendance at events of CTK 20&30 Somethings runs between 70 and 130 people.
“We need to recognize their need for community,” said the 27-year-old architect. “As young adults, we are experiencing many firsts—jobs, life on our own, new families, many times new cities. It’s helpful to experience this transition with others in the same situation and to feel like we’re not alone in our struggles.”
Recognizing the importance of young adults, the Archdiocese of Atlanta wants to better understand and serve women and men in their 20s and 30s.
They are hosting two sessions on Thursday, March 30, a daytime event for parish leaders about relating more effectively to young adults, and a separate evening gathering, including dinner, where young adults are asked to come and talk, while others listen to their point of view. Both will take place at the Chancery, in Smyrna, and are facilitated by staff from the University of Notre Dame Institute for Church Life.
Millennials in the United States, roughly those born between 1981 and 1997, are a huge group of over 75 million. According to government statistics, they now outnumber baby boomers. Surveys show millennials are less tied to faith traditions and church identification than previous generations.
Fewer boomerang back in adult life
Polls show that 22 to 25 percent of the American public now state that they have no religious affiliation. The so-called “nones” are a larger percentage of the population than any single denomination. According to PRRI, Catholics make up about 15 percent of young adults, ages 18 to 29. But those who identify with no religious affiliation make up about 40 percent of that age group.
About half of people aged 23 to 28 who were raised as Catholic no longer identify as Catholic, said Leonard DeLorenzo, of Notre Dame’s Institute for Church Life.
Marriage or baptism of a child in the past would bring people back to the church but not anymore. The “boomerang effect” of the past is gone, DeLorenzo said. “There are other forms of rituals. There doesn’t seem to be a need for the rituals of the church.”
The Atlanta Archdiocese aims to educate parish leaders on this group. A goal is to help ministries engage and attract them to parish life, from serving in the choir to joining the Knights of Columbus.
“When you talk about young adults, it isn’t one size fits all,” said Damellys Sacriste, associate director of adult ministry in the Office of Formation and Discipleship. Leaders cannot post an announcement and expect people to show up, she said.
All parish leadership can benefit from insights about the millennial reality because young adults are essential to living out the church’s mission of going out into the world, she said.
Pope Francis has made it a priority to ensure his trips include an encounter with youth. He called the next general assembly of Catholic bishops to focus on youth and young adults.
The evening event is dedicated to the young adults themselves, including dinner. It is set up to be focus groups and table talks among participants.
“It’s not a lecture. It’s dialogue,” she said.
DeLorenzo said the goal is to understand the lives of young adults in the metro Atlanta and middle Georgia area and then to work with ministry leaders to develop best practices to connect parishes with these adults.
Keeping the door open
For Lewis, one of the biggest obstacles in getting young adults in the door is a sense of being an outsider.
“The easier it is to walk in for the first time, the easier it is to stay,” she said.
For her, the turnaround was led by the “love of others” and participation in the cathedral’s Christ Renews His Parish retreat, she said.
“We need to reach them where they are, and we need to show them they’re loved and they’re a child of God,” she said.
The first meeting she attended drew 10 people, Lewis remembered. Now a large number of people showed up for a bar crawl along Atlanta’s Beltline, prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament, and serving on a soup line.
“Our goal is for our young adults to become dynamic Catholics,” she said in an email. “Small groups create community and weekly renewal. Once small groups are formed, young adults are no longer scared of going to an event where they don’t know anyone.”