We’ve all heard the research about the “nones.” More people in the US than ever identify themselves with no religion whatsoever. There’s no doubt many of them are coming from the Catholic Church. Youth Ministry can definitely help stem the tide, but how can we be sure that we are doing the most effective ministry we can?
The National Study of Youth and Religion, an ongoing study by sociologists at Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina, has published 9 books and more than 50 articles in academic journals. One of those books, Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church, describes the characteristics of teenagers who are most likely to keep their faith through college years and into young adulthood. When examining studies like this we must always remember that correlation does not equal causation, but I think there are some great points we can glean from this book. Here are a few:
Your teens have the greatest chance of holding onto their faith through young adulthood if they have three types of experiences in their high school years:
1. “Strong bonds with religiously committed and supportive family and friends,” such as parents, youth ministers, core members and peers.
2. “Internalizing Catholic beliefs,” which refers to intellectual assent to Catholic doctrine, self-reporting that their Catholic faith is important, or powerful spiritual experiences.
Note: multiple mission trips had a negative correlation with religiosity in emerging adulthood.
3. “Regular religious practice,” such as weekly Mass attendance, reading Scripture or praying independently multiple times a week, attending Sunday school or youth group.
With this information in hand, let’s look at ways to implement it. If you are volunteer or part-time youth minister, it’s overwhelming to think about implementing these new strategies when you’re just struggling to get your bible study prepared for Wednesday. So don’t try to do all of them. Just pick one.
1. Parents are still the greatest influence on their teenage children, so get them involved in your ministry. Work with other members of parish staff to evangelize parents. If nothing else focus on lovingly passing on the faith to your own kids.
2. Relationships with faithful adults who are not their parents are highly correlated with teens who hold onto their faith, so keep doing relational ministry.
3. In the religious practice category, frequent reading of Scripture was the behavior that was most highly correlated with continued faith; higher than personal prayer or even Mass attendance. Again, correlation is not causation, so forcing kids to read Scripture every day won’t get the job done. Most likely reading Scripture daily is a sign of a teen that is proactively seeking out real understanding and not basing their faith on the emotional ups and downs that come with retreats and conferences. Encourage this.
4. The belief in miracles has a much higher correlation to continued faith in young adulthood than one would expect. Belief in miracles is probably a result in being faithful, and not the other way around. But I for one have at times fallen back on the media reports of Our Lady of Fatima and the Eucharistic Miracle of Lanciano in times of doubt. So spend some time on these with your teens.
5. The scenario that gives a teen the best chance to keep their Catholic faith into young adulthood is that they have faithful and engaged parents, self-identify as someone to whom religion is important, have relationships with faithful adults who are not their parents, read scripture/pray daily, and attend mass weekly. This is a tall task, but this should be the goal we have for our seniors when they leave our ministry.
One Last Thing: With August upon us, our seniors are all heading off to bigger and better things. For those going to college, give them a better chance of staying close to Christ when they get there. Check out Newman Connection. Here’s a link to a short video with more information.
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